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Remembering Ballet Dancer Alicia Alonso

Alicia Alonso, one of the finest ballet dancers of the 20th century, died Thursday in Havana. The dancer helped start the American Ballet Theatre, then built the Cuban state ballet program.

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Transcript:

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Cuban ballet giant Alicia Alonso died at the age of 98 this past week. She was known for her flawless technique, the way she became the role she danced, even after a detached retina left her with chronic vision problems. Alonso also helped establish the National Ballet of Cuba and was a cultural and political emissary for the communist country. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby on her complex legacy.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Madame Alonso was all face, eyes, long, powerful limbs and an eloquent voice for Cuba.

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ALICIA ALONSO: Our country likes dancing very much. I think it's part of our characteristic that sometimes you need more than speech or talk. Actually, we move. We say it with gesture.

ULABY: The daughter of an army officer, she came to the U.S. as a teenager to study at the School of American Ballet. She was soon a bona fide star celebrated by the world's greatest choreographers. But Alonso's sight soon began to fail. The woman famous for interpreting Giselle and the Black Swan was soon confined to bed, says Kevin McKenzie. He runs American Ballet Theatre, where she danced for years.

KEVIN MCKENZIE: She wasn't allowed to cry or laugh or do anything extreme that would, I guess, get her blood pressure up.

ULABY: Alonso practiced choreography by dancing her fingers on her bedsheets.

MCKENZIE: She said, I would feel it in my hands. I would imagine it.

ULABY: Even with limited vision, Alonso was able to triumph onstage. But she missed Cuba. She returned in the late 1940s. After the revolution, she started the country's national ballet, which became internationally renowned. With her dancers, Alonso was among the few to perform to wild acclaim in both the West and the Soviet Union.

Her principal dancer, Loipa Araujo, spoke to NPR in 1991.

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LOIPA ARAUJO: She's the power plant of that company. She just gives energy, and she pushes you. And we can never say we're tired because she's never tired (laughter).

ULABY: Alicia Alonso's face appeared on Cuban postage stamps, and she became a symbol of the country's cultural identity, but that meant getting labeled as a political tool. Some of her dancers defected. Others criticized Alonso for dancing well into her 80s.

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ALONSO: There is something fantastic about age.

ULABY: Glamorous and indomitable Alicia Alonso on NPR in 1978.

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ALONSO: If you ask doctors, they say age is a very elastic thing. It's all good at any age.

ULABY: To this day, says American Ballet Theatre's Kevin McKenzie, young ballet dancers who want to learn extraordinary techniques should do one thing - watch videos of Alicia Alonso, a dancer of the Americas and for the ages.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.