I am a wild goose

I am a wild goose

Friendship between Chinese and Cuban ballet artists

Li Ai

 

Alicia Alonso is an outstanding international ballet teacher and choreographer, who has experience on stages in Europe and the United States. Although she celebrated her 98th birthday this year, she is still the artistic director of the National Ballet of Cuba. She is a great friend of the Chinese people and has led her dance group to China since 1961 and she has visited China five times over the last half-century, in 1964, 2002, 2004 and 2018. Was received by Chairman Mao Zedong, beloved Premier Zhou and Vice Premier Chen Yi. And many other leaders from different countries attended the magnificent performances of the National Ballet of Cuba.

In 1984, Xinhua's Cuba correspondent Yan Weimin interviewed Alicia and then wrote "Fame Means Greater Responsibility" to introduce this legendary dancer to the Chinese people. After being blinded by an accident at the age of 42, she used her weak eyesight to continue dancing on stage until the age of 72. She founded the Escuela de Arte del Ballet Nacional de Cuba and trained a large number of world-class ballet dancers. These young artists are still active on stages around the world. She has made a remarkable contribution to the ballet industry in China.

Bai Shuxiang - the first Chinese actress to play the white swan Oughita in Swan Lake - says: " I remember when I was 20 years old,  I studied the Nutcracker pas de deux, Giselle, Don Quixote, solo and pas de deux with Alicia Alonso." We practiced together and shared experiences on the trains traveling abroad. We taught Cuban actors to dance ' Picking tea leaves and catching butterflies' and 'Chinese Red Silk Dance'. After coming back to Beijing, at that time, Chinese ballet actors Sun Zhengting, Zhuang Xiaowan, Song Chenchen used to train every day, watched rehearsals until late at night. The Chinese actors remembered well all the turns and jumps of the Cuban actors. We also performed on the same stage, and the Cuban artists danced the 'Picking Tea Leaves and Catching Butterflies' and the 'Chinese Red Silk Dance'. I danced with Tang Xuyun, Amita and Ofiria in the 'Four Women's Dance'. Alicia complimented us. She is a unique dancer in the world and I admire her very much."

Prof. Lin Lianrong from the Beijing Dance Academy, 81, said fondly, "Dear Alonso, the ballet you performed with your life has transcended boundaries and times to remain in people's hearts. You are a role model for all ballet performers. I am immensely proud to be your student". On January 25, 1961, Alicia led the National Ballet Group of Cuba, which she had founded in 1948, to a visit to China. Like a warm breeze from the Caribbean bringing world-class ballet technique to the land of China, it was refreshing and unforgettable."

Song Chenchen, who played the role of the commander of the troupe in the Chinese modern ballet The Maiden's Red Army, recalled, "After watching the performance of the Cuban National Ballet, also performing in Guangzhou at the time, she ran up to the stage excitedly and hugged the group of Chinese actors. They praised the young boy from the China Central Ballet for the success of his performance. The famous Cuban ballet dancer Alicia Alonso, who saw The Maiden's Red Army with her remaining eyesight, could not contain her excitement and praised it insistently, "For the first time in the history of ballet, there was a dance on pointe with a sword and a gun, it was wonderful, you were amazing!". Ms. Chenchen loves the art of ballet as well as passing on her techniques. At her advanced age, she is still active on the front lines of teaching. Alicia Alonso is a master at combining the art of classical Western ballet with the passionate and fiery dance of the Caribbean," she says excitedly.

Cai Yan, an 80-year-old Xinhua correspondent and translator at the time, sent us the following message: "Li Ai and Yan Weimin: Hello! Thank you for informing us about the 100th anniversary of Alicia Alonso's birth. I was very happy to learn that the master was still alive, but I was too far from the retirement home where I live and it was too late at night to go to the Cuban Embassy in Beijing to attend Alicia's celebration dinner. Decades have passed, but still the past is present in my mind. I remember that in 1961 I accompanied the National Ballet of Cuba during their visit to China and also made a side trip to Pyongyang. At that time, Chinese ballet was just beginning and we were learning mainly from the Soviet Union. Cuban ballet, under the direction of Alonso, was a genre of its own and not that similar. The Chinese Ballet had sent actors and choreographers, among them Bai Shuxiang, to follow them to study and exchange ideas. If memory serves me correctly, Chinese and Cuban actors performed together in fragments of 'The Nutcracker'."

2010 Conversation with the celebrated ballet master Alicia

She still has a deep affection for Bai Shuxiang, the first ballet dancer of the New China and the person who played the lead role in Swan Lake. She says, "There are three people whose names I remember most clearly in China: one is Mao Zedong and the other is Bai Shuxiang. The other was Cai Yan, the interpreter among us." The friendship between us lasts.

In the third scene of Swan Lake, Lin danced the Italian dance; Bai Shuxiang, performed the black swan Ojita; Song Chenchen, in a black flamenco-style dress; and Zhuang Xiaowan, a white dress and Spanish style dance. There was also a Hungarian dance, a Polish mazurka and an Eastern European folk dance. These are all "character dances." According to Cai Yan, during the rehearsal, Alicia explained in detail the key elements of the character dances, such as mind, body, gestures and facial expressions, and demonstrated them over and over again. Up until the Chinese students mastered it completely, and carefully explained to us how the dance should be expressed in order to be more expressive. She brought enthusiasm and inspiration to the Chinese ballet of her time, injected it with energy and life.

Time flies, and by the time we walk back into the Alicia Alonso offices, twenty eight years have passed. Alicia Alonso is still as radiant as ever, healthy and fit in her white dress, a red turban tied around her head and a large red sarong draped over both shoulders.

I blurted out, "Happy 90th birthday!". She shook her head and said three times "No, no, no! I'm sorry, please remove the 0! I'm 9. Isn't 9 a very good number in Chinese culture?". After we sat down, she explained her mission to us with a smile: to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Cuba, the Cuban Ballet had decided to perform a ballet for the Chinese Embassy. The ballet was interspersed with a short ballet she had written in 2004, The Ballerina, based on Chinese music, "Chasing the Moon" and "A Good Moon", and she wanted the Chinese part to help the young dancers add some Chinese elements to their movements. For many reasons, the professional dance teacher invited by the Confucius Institute could not arrive from Beijing as planned, so myself, a non-professional teacher, had to take on the task on my own, and I spent the summer of 2010 in the ballet rehearsal room in sweltering heat. I was so happy to immerse myself in Chinese music every day in a foreign country.

Dance is her life and she always hopes for it

The master again recalled the time when she met with Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Chen Yi and other leaders of the first generation of the New China. She said, "Our ballet troupe has visited the venerable China more than once, and we have absorbed the artistic nourishment of Chinese culture, Chinese traditions and China's thousand-year-old wisdom."

In those years, she took Ballet de Cuba and her Chinese ballet colleagues in the same carriage to many other major cities in China, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Jinan, with a stunning effect, in addition to Beijing, and in 2018 she again took the troupe to China at the age of 98, visiting Shanghai and Dalian. Artists from both countries have since shared art and forged a deep friendship.

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