Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina
(2011) is a biography in verse for young readers by Puerto Rican author Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, with illustrations by veteran artist Raúl Colón, who grew up in Puerto Rico and New York City. The book relates the life story of Alicia Alonso, the founder of the National Ballet of Cuba and the first Latina to dance with the American Ballet Theater. Bernier-Grand introduces younger readers to the complexities of US-Cuban relations through the story of Alonso’s decision to return to communist Cuba in the face of vocal objections from America’s exiled Cuban community. Bernier-Grand also focuses on Alonso’s struggle with partial blindness, which came on while she was still a young dancer. Colón’s illustrations depict Alonso’s dancing in his signature style, influenced by Latin American mural artists.
We first meet Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez y del Hoyo as she dances across the floor of her childhood home near Havana, Cuba. Born in 1921, Alicia begins to dance almost as soon as she can walk. As a child, she masters flamenco dancing, but at eight, she takes her first ballet lesson (wearing tennis shoes), beginning a lifelong love affair with the art form.
By the time she is 11 (in 1932), Alicia is dancing her first professional solo in Sleeping Beauty
. A young man named Fernando watches her dance, and he is so intoxicated by her performance that he resolves on the spot to become a ballet dancer so he can partner her.
At 15, Alicia and Fernando marry. Both are up-and-coming stars, outgrowing Cuba’s limited ballet scene. They move to New York, and both begin to make careers as dancers there.
Disaster strikes when Alicia suffers detached retinas in both eyes. Only 19, she is rendered virtually blind and all but unable to dance. The condition is hard to treat. She must undergo surgery and a full year’s recuperation, during which she must be completely motionless in bed. Alicia’s determination to dance is undimmed. As she lies in bed after her operation, eyes bandaged, she dances the role of Giselle with her fingers and in her mind.
As soon as she is able, she begins to dance again, struggling to make up the fitness she has lost during her long, enforced absence from dancing. Her vision has not fully recovered, and her peripheral vision is all but gone. She must develop new ways to rehearse and dance to compensate for her limited eyesight. Onstage, she uses the positions of stage lights to guide her steps.
As soon as she returns to New York, she is offered the lead role in Giselle
for American Ballet Theater when another ballet dancer is forced to pull out. Alicia cannot turn the role down, even though she has barely returned to professional dancing. She rehearses around the clock, and when she returns to the stage, her shoes are glued to her feet by her blood. Alicia becomes America’s most exciting young ballet dancer almost overnight. She is appointed principal dancer for Ballet Theater.
Alicia gives bravura performance after bravura performance, becoming the first woman from the Western hemisphere to dance in the USSR, and the first American dancer to perform with the Bolshoi.
However, this success comes at a cost. Because she and Fernando must constantly travel and rehearse, they are forced to send their baby daughter, Laurita to live with Alicia’s parents in Cuba.
As her career as a prima ballet dancer is drawing to a close, Alicia faces a choice. She can remain in the United States or return to Cuba, then under the despotic Batista regime. Unable to resist the lure of home, she establishes her own ballet company in Cuba. However, the Batista regime refuses to fund the arts, and the company folds.
Alicia becomes a critic of the regime and a supporter of the communist insurgency. When Castro comes to power, he gives her the funding to found a national company, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba
She faces fierce criticism in the US for her support for the communist regime. Cubans who have fled communist repression feel insulted by Alicia’s decision, and when she performs in America the venues are often protested. She is haunted by a protest sign that reads: “ALICIA ALONSO / WHY DO YOU FIND KILLINGS BY CASTRO / MORE ACCEPTABLE THAN KILLINGS BY BATISTA?”
However, Alicia’s company thrives, and she continues to dance into her seventies. The story closes as Alicia reflects on her lifelong love for the artwork and the impossibility of her ever ceasing to dance.
The book finishes with a section in prose providing detailed information about Alicia Alonso’s life. As well as an author’s note explaining the Cuban political context, this section includes a list of the ballets in which Alonso performed and a list of her awards, a reading list of books and online resources, a glossary of Spanish terms, and a chronology of Alonso’s life.