During the Cold War, Alicia Alonso was one of the first Western dancers to be invited to perform in the Soviet Union—where she danced Giselle, her signature role, in this 1958 clip. It’s not just her precise, sprightly footwork or her fluid, emotive arms that make her portrayal of Giselle so enchanting. Nor is it merely her acting, which successfully evokes a girl vacillating between reticence one moment and readiness the next in her lover’s company. Every ballerina must have these qualities, but Alonso has something more. Take the moment in Giselle’s variation after the hops on pointe. Even with talented dance actresses, the steps transitioning back upstage for the final pirouettes can seem like just that, a transition. Not so with Alonso. She leans off balance in a coupé, swings into a sauté and, in a joyous flurry, rushes to the corner. The heart she puts into the simplest steps goes beyond acting; Alonso shows us that this, indeed, is a girl whose passion is so great it could kill her.
At 94 years old, Alonso still leads the National Ballet of Cuba, which she founded in 1948. By documenting the lives of two of her students, the 2015 film Horizontes (watch the trailer here) tells the story of Alonso’s legacy—which is still in the making. Her distinctly Cuban staging of Giselle for Ballet Silicon Valley opens tomorrow. Happy #TBT!