by Raul Menchaca
HAVANA, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) -- Tributes are pouring in as Cuba's living legend of ballet Alicia Alonso turns 98 this Friday.
The dancer, choreographer and former director of Cuba's National Ballet (BNC), Alonso is a beloved cultural icon in her country and a renowned international performer who interpreted the starring roles of Giselle, Odette, Swanilda, Odile and Carmen.
Alonso, who lost her sight after years of struggling with poor vision, has been out of the spotlight due to ailing heath, which kept her from attending the opening in October of the International Ballet Festival of Havana, an event she actively participated each year.
Despite her absence, Cubans have prepared a series of events in her honor, including "Divas," an exhibit of paintings by Cuban artist Jose Miguel Perez at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana.
The exhibit features ten colorful acrylic portraits of the dancer capturing different moments in her life, opposite to the faces of 12 anonymous women who seem to observe and learn from her.
"Alicia is still a role model despite being 98," said Perez, adding that anyone with her level of talent would become a legend and source of inspiration for others.
According to art critic Tony Pinera, Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez Hoya, born on Dec. 21, 1920, "is a symbol of Cuba" because "she dedicated her entire life since her earliest youth to ballet, and founded the seed, the company (BNC)" along with her dancer and choreographer husband Fernando Alonso, whom she married at the age of 15.
Pinera, a journalist and curator, underscored Alonso's contribution to the creation of what critics call the Cuban School of Ballet, which has been considered the youngest in the world.
As cofounder of Cuba's top ballet company, "she is the mother of all contemporary Cuban dancers," Pinera said.
In honor of Alonso, Cuban painter Jesus Lara Sotelo will present a collection of poems titled "Alicia and the election of faith," published by Spanish publishing house Punto Rojo, and illustrated by the author with works of art dedicated to the prima ballerina.
Her professional career took off in the United States when she took the place of dancer Alicia Markova, who fell ill before a performance of "Giselle" at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1943.
She went on to work with great choreographers such as George Balanchine, Anthony Tudor and Jerome Robbins, and danced with the renowned Rudolf Nureyev.
Led by Alonso, the BNC has weathered through trying times of economic hardship, social prejudice and insufficient government support to become one of the five best ballet companies in the world, after the Paris Opera, the Royal Ballet of London, the American Ballet Theater and the Bolshoi Ballet.
In 1995, she formally retired from the stage, but continued to run the BNC as an enduring cultural hallmark of her country.