After the recent death of Fernando Alonso (1914-2013), “a Cuban ballet master and teacher who teamed with his brother and his wife at the time, the ballet star Alicia Alonso, to found a dance company that gained international renown as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba,” author Toba Singer fondly remembers the time she spent working with him to craft his biography, Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet.
The word for hummingbird in Spanish is colibri. I will never hear the word in either English or Spanish without retrieving memories from the six-year journey I shared with Fernando Alonso as he recounted his life and experiences to me in preparation for my writing Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet. During my short visits to Cuba, we would sit side by side in Havana, at the national ballet school or at his home which was then in Miramar, or across from each other at the restaurant in the Hotel Presidente. While working in Mexico , we sat along the inside ring of a corrida watching a bullfight. He touched my hand very gently, and said, “Ignore the blood, focus on the energy: that energy is what the dancer must bring to the stage.”
Over the course of our collaboration, I took in some quotient of the encyclopedic knowledge of ballet pedagogy and history that Fernando stood for in Cuba, but there were also revelations that touched on other subjects. During the first break in our work in Querétaro, Mexico, he insisted on an Italian meal, and so his hosts drove us to a restaurant in a toney shopping mall. He ordered spaghetti with garlic and olive oil. I ordered the same dish, except with anchovies and basil. From the look of undisguised admiration he cast in my direction, I could see that he’d wished he’d thought to order the anchovies and basil. “Are you Italian?” he wanted to know, “because my mother was Italian. She was a Rayneri and a Sorrentino.” “No,” I said, “but I grew up in the Bronx.” He nodded knowingly. Now that we had established some shared geographic coordinates he asked me whether I knew the words to the folk song, “She’ll be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.” I allowed that I knew all the stanzas, and so in that restaurant in the middle of lunch hour, which in Mexico is really more the dinner hour, then 92-year-old Fernando Alonso and I sang a duet of that song, and sang it so well that it prompted someone in our party to ask, “How long have you two known each other?” We smiled, and he answered, “About three hours.”
The last time we met was in April of this year, in his new home in Nuevo Vedado in Havana, near the cemetery his uncle had designed the entrance to, and where only a few months later, on July 28, Fernando would be buried. He died on July 27, the day after his wife Yolanda’s birthday, and a very important date in Cuban history, the 26th of July, when the Cuban revolution had begun in earnest with the attack on the Moncada Barracks. The San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design had chosen that date to host the Bay Area launch of Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet. The museum had just moved into a new space across from Yerba Buena Gardens Center for the Arts on Folsom Street, and Muriel Maffre, the museum’s director, had wanted the launch to be among the inaugurating events for the museum’s new site.
Shelves filled with books were moved to open a small space for an audience, but the upwards of 70 attendees quickly filled those seats, and others moved into an impromptu standing-room area on the mezzanine, where a documentary about the Cuban ballet school by Cuban photographer Roberto Chile was being screened. I spoke about the book, and joining me to comment on their experiences studying and working and sharing a friendship with Fernando Alonso, were Lorena Feijóo, Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet, her mother, Lupe Calzadilla, who had danced with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and Jorge Esquivel, a world famous dancer who had partnered the ballet assoluta Alicia Alonso for two decades in Cuba.
Not knowing in advance that the sad event that would follow the day after the launch would effectively render this gathering a memorial and farewell to Fernando, I told the story of my last encounter with him on the steps of his home. His wife Yolanda and stepdaughter Maiuly and I spoke in Spanish during my visit. Fernando said little, as he was having trouble speaking, owing to a degenerative disease. He would make mention of something long after it had left the conversation, only because he hadn’t been able to vocalize his thoughts at the very moment we were discussing, for example, spelunking. As I was preparing to leave, he pointed to the woods slightly beyond the cul-de-sac in which his was the last house. “See that?” he asked in English. I looked, fearing that I would not see what he was pointing to because my vision is poor. Then actually, I could see it, and thrilled that I could, blurted out, “A hummingbird!” “Yes, he said, smiling broadly. “A hummingbird.” He said the English words fluidly and with no hesitation, seeming to savor both the word, and perhaps the consideration that this might be a last opportunity to say that evocative word in English.
Toba Singer is the author of First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists. She lives in Oakland, California.
More information about Fernando Alonso: The Father of Cuban Ballet can be found by clicking on the cover image.