Natalia Alonso's Heavenly Heat

July 29, 2008

Four times Natalia Alonso tried out for Ballet Hispanico. On each occasion, she rode the subway to the contemporary dance company’s headquarters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she took an audition number and a place at the barre alongside dozens of other eager aspirants. Each time, she left disappointed.


She’d set her sights on joining the company ever since she’d seen them in concert in spring 2000. “I said, that’s the perfect place for me,” recalls Alonso, who was a senior at Wesleyan University at the time. Although she was classically trained, Alonso was eager to experience the other dance styles performed at Ballet Hispanico, including modern, jazz, African, Latin and theatrical techniques. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a great place. You need ballet but also so many other things.’ ”


When her fourth chance arrived, Alonso planted herself in front and gave it her best. Again, she didn’t hear her number called. Pulling on her street clothes and heading home, she told herself, “That’s it. I’m not auditioning for this company again.” Just then her cell phone rang. Ballet Hispanico’s artistic director, Tina Ramirez, was on the other end asking where she’d gone. A week later, Alonso was onstage with Ballet Hispanico, where she remained for seven years, maturing into a highly versatile dancer distinguished by her long, clean, polished line; hip-swiveling bravado; and stunning stage magnetism.


But the reigning queen of Ballet Hispanico, who has danced lead roles in almost every ballet, has performed her last gigs with the company. This month Alonso sheds her heels and Latin-infused roles to dance for Complexions Contemporary Ballet, the New York–based group known for its diversity and killer technique. She says she’s ready to take everything she’s mastered and apply it to something new.


Born to Spanish immigrants, Alonso grew up in Queens, New York, an only child. Several male cousins next door contributed to her early tomboyish pursuits: hanging off trees, playing soccer in the mud, and competitive swimming. As her shoulders started to thicken, her mother placed her in a ballet class. “She wanted to feminize me,” grins Alonso. When her family moved to Long Island, she studied with Kaleria Fedicheva, a former star of the Kirov Ballet.


Although she joined the Fedicheva Ballet Company at 12, the performance bug hit her even earlier. During a visit to Spain, when she was 4, her family dined at a restaurant featuring flamenco dancers. At some point, Alonso jumped onstage and started stomping her feet alongside them. “I remember the attention I got and the thrill of seeing everybody laughing and being entertained,” recalls Alonso. Afterward, she says, “I got my father’s old fedora hat and passed it around. My parents told me I was a ham.”


Although Alonso’s heart was firmly in dance, her parents convinced her to attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she majored in economics. She later used her education while representing Ballet Hispanico in contract negotiations with its union. “She has quite a business head on her,” says company member Nicholas Villeneuve, remembering how Alonso kept precise records of such things as the company’s overtime, its rehearsal breaks, and whether certain criteria were met to merit performance pay. She also maintains a journal in which she writes plausible dramatic underpinnings to each role she undertakes.


Despite her confident onstage demeanor, Alonso says there was a period early in her Ballet Hispanico tenure when she felt insecure about her dancing. Although she had studied and performed ballet from a young age, she badly injured her knee in high school and then focused on getting her undergraduate degree. She barely danced during those four years at Wesleyan. Coming back to it, she says, “I was doubting myself all the time.”


A turning point came when Ramirez offered her a solo, Llamada, choreographed by William Whitener, the artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, which was being revived for Ballet Hispanico’s 2004 season at the Joyce. One month before, Whitener declined to give permission for Alonso, whom he didn’t know, to perform the piece without his personal coaching. Ramirez, facing budget and scheduling constraints, prepared to pull the piece from the program.


Alonso was horrified. “I was miserable,” she says, describing how it spurred her to spend her own money to fly to St. Louis, where Whitener’s company was performing, and rehearse for an afternoon with him. When he gave his approval, she felt empowered to trust her drive and instincts. “After that,” she says, “I really wanted to grow.”


Needless to say, she won Whitener over with her commitment. “She is a gifted artist who is completely invested in the process,” he says, citing her attention to detail, her inquisitive nature, and her pursuit of excellence. “And like all the great ones,” he adds, “her feet are firmly planted on the ground.”


And when those feet are wearing stilettos, there’s no stopping her. Choreographer Pedro Ruiz says, “As a person, she’s like any regular girl on the street. But when she gets onstage with those heels, it’s like no one else is there!”


Dwight Rhoden, co-artistic director of Complexions, welcomes both her talent and her drive. “I saw that she has a curiosity, a hunger and a passion, besides her great facility and technique.” He adds, “She has the versatility that is needed and her own individual voice.”


Both Rhoden and Whitener admire her stage allure. When Whitener took his friend Tommy Tune to see Alonso perform last year in another work of his, Tito on Timbales, he says, “We agreed, you can’t take your eyes off her.” Rhoden says, “She looks like she loves to dance and that movement loves her, and there’s this love affair going on.” When she auditioned for Complexions in May, she was the only woman chosen out of 135 contenders.


Luckily Alonso has always been quick to adapt to various dance styles. For her first part at Ballet Hispanico, in Ruiz’s Club Havana, Alonso had only one week to finesse the mambo, cha-cha-cha and other Latin ballroom styles. But it’s become a signature role—the coquette who heartlessly squashes the fantasies of two men who fall under her spell. She relishes her power over them by displaying her magnificent technique.


Her Ballet Hispanico co-dancers have described her as the “alpha female” of the troupe. Rodney Hamilton, who regularly partnered her over the years, says, “She gives a lot of her energy when we’re dancing together.” He recalls when the company was on tour three years ago and Alonso filled in for an injured dancer. “Natalia had to learn the whole 40-minute section in two hours,” says Hamilton. “She did beautifully. There were no mistakes.”


Alonso says she thrives on such challenges. Her grit certainly showed through this year, when she took an accidental hit to her lower chin during rehearsal. She bit her tongue so severely that she received 14 stitches. The next day, while still drinking and eating through a straw, Alonso left on tour with the company, toting her pet Chihuahua as usual. “She’s a trouper,” says Villeneuve.


Offstage, her friends describe her as down-to-earth and fun-loving. Breean Brasile, who studied Gyrotonics with Alonso, recalls a vacation in Spain when they besieged the beach and club scene. “We lived on the beach all day,” says Brasile. “Then we’d take a nap and dance all night.” Alonso adds, “This is a Spanish trait. When you work hard, you like to play hard too.”


Alonso says she enjoyed bringing Latin dance to different parts of the country as a “cultural ambassador” with Ballet Hispanico. Although Complexions isn’t noted for its Latin dancing, Rhoden looks forward to using that part of Alonso’s background and skills. “I didn’t hire her because she’s Latin,” he says. “But I’ll use anything that she’s got.”


Although Alonso, 29, is excited to start this month with Complexions, she is also nostalgic. “It’s hard,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily want to leave Ballet Hispanico. I feel like it’s my nest, my family.” But she knows that she wants to stretch technically. “It’s now or never,” she says. “I don’t want to wait till I’m 32 to take on that kind of physical challenge.”


She’s looking forward to Complexions’ repertoire, which may include a piece by William Forsythe next year. At the same time, she remains grateful that she persevered through Ballet Hispanico’s initial rejections. “I knew I’d have a home there and I’d grow,” she says. “I feel that I will remain part of Ballet Hispanico forever.”


Ann Farmer is a freelance journalist who writes for
The New York Times, More, and The Village Voice.


Photo by Matthew Karas.