It was a hot, humid Saturday night in Havana, and there was no air conditioning at the Gran Teatro. But all 1,500 seats at the old opera house were taken; tickets had sold out within hours of their release. Thousands more fans crowded onto the steps of the nearby Capitolio, braving the July heat to watch giant outdoor screens on which the performance was streaming. This was a far cry from the staid audiences the Royal Ballet usually danced for in London. Here, tickets were cheap; spectators packed picnics; the atmosphere was raucous. It was 2009, and the first visit from a major foreign ballet company in 30 years. It was also the last time that Alexandra Ansanelli, a star at the peak of her career, would perform.

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"A Month in the Country," the ballet chosen for her last show, is a melodrama based on Ivan Turgenev's 1855 play. In it, Natalia, a bored housewife on a Russian estate, falls in love with her son's new tutor; so do her teenage daughter and the family maid. American audiences sometimes laugh at its over-the-top antics. But with Alexandra as Natalia, it worked.

The Gran Teatro in Havana, Cuba

The Gran Teatro in Havana

Alexandra, who had been dancing with the Royal Ballet for three years, and with the New York City Ballet for eight years before that, was spontaneous and unpredictable onstage. She could get carried away by a feeling or a musical note. She was an artist more than a technician, and she was beautiful in a way that could seem anachronistic; she was glamorous. That night, everything came together. She put on one of the best shows of her life. "She danced like it was the last performance," said her partner that night, Ivan Putrov. "But every performance, she gave everything."

The curtain fell, and rose again. Alexandra took her bows, and the 88-year-old Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso presented her with a bouquet of roses. Alexandra broke down in tears as the crowd cheered.

Alexandra Ansanelli in Cuba

Alexandra, walking off the stage after her final performance. 'She danced like it was the last performance. But every performance, she gave everything.'

After the show, Alexandra spoke to some reporters. She and a couple of other dancers went for a swim. She didn't sleep. The next day, she boarded a plane and flew back to New York.

In over half a century at the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, the artistic director from 2002 to 2012, has witnessed many final performances. Alexandra's, she says, "was one of the most moving, and one of the most emotional." But it was also confounding to those who had watched her meteoric rise. "Why does an artist at the height of her powers walk away?" wondered Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman. "It is hard to believe that someone like Alexandra Ansanelli…is retiring," wrote the popular blog The Ballet Bag. "It was a surprise for everyone," says Putrov.