AS the curtain closed on the final gala of the International Festival of Ballet in Havana in November, Alicia Alonso, the aged matriarch of Cuban ballet, stood unsteadily at center stage, her arms outstretched toward the raucous adulation of the crowd. Silent and still, a gracious smile chiseled on her face, she seemed less a woman than a monument. She has presided over the biennial festival since 1960, and her power is such that she -- and perhaps she alone -- is able to draw the globe's best artists to her slight, impoverished nation to dance.
Ms. Alonso, who is 83, has ruled the Ballet Nacional de Cuba -- has been the Ballet Nacional de Cuba -- for nearly six decades. Before, ballet in Cuba was a marginalized extravagance. Now, men in one of the world's most macho countries clamor to put on dancing tights. She has trained some of the era's greatest dancers and created a world-class ballet company renowned for its precise classicism and exuberant virtuosity.
She has accomplished all this despite her nation's poverty. Despite its isolation from the world's great ballet companies. And one other thing: despite the fact that she is, depending on whom you ask, either largely or completely blind.
''I see through here,'' Ms. Alonso said in her Havana office, pressing a neatly manicured hand to her pale, broad forehead. Like most dancers, Ms. Alonso has aged with some desperation. She performed into her 60's, but today she is undeniably brittle, with a grandeur so willful it can be frightening. For public appearances, she paints her face with a thick layer of foundation, pencils in high, arching eyebrows and transforms her lips into a broad slash of red. She keeps her hair hidden under an ever-changing series of colorful scarves, bound tightly around her forehead.
But despite Ms. Alonso's efforts to keep up appearances, her empire shows signs of crumbling beneath her.
The company's repertory is so static -- a lovely but unchanging iteration of ''Giselle,'' ''Swan Lake,'' ''Don Quixote'' and ''Coppelia'' -- that one of her top dancers says he has resorted to making up steps to keep himself entertained. The Cuban choreographers who once worked with the company have, for the most part,
left or retired, and the company says it can't afford the work of innovative international choreographers like Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe. Ms. Alonso's own choreography, in its worst moments, is a bit of a bad joke.
In addition, her dancers have been leaving at an alarming rate -- more than 20 in the last few years. Former Ballet Nacional dancers now grace American Ballet Theater, the Boston Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Washington Ballet, the Cincinnati Ballet and the Royal Ballet, among others. But she prefers not to acknowledge this diaspora.
Cocooned in historical glory, she will neither cede control of her company nor plan for its future after her death. Like all great divas (and for that matter, dictators) she will not countenance talk of succession. ''I am going to live to 200,'' she said, in charmingly accented English. ''Maybe I live longer. I love life.''
Legend has it that Ms. Alonso danced herself blind. She arrived in New York from Havana in 1937 and eked out a living as a Broadway hoofer before joining the fledgling Ballet Theater. Four years later, at 19, she began to lose her sight, and after multiple operations for a detached retina, her doctors prescribed several months in bed. It was there that she first learned the role of Giselle, as her husband, Fernando, helped her mark the steps with her fingers. Doctors warned her that her frail eyes would not withstand the rigors of her whipped turns, but Ms. Alonso went right on dancing.
She got her big break in 1943, when Alicia Markova got sick and Ms. Alonso performed Giselle in her stead.
(It became her signature role, and she was still dancing it in the early 1970's, when Kevin McKenzie, now the artistic director of American Ballet Theater, saw her perform. He was, he said, ''riveted'' by ''an unfaltering technique coupled with this ethereal quality.'')
Ms. Alonso was a part of the rich ferment that gave birth to both American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet, and she worked with the greats, including Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins.
The demanding role George Balanchine created for her in ''Theme and Variations'' in 1947 terrified later generations of ballerinas. Then, goes the hagiography, she and Fernando gave it all up to take ballet back to their beloved Cuba.
In 1948, they founded Ballet Alicia Alonso, which became known as the Ballet Nacional de Cuba after the revolution.
''Everybody thought it was crazy that people dance,'' recalled Fernando Alonso, 90, who helped found the Ballet Nacional and ran it from 1959 to 1975. (As a teacher, he largely defined the Cuban ballet style.)
''They thought you had to be a doctor or a lawyer or anything else,'' Mr. Alonso said. He used to knock on the doors of his mother's rich friends seeking donations, and the company sold performances to sponsors like Cerveza Polar and Bacardi Rum. ''We had a stage with two big beers on it,'' he said. ''What do we care? We get to make a performance.''
Soon after Fidel Castro took power, in 1959, he gave the ballet company $200,000, with the admonition that it had better excel.
''The budding revolution wanted to get for the Cuban people all possible good, and not just material good but also spiritual good,'' said Miguel Cabrera, the historian of the Ballet Nacional. Mr. Castro decided that ballet would be part of that gift. The Alonsos dutifully carted their dancers to sugarcane fields, army bases and factories.
Today in Cuba, ballet is a great career. Dancers can earn more than doctors. And it's cool. Audiences, which are packed with the young and miniskirted, give the dancers the kind of love Boston gives the Red Sox.
Alejandro Sene, a member of the corps de ballet, is one of many dancers who was pushed into his profession by well-meaning relatives. ''I remember the first time I saw ballet on TV,'' he recalled. ''I was 4 or 5.
I said, 'I'll be anything but that.''' His uncle and his grandfather lured him into ballet class with promises that he would get to dress up in neat costumes. Young Alejandro found few costumes and a lot of hard physical work, an injustice he grew to accept once he realized he was marooned in a sea of girls. ''I think I've liked girls since I was one month old,'' he said.
Cuba has an enviable network of schools that provide students throughout the country with methodical, full-time training from the ages of 9 to 18. Students must pass a battery of physical, musical and psychological tests. Last year 611 students auditioned for 60 spots at the Alejo Carpentier School in Havana, where Jose Manuel Carreno and Carlos Acosta, among many others, first studied ballet.
But ballet in Cuba is part of a fading world, fueled by a mix of need, desire and boredom. For the time being, the government's control of mass media and the American embargo continue to insulate Cubans to some extent from the speed and sophistication of American visual culture. Life is slower here than it is on ''Gilmore Girls.'' And in this context, ballet is thrilling entertainment, filled with superhuman feats and romance.
Last November, the Ballet Nacional set up a stage in the Plaza Vieja in Havana and performed''Shakespeare y Sus Mascaras'' (''Shakespeare and His Masks''), a takeoff on ''Romeo and Juliet'' choreographed by Ms. Alonso. There was not much else to do on the neighborhood's dusky streets. Boys played dominos in disintegrating alleyways. Men sat in their hot living rooms, watching state-run television.
The stage was the brightest thing for miles. But lately a sort of torpor has fallen over the Ballet Nacional. Although Ms. Alonso remains the director, the latest generations of dancers -- including high-wattage performers like Joel Carreno, Viengsay Valdes,
Alihaydee Carreno and Rolando Sarabia -- only rarely work directly with her. Carlos Acosta, who now dances with the Royal Ballet, actually performed with her once, in 1993.
''I was very nervous,'' Mr. Acosta said from London. ''It was a big responsibility. I was only 20 years old, dancing with this living legend. What if you drop her?''
Her poor eyesight made it difficult for her to give corrections. ''She gives you general corrections,'' he said, ''and you try to find whether you can use them, because she cannot be direct with you.'' Current dancers at the Ballet Nacional say Ms. Alonso's choreographic process is similarly vague: she explains her vision to one of her minions, who then builds the work on the company.
Like bees around their queen, a cloud of advisers hovers around Ms. Alonso, seeing for her, judging for her, describing for her the daily reality of the Ballet Nacional. Her successor, company insiders say, will probably be pulled from these courtly ranks, which include Loipa Araujo, Aurora Bosch and Josefina Mendez, all ballet masters in their 60's, as well as younger teachers like Maria Elena Llorente, Carmen Hechavarria and Svetlana Ballester.
The woman most often pointed to as a potential successor is Ms. Araujo. She speaks five languages and says she teaches regularly at the Royal, La Scala, the Royal Danish and the Paris Opera ballets. She has phone numbers in Cuba, London and Spain and has long worked to freshen the repertory.
''My opinion is that it should be Loipa,'' said Joel Carreno, half-brother of Jose Manuel Carreno of American Ballet Theater and one of the biggest stars of the Ballet Nacional. ''And not when Alicia is gone. It should be her already.''
When confronted with that possibility, Ms. Araujo gave a wry, tired laugh and looked away. ''Loipa, Josefina,'' she said. ''Who knows? If Alicia is 200 years old, we'll be 100. I don't think anybody is raising that question.
What's important to us is to work every day.'' Even if Ms. Alonso does live to be 200, Mr. Castro might not, and that could spell big trouble for the Cuban ballet. The status of the Ballet Nacional -- the breadth of its audiences and the quality of its school -- derives in no small part from the state's commitment. In fact, despite Cuba's growing economic distress, Mr. Castro has in recent years boosted cultural expenditures.
In 2001, the National Ballet School, which trains 15-to-18-year-olds, moved into a grand mansion right on Paseo del Prado in old Havana, and the Alejo Carpentier school is undergoing extensive renovations. In 2002, the national school, under a directive from Mr. Castro, auditioned 42,000 students around the country and selected 4,500 for a new vocational program. The objective is not to build dancers but to build audiences and, as Ramona de Saa, the school's director, said, ''to make a correct use of students' free time.''
It's hard to imagine such activities taking place anywhere else in the world today. Large ballet companies in Russia, Europe and China have recently had to wean themselves from state subsidies, and the results -- sometimes frantic touring and shameless corporate sponsorship -- have not always been pretty.
In the very long run, Ms. Alonso's miracle may face an even more pernicious threat than poverty: wealth. Jane Hermann, the ICM executive who oversees the Ballet Nacional's American tours, points out that while life as a dancer is a step up in a poor country like Cuba, it can be a step down in a middle-class country like the United States.
Ms. Alonso scoffs at the notion that history may someday undo her legacy. ''Are you kidding,'' she said.
''Have you seen the amount of talents we've got? Have you seen the amount of teachers? We have the biggest school that exists today. Do you think that will die like that? No. This is a healthy tree.''
Determined to show that her body, despite the weight of its accumulated years, still holds the clarity, passion and light that distinguish the Cuban school of movement -- and to prove, by extension, her fitness to lead -- Ms. Alonso rose from behind her desk and began to dance. Her face rapt with some remembered glory, she lifted her unseeing eyes toward a far balcony, gripped the desk with one hand and sent the other wafting gaily into the air. With perfect, flirtatious grace, she pranced like a muse in Balanchine's ''Apollo.''
Then her press secretary walked swiftly over and helped her back into her chair.
I am the Shanghai correspondent for the Associated Press. I write mostly about transnational criminal networks thiving in the shadows of China's rise, with specific attention to the opioid trade, counterfeiting and money laundering.