The majestic Grand Theater of Havana, a mecca of performing arts in Cuba and one of the architectural icons of the city, now bears the name of the exceptional ballerina Alicia Alonso.
With winged guardians topping its four corners, and located between the streets San Rafael, San José, Consulado and Prado, the theatre re-opened its doors this January 1, 2016 after undergoing three years of intense restoration works.
The National Ballet of Cuba’s traditional New Year’s gala commemorating the triumph of the Revolution, organized by its director, prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso, was the ideal moment for such an occasion.
Army General Raúl Castro Ruz, President of the Councils of State and Ministers presided the re-opening of the grand building, accompanied by the eminent Alonso.
Before the function began, Minister of Culture, Julián González, recalled Alicia’s illustrious career as a ballerina and choreographer, describing her as “one of the most important women in Cuban history,” and noting that after finding success in the United States she returned to the island and helped to found the Cuban School of Ballet, today a global reference of classical dance.
After the show, on the very same stage she had performed for decades, the 95 year old Alicia received a heartfelt ovation from the audience and her own company. She is “a celebration of Cuba” the poet Eliseo Diego once wrote.
One of the most important changes to the theater has been the expansion of García Lorca Hall’s entrance space, where a statue by sculptor José Villa Soberón of Alicia Alonso will be unveiled at a later date.
A HISTORIC THEATER
The fact that the Grand Theater of Havana bears the nameAlicia Alonso is a thing of careful consideration – their glorious pasts intertwined; the impressive auditorium offering its spaces to renowned artists, the assoluta gifting audiences with her unforgettable dance.
The history of the theater on Prado Street begins in 1836 when Miguel Tacón was appointed captain general of Cuba and made a royal request to build the play house, which was approved two years later.
Miguel Tacón then received financial support from businessman Francisco Marty, who hired architect Gerónimo de León to design the building, officially inaugurated on April 15, 1838 with a performance of Don Juan de Austria by Gregorio Ducló’s Spanish Theatrical Company.
In her book Viaje a La Habana, María de las Mercedes Beltrán Santa Cruz y Montalvo, better known as the Countess of Merlin, one of Cuba’s earliest female authors, described the Tacón theater as “rich and elegant at the same time[…] The main curtain and decorative adornments offer a stunning view […] the patio is occupied by magnificent chairs, as in the boxes, where a slim rail runs along the front part, and doesn’t obscure the audience’s view […] only the finest theaters of the large European capitals can equal that of Havana in their decorative beauty, exquisite lighting and the elegance of spectators…”
Such was the grandeur of the theater at the time that it was referenced in several popular sayings: “The three things people most admire in Havana: the Morro, the Cabaña and the chandelier of the Tacón theater,” regarding the enormous and striking light fixture made of fine glass, imported from Paris, which hung above the auditorium (the current chandelier is new and made of Bohemian crystal).
From its opening until 1899, when it was sold to the Tacón Realty Company based in New York, the theater saw Italian and French opera companies and global stars, such as ballerina Fanny Elssler, pianist Leopoldo Meyer, sopranos Teresa Parodi and Adelina Patti, pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Cuban violinists José White and Brindis de Salas, Cuban pianist Ignacio Cervantes and actress Sarah Bernhardt, tread its boards.
In 1906 the Galician Heritage Foundation bought both the original theater – which would later be demolished – and the entire block on which it stood. Between 1907 and 1915 the current structure was built to house the Galician Center of Havana. Belgian architect Paul Belau was chosen to design the new theater and U.S. construction company Purdy & Henderson to build it.
Thus began a new era for today’s Grand Theater. The inaugural performance took place April 22, 1915, with the opera Aída, by the Adolfo Bracale’s company, which was then followed by Antonia Mercé from Argentina, pianist Ignacio Paderewski, ballerina Anna Pavlova, Sarah Bernhardt again, Arturo Rubinstein, Serguei Rachmáninov, violinist Misha Elman, tenor Enrico Caruso, Esperanza Iris, Cubans Ernesto Lecuona, Jorge Bolet, Amadeo Roldán and Rita Montaner, Eleonora Duse, Margarita Xirgú, José Mojica, Jorge Negrete, cellist Pablo Casals, violinist Jascha Heifetz, guitarist Andrés Segovia, Carmen Amaya and many others.
Another historic detail worth mentioning is that of a further name change. In 1961, on the initiative of the Galician Center, the theater was re-named after Federico García Lorca, in homage to the poet from Granada on the 25th anniversary of his murder, but since 1985 the entire establishment has been called the Grand Theater of Havana, with García Lorca reserved for its main hall.
Alicia Alonso arrived to the theater’s stage in 1950, performing the works Las Sílfides and Las bodas de Aurora while from 1960 to date the building has served as the headquarters of the International Ballet Festival of Havana, a prestigious dance encounter which has seen the participation of ballerinas from all continents, including Maia Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev, Carla Fracci, Antonio Gades, Maurice Béjart and Julio Bocca as well as great companies and figures such as the Royal Ballet of London, Milan’s La Scala TheaterBallet, the New York City Ballet, Argentina’s Teatro Colón Ballet, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky ballets.
The grand auditorium’s main stage has seen Alonso debut her personal version of Swan Lake, give magical performances in Giselle, Carmen, Un retablo para Romeo y Julieta, Edipo Rey and so many others…