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By Toba Singer
Fernando Alonso, 93, is a founding member of Ballet Nacional de Cuba and, with his ex-wife Alicia Alonso, formerly co-artistic director. He created the curriculum offered in the national ballet school system throughout Cuba. He danced with American Ballet Theatre (then known as Ballet Theatre) from 1940 to 1948. Toba Singer recently asked him about his ideas on ballet training.
How does your varied background enhance what you bring to the studio? I bring what I absorbed from all the teachers, choreographers, and dancers who came my way—from the Italian, French, Russian, and Danish schools, even from musical comedy. I learned rhythm, timing, and the importance of not wasting time. Dancing with Ballet Theatre was like attending a university and getting a Ph.D.
Contact with orthopedic surgeons helped me understand anatomy. My great-grandfather, a professor at the University of Havana, gave me a wonderful sense of observation and taught me that there’s a scientific explanation for everything. Psychologists helped me study the characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and behavior of the Cuban people. I always had a strong sense of the Cuban way of feeling.
What is “the Cuban way of feeling?” The Cubans inherited from the Spaniards a virile sense of dance, with a hint of toreador-like aggression. From the Africans, we inherited a readiness to demonstrate those feelings with repetitive rhythms, plus a pronounced masculine sexuality in the men and natural charm in the women. We develop these characteristics to lend contrast to the pas de deux. We teach classical ballet; it’s the male and female elements which create a “Cuban” way of dancing.
Many Cuban dancers are amazing turners. How do you explain the dynamics of a pirouette? We use all the key physical laws when we dance: inertia (a body at rest), equilibrium (balance), centrifugal force (causing the body to fly outward), and centripetal force (causing the body to move toward the center axis). To start, you must be balanced on the standing leg so as not to totter forward and back. Let’s say that you turn from second: You have to break the inertia by using your front arm to push. Even though you need extra force at the start of the turn, if that force remains excessive and you don’t shift immediately yet slowly into centripetal force, you will be in trouble. Shifting too quickly will cause you to expend all your energy and you will lose the force to get you around.
The foot of the standing leg must be on high relevé to have the least amount of contact with the floor, or else the friction will stop you. And start not only with your arms, but with the working foot from demi plié before it goes to that high, turned-out passé to get you around.
But to be “art,” a step must say something. When you pirouette, you must consider what steps came before and come after. Are they dramatic, romantic, or hateful? What is the rhythm?
How does one avoid sacrificing artistry for technique? Quality is more important than quantity, but quality with quantity is best. Dancers must study acting—Stanislavski is the best—and music. And be aware of your timing so that you don’t rush. When Giselle begs Myrta, “Please let him live!” and Myrta says, “No!” there is a connection. Let the other dancer finish “saying” what she has to say before you respond. Don’t anticipate!
How do you advance students through the curriculum? Learning ballet is like learning geometry. You begin with the first theorem, master it, and then go on to the next. If you haven’t learned to solve the first problem, you won’t be able to tackle the one that follows.
I teach slight head movements as early as possible so that students can use the body more fully. The head is the heaviest part of the body and the part that leads, for example, in a soutenu turn. If you don’t spot, the middle ear fluid, which determines your balance, will not keep up with the rest of the body. Spotting tricks the fluid, so that it doesn’t retard you and throw you off balance.
What are the makings of a good teacher? Teachers are like priests: You must be the servant of the goal. A good teacher should tailor choreography to the needs of her students and design steps as teaching tools, rather than show off what a good choreographer she is. The teacher’s role doesn’t stop in the studio. You must be accessible to your students—show them books, paintings, exhibitions, architecture, clothing, costumes, makeup, teach them how to eat properly and comport themselves in public.
How do you train a corps de ballet to synchronize as perfectly as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba? To me, the corps is the prima ballerina of the company. The corps is the measure of the company’s value. The principal is not dancing alone. The corps de ballet is helping her by giving the necessary dramatic background.
The coryphée (front corps dancer) determines the direction of the lines. The dancer who follows, the second in line, determines the focus. You must watch the coryphée’s foot because if it goes to the wrong place, the second dancer must compensate or at least not move until the first dancer corrects herself. You must have very good eyesight for a wide optical view, eyes everywhere to quickly see where the mistake is and how to correct it. When Alicia began to lose her vision, we worked on all the other senses to capture the line. When you are promoted to soloist, you must remember all you have learned in the corps de ballet and think of the corps as the dancer who has the secret to the ballet.
Photo Courtesy BNC.