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Cuba celebrates ballet legend Alonso's 90th b-day

Cuba feted the 90th birthday of dance legend Alicia Alonso with a ballet and music-filled gala dedicated to the island's prima ballerina assoluta.

The audience at the gilded Gran Teatro in Old Havana broke into a standing ovation when the sprightly diva — considered a living legend of international ballet and a national treasure in her native Cuba — swept in and took the place of honor ahead of Monday night's performance on the eve of her birthday.

Dressed in a sweeping camel cape and her hallmark headscarf turban — in white with a sprinkling of sequins — the grande dame smiled down on her admirers and waved regally.

Despite an eye ailment that has left her nearly blind, Alonso continues to lead the Cuban National Ballet, which grew out of the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company she founded in 1948.

Two of her proteges, star dancers Viengsay Valdes and Yadil Suarez, opened Monday's program with an emotional interpretation of "ParAlicia," a choreography dedicated to Alonso.

The program also included performances by soprano Johana Simon and singers Polito Ibanez and Ivette Cepeda, and wrapped up with a Cuban jazz session by the group Ernan Lopez-Nussa y Habana Report.

Born in Havana on Dec. 21, 1920, Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez Hoya began studying ballet at age 9. When she was 15, she married another ballet student, Fernando Alonso, and they moved to New York, where she danced with Ballet Caravan, now the New York City Ballet. In 1940, she joined the Ballet Theater of New York, which became American Ballet Theater.

She was soon promoted to the role of principal dancer, winning special acclaim for her interpretation of the roles of Giselle and Carmen and for her legendary performances in "Swan Lake."

Her eyesight failed early in her career, and she danced many of her famous roles while partially blind, guided on stage by her partner's placement and by the stage lights.

The program at Monday's gala was filled with tributes from dance luminaries worldwide.

"From the moment I saw her on stage for the first time, I've dreamed only of dancing with her," read one, from Russian icon Rudolf Nureyev.

"The ballerina is extraordinary, the character no less so," read another, from the late French choreographer Maurice Bejart.

But perhaps the most lavish praise came from two devoted fans eager to catch a glimpse of their idol.

"Alicia's a treasure, she's unique and marvelous, and we're so proud she's Cuban," said Felicidad Carbo, a 50-year-old airport worker whose printed sweat shirt and cutoff shorts contrasted with the evening finery worn by many in the audience. "She's really an inspiration. It was because of her that my daughter started dancing."

As Alonso appeared at the top of the marble staircase on her way out of the theater, 11-year-old Antoinette Avilez Carbo squealed with glee.

"Mama, it's her," she said, her dark eyes twinkling. "She's so beautiful."