With Toba Singer and her Book Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet

Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet is the first book in English on this acclaimed figure of universal art. Its author, Toba Singer, is an expert on the theme and also an active social fighter from the United States

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2013-02-05

Toba Singer is a world authority on the study, promotion and critique of ballet. She studied classic dance with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson and Zory Karah, and modern dance with Cora Cahan, Zenaide Trigg, Jane Dudley, Donald McKayle and Gertrude Shurr.

Singer has written two books: Fernando, the Father of Cuban Ballet (University Press of Florida), and First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists (Praeger 2007).

Of solid technical and cultural formation, she graduated from the New York School of Performing Arts in the specialty of Theater and from the University of Massachusetts in History. She also has a Master’s Degree in Bibliographic Sciences from the University of Maryland.

But there is another very important facet in her prolific biography, and that is her early commitment with justice and the underprivileged. For 30 years Singer has been actively involved in a wide range of worker struggles and in political and social campaigns.

She has lived, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, the Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. She has also worked in iron and steel industries, chemical refineries, workshops and factories, and as an employee in an airline, publishing house, and as a teacher and secretary.

Her closest loves are her husband, Jim Gotesky, and her son James Gotesky, soloist with the Houston Ballet.

She has actively participated in movements in favor of civil rights, against the war in Vietnam and apartheid, in favor of women’s equal rights and the rights of minorities, and in defense of the revolutions in Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada.

During the 22nd Ballet Festival of Havana she made a moving statement that reflected her love of art and her binding political commitment of true culture.

“The event developed very smoothly and the guests had the rare opportunity of meeting a ballet public with very special characteristics; they were not wealthy people showing off in costly seats and leaving frivolously during the interval, like one sees in capitalist countries. That audience was made up by working people, professionals, correctly dressed and totally familiar with the art of ballet, which they admire with passion and respect. The television cameras and light equipment installed in the hall might be annoying, but it was worthwhile to have them there because they served to transmit the Festival to the entire country by TV (...)

The only regrettable thing was that the international guests were restricted to dancers, former dancers and journalists and critics from the dance sector.

Imagine that such a mass of dance enthusiasts throughout the world could take to their respective countries that great torrent of hope that blew in Cuba between two hurricanes! That would be a testimony that could serve to urge the President of the United States to put an end to the 47 years of economic and cultural siege that has been maintained against revolutionary Cuba.”

Toba Singer in Cubanow

Why a book on Fernando Alonso?

Fernando Alonso is part of a three-person team (really four, because Laura must also receive credit) headed by Alicia, and which included his brother Alberto, and they fought against all imaginable obstacles to create a ballet company and a ballet school in Cuba. With the triumph of the revolution and the invaluable support of Fidel, they succeeded in harvesting the fruits of their efforts. Many articles and several books have been written about Alicia and her role, including a chapter in my book First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists, and I think that Alberto’s life was documented in a Canadian film. But Fernando, who after all is the chief pedagogue and architect of the scrupulous and scientifically-based system of training of Cuban ballet, acknowledged throughout the world, is 98 years old and there are no books in English or in any other language, except one in Spanish, about him, and only a scarce number of journalistic and magazine articles. So it seems to me that a book about Fernando Alonso in English has long been missing!

What impact did Anna Pavlova’s three trips to Cuba and Russian émigré Nicholas Yavorski’s trips after 1935 have on the young dancer Fernando?

It is difficult to say, but without Pavlova’s visit there might not have been an initial accumulation of public for ballet in Cuba. If Yavorski had not arrived in Havana, a school might not have been founded in the Sociedad Pro-Arte, but again I say it’s difficult to know for sure. But more important I think were the visits of Argentinean Antonia Merced and Colonel Basil’s Russian Ballet. Merced’s special intensity and her unparalleled energy greatly impressed Fernando, and her acknowledgment of Alicia’s inherent talent evidenced that she was a good talent discoverer. The initial experience of Delfina Gurri and Alberto Alonso with the Russian Ballet and their return to Cuba to perform showed Alicia and Fernando that there were strict limits in the training they could obtain from Yavorsky, and they decided they must go to New York which, after the Great Depression, was becoming the destination of artists throughout the United States and from Europe. Alicia had the great courage to challenge the customs of the time, leaving her home at the age of 15 in search of training and a career, and undoubtedly it was also a great step for Fernando. Had they not assumed such a risk, it is possible that ballet would have existed in Cuba, but not with the level of mastery that one sees and experiences today.

The United States was a great place for training and learning. What could you tell us of Fernando’s stay in the companies of Mijail Mordkin and the Broadway musicals, and the contact with tap and swing?

Among those who actively participate in political struggles in the United States there is a saying that one has to go where the fire is, because that’s where you find the true fighters. Fernando went to where there is fire in the dance world of New York, and discovered a treasure of dancers, choreographers, musicians and other pioneers of theater art. These included individuals like Donald Sadler, George Balanchine, Mikhail Mordkin, Marjorie and Maria Tallchief, Anton Dolin, Michel Fokine, Rosella Hightower, and Nora Kaye. This is really a list of great dancers of the Golden Age of Ballet. According to Fernando, one can learn from all fields, and the Broadway musicals were rich in lessons, particularly on how to work as a team to mount a show with good rhythm and in the precise theatrical moment.

What role did the American Ballet Theatre play, as a seed, in the future Ballet Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba? What were the influences of Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant, Balanchine, Fokine, Tudor, Massine and Bolm?

I have the impression that each one had important lessons to teach, good and bad, and in this way Fernando and Alicia had the advantage of being capable of using their well-developed abilities to discriminate and select from what they saw. Lucia Chase was successful in forming a company that was truly revolutionary with her concept of creating a unique style in the U.S. She and Pleasant brought together the best dancers of an era in the company, but being the first of its kind it learned some lessons the hard way, particularly those having to do with fiscal administration, and we cannot forget that there has never been state support for ballet companies in the United States, meaning that she never had a Che Guevara close to her, advising her on financial matters and budget. Thus, while it was advantageous to have a large ballet company in a city like New York, there were huge obstacles and pressures on it. From Balanchine, Fokine and Tudor, Massine and Bolm, Fernando learned all sorts of lessons about technique, theatricality, the tempo of ballet class, decisions about casts, performance, make-up, lighting, music and many, many details – too many to mention here. He did not restrict himself to absorbing such lessons only in New York. He and Alicia consciously strove to attract to Cuba as many dancers, musicians, choreographers and ballet masters from the Ballet Theatre as they could to the summer performances, and to collaborate with the Ballet de Cuba before the embargo by the government of the United States was imposed on Cuba. The objective of the revolution was to create a Pan American ballet company in Cuba with dancers from all countries of the Americas. You can imagine what it would have been like and what contribution it would have made!

In 1950 Fernando Alonso had already ended his career on stage. What was the reason? What was his role in the selection of the repertoire of the Alicia Alonso Ballet, in classes and rehearsals? Why his preference for Giselle, Coppelia and La Fille mal Gardée?

Fernando ended his career as an active dancer several times! He interrupted his career during the time that Alicia was recovering from her first eye operation in order to be by her side in Cuba – according to her wish – during the approximately one and a half years it took her to recover. The first time he retired was in 1948, when he and Alicia returned to Cuba after the Ballet Theatre went broke and they began to create the Ballet Alicia Alonso together with Alberto. Then again in 1950 he stopped dancing to fully devote himself to his work as General Director of the company and of the academy. His last official performance was precisely before the triumph, when the company made a tour sponsored by the Federation of University Students. After that he was called to dance the role of Hilarion at the last minute, several years later in Paris, when some dancers decided to leave the company.

I have the impression that he played a consultative role in the selection of the repertoire, and that Alicia chose the ballets she had danced and which had made her successful. She wanted the public to see her in her best roles. His role in the classes was to be the teacher of teachers, but he was also open to and welcomed with enthusiasm the pedagogic lessons he learned from Fokine as well as from Soviet maestros when the company visited and toured the Soviet Union. He worked in collaboration with both Azari Plisetski and John White to develop a curriculum for men that today is envied by schools throughout the world. His role in rehearsals is extremely valuable, since he remembers the original steps and mountings, and he may appear at a rehearsal and correct errors accumulated over years, as inevitably occurs when we go from one generation of repeaters to another.

What is your opinion of Fernando Alonso’s sojourn with the Ballet de Camagüey?

I admire Fernando’s decision, among all the others, to move to Camagüey. I think it speaks very well of who he is in essence. He had an offer from another company in Europe and rejected it because, even though his marriage with Alicia had come to an end, his commitment with the development of ballet in Cuba continued to be his paramount commitment before anything else. Especially taking into consideration that he had been born with many privileges, that he had lived a cosmopolitan life and could have continued enjoying the things that embellished his status, his arrival in Camagüey evidenced his decision to reject an ostentatious life, and he also gave an example of the conduct to be followed by a true revolutionary. It is difficult – and I cannot say that I am an example either – but as much as humanly possible one has to “put oneself in the fire” where challenges (and fighters) abound, because if they do not destroy us, they strengthen us and make us better people. Fernando adores the dancers from Camagüey; he is very proud to have contributed to their formation.

How do you see Fernando as a choreographer?

Fernando felt somewhat uncomfortable in his role of choreographer. There were lukewarm reviews about a piece he choreographed early in his career, and after that it seems that he distanced himself from that activity, recognizing that choreography was not his forte.

What do you think of Fernando’s work in Mexico?

I couldn’t go very deeply into Fernando’s Mexican period. I think he may have regretted having accepted the work in Mexico as a result of the great annoyance caused by the desertion of so many dancers from the Ballet de Camagüey to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) – eight in one year! I think that once he reflected on this, he realized that, on the contrary, he should have acknowledged that exodus of dancers as what it really was: the greatest praise for him for what he and others had achieved in Camagüey, and he should have remained in Cuba. Once in Mexico he realized that the conditions prevailing there made it impossible for him to attain the objectives he had laid out and he decided to return.

In his book What is Ballet? Arnold Haskell wrote: “Fernando Alonso represents the pure classical school with his prolonged movements to the infinite, his rhythm and his music, his perfect discipline and his jubilation (...). And Fernando, who seems to have a hundred eyes that look in all directions, may turn a lesson for twenty dancers into twenty private lessons (...).” Do you agree with Haskell?

Absolutely and without the shadow of a doubt! The many interviews I’ve made confirm that Haskell’s words are exact and what I saw with my own eyes when I observed Fernando Alonso rehearsing dancers in Havana, in Querétaro (Mexico) and in Toronto (Canada) impressed me: he knew each nuance to the smallest detail, and transmitted his knowledge with care, patience and exquisite sensibility and intelligence.

Are you working on another book?

I hope to work on several books. In January I will start working with Broadway star Ben Vereen on his memoirs. I’d also like to write a book about Richard Cragun, who died recently, and I hope that those in charge of the guardianship of his estate take certain decisions. I am also writing a book with the provisional title of The Dance Whisperers1, about contemporary choreographers who began to work in the 1970’s: William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, Rudi Van Dantzig, Alonzo King, Jiri Kylian and Christopher Bruce. I was also invited this year to be part of the Advisory Committee on Conservation and Documentation of the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco, which is the official repository of the archives of the San Francisco Ballet. And I will be presiding over a night with Carla Fracci sponsored by Words on Dance in San Francisco in September. I continue writing for the Canadian magazine Dance International and several online and printed publications in the U.S. and Great Britain.

1 Translated from the English language into Los encantadores de la danza by Damián Donéstevez, journalist of the cultural Web Page in English of Radio Habana Cuba. -js

Translated by Olimpia Sigarroa

Revised by Susana Hurlich
 

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