A theatre for Alicia Alonso

Marked by the name of the famous ballerina, the emblematic installation starts a new stage.

The Grand Theatre of Havana reopened its doors after a long period dedicated to its restoration. By agreement of the Council of State of the Republic it has been named Alicia Alonso. While for this it was taken into account that it was about the greatest international artistic figure that has steadily performed on its stage for more than half a century, the work of the ballerina also decisively had an influence in favour of its conservation and greater glory.

The artistic career of Alicia Alonso and, with her, the emergence of Cuban ballet, took place in another space, the Auditorium Theatre, belonging to the Pro Arte Musical society. The coliseum of Calzada Street welcomed her stage debut, the first productions in which she participated guided by maestro Nikolai Yavorsky and when she was already working professionally in the United States, she returned to it many times to participate in the Dance Festivals organised by her brother-in-law Alberto Alonso. There she performed for the first time among us some of her memorable characters like Odette and Giselle. It thus is not strange that when she founded the Alicia Alonso Ballet in 1948 it would have its usual venue in that theatre though she frequently went to other theatres in the country or to large open spaces to offer popular functions.

 

When after the revolutionary triumph the company was reorganised, with the name of National Ballet of Cuba, its venue would be the new Auditorium and the annexed building where the rehearsal rooms of the company are still located until now. The International Ballet Festivals would be born there as well as an important choreographic work until 1965.

 

On that year, the troupe’s head faced a practical problem since the Auditorium – already re-baptised with the name of composer AmadeoRoldán – was also the venue of the National Symphony Orchestra’s performances, as well as concerts by diverse Cuban soloists and groups or visitors, not forgetting the nascent amateur artist festivals. That is how the idea of the former National Theatre came up, which had first changed its name in 1959 to that of Estrada Palma Theatre and a few years later would be called García Lorca. This new venue would make it possible not only to offer functions with a spacious popular auditorium, but also to use it for performances and rehearsals during almost the entire year. Very soon the theatre on Prado and San Rafael was characterised essentially as the temple of ballet in Havana, though eventually its stage featured other shows.

 

This decision by Alicia Alonso and the authorities of the then National Council of Culture essentially meant the rescue and ennoblement of a former theatre space that had known times of grandeur and decadence. Inaugurated on February 28, 1838 with the name of Tacón Theatre, it became the main Cuban theatre. The big Cuban bourgeoisie and Spanish officials applauded there the principal stars of drama, opera and dance of their time, from actress AdelaidaRistori to soprano MarietaGazzaniga.

 

It also featured for the first time a ballet performance. Austrian Fanny Elssler, one of the principal stars of romantic dance, performed there during two seasons between 1841 and 1842, turning Cuba into the first Spanish-American country in which the “white” ballet danced by one of its most notable interpreters would be known. In 1849 the Ravel Company – a mixture of dancers and acrobats – would premier on that stage an integral version of Giselle, barely eight years after its first Paris function.

 

The institution was able to face numerous economic crises and the wars of independence. Still, in 1898, during the days in which Spain was transferring the island to the U.S. power through the Paris Treaty, a bourgeoisie that seemed indifferent acclaimed the María Guerrero and Fernando Díaz de Mendoza Company and presented the actress with a pearl and diamond necklace worth 25,000 pesos and a gold crown with 16 diamonds.

 

However, the start of the 20th century, with the first republican experience, was not so favourable for the Tacón. In 1905 President Estrada Palma refused to let the State acquire the building and allowed for it to pass into the hands of the Galician Centre.

 

Paradoxically, when the new building opened its doors it bore the name of National Theatre.

 

The sumptuous building planned by Paul Belau conserved the old theatre hall, but linked to a surprisingly baroque whole that would become the image of reference in the Havana urban outline. The new theatre was inaugurated on April 22, 1915 with a function of the opera Aida.

 

Soon that space gained new prestige. Suffice it to recall the famous presentations there of Spanish ballerina Antonia Mercé “La Argentina” in 1917 and barely three days later the first of the three seasons of the legendary Anna Pavlova, who would make the Havana public enjoy the principal works of her repertoire, including her solo Death of the Swan. Meanwhile, it is necessary to remember the grand opera seasons organised there for several years by impresario Adolfo Bracale, which brought to the islandbel canto stars like Enrico Caruso, HipólitoLázaro and Gabriella Bezanzone. One must not forget that the place was also the venue of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra since its foundation in 1934 and up to 1937.

 

From the dance point of view, the National Theatre served as the framework for the performances in Cuba of key Spanish dance figures: from EncarnaciónLópez “La Argentinita” and PilarLópez, in 1936, to Carmen Amaya, Rosita Segovia, Ana María and in 1955 the sensational presence of Vicente Escudero “the pharaoh of flamenco dancers.” In 1941 Colonel Basil’s Original Ballet Russe also performed there. The Alicia Alonso Ballet performed there several functions in March and April 1950, after its tour of Latin America. These presentations included passages of the Don Quixote and Nutcracker ballets, interpreted by Alicia, and the world premiers of Fiesta by Enrique Martínez and Ensayosinfónico by Alicia Alonso.

 

The creation of the Auditorium started taking over from the National the principal concert, opera and ballet seasons. The growing crisis of the big theatres finished by placing the old stage in second place and it became difficult for impresarios to fill its hall, which is why in the 1950s it entered a long decline and was leased as a cinema theatre. A sign of this decline was the loss of a part of its grand vestibule, devoted to other functions and which has been reinstated in this last restoration. Already in 1959 it didn’t even have the title of National, since this name was transferred to the new theatre being built in the Civic Square.

 

The stable presence there of the National Ballet starting 1965 brought back to life the hall, which not only welcomed the successes of the principal figures of that art in Cuba but also foreign representatives, from the Russian star Maia Plisetskaya to the 20th Century Ballet directed by Maurice Béjart.

 

In mid-1985 it was called the Grand Theatre of Havana, thanks to an ambitious project in which the institution went on to occupy the former locales of the Galician Centre, which is why, in addition to the traditional García Lorca Hall, it was able to inaugurate other smaller ones for small format theatre and dance presentations, conferences, screenings, a library and an art gallery. These aims, though affected in the 1990s by the economic crisis of the so-called “special period”, bore considerable fruits and though not all its objectives were able to be maintained they gave a worthy cultural function to a space privileged by its architectural hierarchy.

 

Now, the Grand Theatre, marked by the name of the famous ballerina, begins a new artistic stage. Beyond its always attractive ballet functions, it will be necessary to hope for a sustained rigor of its cultural proposals. (2016)

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