At 90 years of age, Alberto Alonso, Cuban ballet master and choreographer, has been honored with a documentary about his professional trajectory.
Edited by Vivian Villalón, U.S.A.
Unfortunately, to the detriment of the much anticipated project, many factors have contributed to its disappointing result. At the outset, under the direction of Steve Robitaille, English Professor at SFCC, and with Daphney Stacey as producer – she remained as such to the end – the biopic was to be titled “Dancing in Freedom’s Shoes”. However, although the concept was changed and the finished work renamed “Dance of my Heart: The Life and Career of Alberto Alonso”, it was surprising that it still includes material that was to be used in the original version. As the film unfolds, it becomes evident that the final product could have, just as well, been called “A Love Story”, since not only the discussion of freedom (a very crucial issue to those who have lived under oppression) within the context is practically ignored, but many of the highlights of Alberto’s career and personal life are amazingly omitted, obviously with his approval.
Ricardo Acosta, the new director who took over the development of the film, in 2006, is an Afro-Cuban émigré, residing in Toronto, Canada since 1993. The credentials listed on the internet are impressive: Film editor, working in Cuba as president of Cuba’s Young Filmmakers Association, and director of an alternative Cuban Film Festival. For “Dance of My Heart”, Acosta assumed not only the task of editing, but also directing as well as writing the script.. The documentary was previewed on September 7th and 8th, at SFCC Auditorium, in what could be referred to as a “Red Carpet” affair. Later, on September 25th, it was shown at the Edmonton International Film Festival, in Canada. Many other showings are expected, but to my knowledge, none have thus far materialized.
The new focus of the film seems to be the promotion of the Dance Department of SFCC, to coincide with the building of a new Fine Arts Hall on campus. Alberto appears on screen on several occasions, conducting a class and teaching the “tricks of the trade” to a group of adult students that don’t seem to have a clue as to who Michel Fokine was. Sonia Calero, Alberto´s present and third wife, suddenly appears and incites her husband to play Afro-Cuban rhythms on the “tumbadora”, so she can wiggle her hips, while trying to teach some salsa steps to a student. If the extensive exposure to ballet classes — together with this uninspired salsa lesson — was meant to attract new students to the college, the effort might have been counterproductive, because after a while, the scenes become too repetitious and boring.
As the film continues, Alberto, in both English and Spanish, narrates what is supposed to be his life’s story and career, beginning as a student at the School of Ballet of Pro-Arte Musical in Havana, Cuba, until his departure to join the famous Ballet Russe de Montecarlo, and later to become a member of De Basil’s Original Ballet Ruses. However, he does not offer any insights into what it meant for him to work during those Ballet Ruses years, in close contact with two of the most notable choreographers of the 20th century, Michel Fokine and Leonide Massine, or how remarkable it was for him to be the original interpreter of some of the roles in the masterpieces produced in those years. Furthermore, there is a gap after his BR and OBR experiences when Alberto, shortchanging himself on a prolific career, fails to recollect his return to his homeland in 1941, with his first wife Alexandra Denisova (nee Patricia Denise Meyers), an outstanding Canadian dancer who adopted this professional name, as was customary during the era of prominent Russian dancers. In addition, lamentably, Alberto’s tenure as director of the Pro-Arte Ballet School (1941-1959) which followed was also excluded, as well as his creations of classical works for the School, and the introduction of stylized Afro-Cuban dances, during the early stages of television, with Elena Del Cueto, his second wife, dancing the principal roles on the small screen, in shows such as «Cabaret Regalías» and «Casino de la Alegría». Undoubtedly, if Acosta, as the script writer, had provided Alberto with his own lines to read, instead of ad-libing, his comments would have sounded more fluid and compelling, even aiding in certain instances to jolt his memory.
The telephone conversation between Alberto, in the United States, and his older brother Fernando (soon to be 93), in Cuba, shows the latter to be quite eloquent and in sharp state of mind, reminiscing about “Fancy Free”, a ballet Alberto performed a few months after its successful premiere in New York, during his short stint with Ballet Theatre, in the fall of 1944. In that ballet, a timeless piece by Jerome Robbins, to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Alberto, as the Latin sailor, danced the role inspired by the Cuban danzon “Almendra”. Fernando not only remembers the music, but the lyrics as well.
The personal accounts of Maya Plisetskaya, a highlight indeed, reveal that she became intrigued by Alberto’s work, upon seeing one of his most applauded vignettes of Cuban folklore, “El Solar”, staged as a musical in Moscow in the early 60s, with Calero, in total command of a broom as dancing partner. That experience prompted Plisetskaya to approach the choreographer and request that he create a new Carmen, the ultimate rebel, especially for her. Rodion Shchedrin, her husband, arranged the Bizet score and also appears on the footage, offering his memories of the occasion, as does Azari Plisetski ( Plisetskaya’s brother) one of the early Don Josés in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s stagings , who in fluent Spanish, elucidates on the freedom message the ballet was intended to convey.
Alberto’s trip to Moscow in November 2005, to stage “Carmen Suite” for the new generation of Bolshoi dancers (with Svetlana Zakharova in the title role) following Plisetskaya’s invitation to celebrate her 80th birthday, is the center piece of the second half of the film, as it very well should be. The great diva’s presence on the screen is truly overwhelming, as her performance of “Carmen” is juxtaposed with that of Zakharova’s, and her appearance on the Bolshoi stage to take a bow with the company and the choreographer at the end of the performance leads to a standing ovation.
Nevertheless, there is a scene towards the end of the film that seems preposterous, when Calero, well into her 70s, appears on a small dark stage, with a reddish spotlight on her, dressed in black, wearing heels, and with a long slit on her skirt to show her legs, tries to evoke the seductive and unbending personality of Merrimee’s cigar wrapper. – an unflattering misdirection that detracts from Alberto´s own merits and achievements.
The unsatisfactory result of this ambitious project might very well be due to director Acosta’s misguided adventure, for Alberto was led through a shortened path, leaving by the wayside many of his most remarkable career accomplishments, as well as the people that shared the spotlight with him. Finally, as a member of the Alonso family, I, for one, was very disturbed that only one son (who defected to the U.S. by raft in 1992, and by the way, the only other participant, besides Plisetski, who refers to the meaning of “freedom”) and one grandson were acknowledged in the film. Alberto has two other daughters (who sought asylum with their mother in 1962) and two other grandsons, and this insensitive oversight can only further divide a family already irreparably torn apart. The legacy of Alberto Alonso would have been better served for the balletomanes, but more importantly, for those who have loved and respected him, had this documentary been more faithful to the facts.