Reported by Lauren Kay
Natalia Alonso doesn’t have Maria Tallchief’s black hair or chiseled features. But given Alonso’s dramatic flair, honed at Ballet Hispanico and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, playing—and dancing—the Balanchine ballerina seems well within her reach. No surprise, then, that Alonso was cast as Tallchief in Nikolai and the Others, a new play at Lincoln Center Theater that revolves around Balanchine’s efforts to choreograph Orpheus. “The ballet’s one of Balanchine’s more theatrical works,” Alonso says. “It allows the dancer to explore mood and emotion, and with my background, I love that.”
For Alonso, delving into Tallchief’s character has been the latest step in an adventurous career that has always pushed the ballet boundaries. With her striking looks, expressive line and passionate attack, Alonso has brought her outsized talent to varied repertoire, finding herself as much at home in contemporary work as the ballet idiom. A driving force has been her desire to explore new terrain, which has kept her growing as an artist.
Her original plan was more traditional. Growing up in New York and Long Island, Alonso trained classically, went to Boston Ballet School summer intensives and hoped one day to join a big company. But a knee injury at 17 waylaid her ballet dreams, and she shifted gears to attend Wesleyan University. Eventually, though, she realized she couldn’t see herself doing anything other than dance, and began training intensely when she returned to New York after graduation. She set her sights on Ballet Hispanico, and after four auditions, the company finally hired her. She quickly emerged as one of the lead dancers.
After seven years, in a bold move, she left to join Complexions. The edgy repertoire was a shift, but she met the troupe’s athletic, technically intense demands with grace and ferocity. Though she enjoyed the challenges, after nearly five years, she started to feel restless. “The company does a lot of touring and I was tired of living out of a suitcase,” she says frankly. She also felt hungry for something new. “When I left, it wasn’t because I thought it was time to end my career,” she says. “When the play came up, it was perfect. It fulfilled this classical ballerina I have inside me, while pushing me in a new direction, too.”
In the play, Alonso dances an Orpheus variation and pas de deux. She was coached by Rosemary Dunleavy, a ballet mistress at New York City Ballet who assisted in the audition process with ballet master in chief Peter Martins. “Orpheus uses elements of contemporary and jazz in the movement—it’s not highly technical Balanchine,” Alonso says. “I’m challenged by Balanchine’s expansiveness, which is intrinsically focused on being in pointe shoes, versus them being a secondary thought.” But the acting has proved the bigger stretch. “As a dancer you look at what the choreographer gives you and you copy it. But as an actor, you have to see the context of the scene and then create something yourself. It’s definitely scary.”
Capturing Tallchief’s poise and dignity without mimicking her has been a major focus. Alonso read the ballerina’s autobiography and watched endless clips, but also trusted her own instinct for guidance. “Maria was very disciplined,” says Alonso. “That quality existed with my Russian teachers growing up and I’m bringing that to the part. I’m finding that even without company class, I’m at the theater at 9 am, warming myself up and getting into pointe shoes.”
Alonso hopes to continue her “mishmosh” of ventures, finding fulfillment in being a chameleon. She feels grateful she didn’t follow the standard ballerina path she saw for herself as a teen. “It’s important to always push yourself,” she says. “Even if life throws an injury at you or takes you on a tangent, keep following through. As a young dancer you have a single vision of who you are. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s not over. Don’t limit yourself.”
At a Glance
Favorite role: “Every new ballet I do is my new favorite.”
Training: Kaleria Fedicheva, Irina Lebedeva, Boston Ballet School summer intensives
Ballet idol: Natalia Makarova. “The first time I saw her do Swan Lake, I swore I was watching a swan dance.”