I have remarked more than once that many of my posts of late mark the passing of people I grew up listening to, reading about, or seeing. Last evening another legend of dance fluttered into the wings: Alicia Alonso. She overcame incredible odds both personally and politically to become one of the greats of the latter part of the 20th century. Her story is a remarkable one and has been well-rehearsed in the many obituaries that are now appearing world-wide.
I remember pictures of her as Giselle in the ballet books I took out of our local library when I was not yet in my teens. She was the iconic image of the classical ballerina, often shown with Igor Youskevitch, her most frequent partner. Unfortunately I never saw her on stage only on film which though it captured her technique perhaps missed some of that stage magic, that aura that captivated everyone who saw her. My dear Simonetta was fortunate to see her perform, if only briefly, and wrote a lovely reminiscence that she is allowing me to share.
SIMON, THE BUTTERFLY AND ALICIA ALONSO
The ballet community is expressing its sadness on the passing of 98-year-old Alicia Alonso because no ballet lover was filled with anything but awe and deference towards this legend of a ballerina and it is in the human nature to wish to preserve for ourselves all that we (mistakenly) feel “belongs” to us – whether our worldly belongings, the fleeting moment, or those human beings that we love and admire. Yet it would be wise to realise that love and respect mean letting go and allowing those who have lived long and successful lives to break out of their chrysalises which in waning years aren’t always the best of abodes. When my beloved mother passed away 17 years ago, I imagined her as a butterfly that had emerged from the body of an aging lady to fly away into newfound youth and beauty. I wept for my bereaved self, but I was happy for my butterfly of a mother. The idea of the liberated spirit being akin to a butterfly has led to a succession of thoughts today which strangely link together Alonso and my darling son Simon D’Aquino and which I share with you.
The great Cuban ballerina last appeared on stage in Rome with the Cuban National Ballet at the Teatro Nazionale, I believe in 1995. I was still a ballet critic in those days and had been invited to the premiere but that night I could not find a babysitter for my little Simon who wasn’t yet even 3 years old, even younger than in the photo below. I realised that this would probably be my last chance to see Alonso perform (well, she was almost eighty – I saw her again in 2012, but not on stage). I was loath to miss the show so I made the snap decision to take my little toddler with me and hope for the best: he might just nod off, I thought, or if he was going to snivel and whimper, I’d just get up and leave – but I’d give it a try.
When I got to the theatre it was fully booked but my Simon was so small he could sit on my lap and, being in baby-friendly Italy, they let me in with him. It was a mixed bill, the apotheosis of which was a ballet in which Alonso, wearing an unlikely costume as a butterfly, appeared briefly – propped up by a couple of porteurs – to do a bit of fluttering and enthrall the audience in spite of her advanced age. My little Simon didn’t go to sleep at all: he sat wide-eyed and transfixed as he watched Alicia and her dancers. I mused that one day an elderly Simon would be able to tell the young that he had seen the great Alicia Alonso dance – and it would sound as mythical as when Alberto Testa (who has also recently passed away) used to say that he had seen the legendary Anna Pavlova dance!
That evening was the beginning of Simon’s love affair with ballet and the theatre in general. From then on he would come with me to see ballets, operas, and plays of all descriptions and, when he finished his schooling, he chose to study drama and embark on an acting career. Yesterday Alonso, who two-year-old Simon had seen as a butterfly, flew away. Tonight Simon debuts at the Barons Court Theatre, London in a play based on a short story by Anton Chekhov. Simon has the star role, that of the bohemian painter Peter Ryabovsky. Oh, I forgot to mention: the play is called…THE BUTTERFLY.
Tonight I have two wishes. One that the great Alicia Alonso rest in peace. The second is for Simon – in bacca al lupo!
October 18th is National No Beard Day – something that doesn’t apply to either Simon or I. It’s also National Chocolate Cupcake day which may!