by Gary L. Day for The Dance Journal
Performing arts tend to have a hard time in totalitarian countries. Repressive regimes seldom give the arts a high priority, given that dictators tend to focus more on squashing dissent or keeping their economies from collapsing before they’ve managed to line their pockets. One of the rare exceptions to this generalization is when an artist, or arts organization, lends something tangible to the regime, like prestige and international bragging rights. That’s one reason the old Soviet Union continued funding the Bolshoi Ballet even when it couldn’t pay its own army.
And that’s also why the Castro regime continues to support the Cuban National Ballet School. The graduates of this school are among the best ballet dancers in the world. There’s hardly a quality ballet company in the world that doesn’t have some Cubans among their top echelon of dancers.
But what’s it like for those students, growing up in a repressive society, many burdened by impoverished families, knowing that only the best will be afforded any opportunity for a decent life? Documentary director Mary Jane Doherty wanted to know.
With perseverance and more than a little sneakiness, Doherty managed to film three years in the lives of several students and their families. She filmed their studies under the demanding school director, Ramona de Saa, their often-struggling but supportive families, their performances and experiences on international tours, and, for some of them, their ultimate fates. It’s a heroic story, told plainly, with little fanfare and no embellishment.
Entitled Secundaria, Doherty’s chronicle of these students’ struggles and ultimate triumph, was presented for a single showing on December 14 by the Philadelphia Film Society and the Pennsylvania Ballet, at the Prince Theater in Center City Philadelphia.
Doherty focuses primarily on young Mayara Pineiro, her family and some of her friends and fellow students. Like ballet students the world over, the days of Mayara and her friends are filled with endless hours of practice. Also, these kids have the same hopes, dreams and ambitions as young dancers the world over. But unlike most of the world’s young dancers, Mayara and her friends also live with the knowledge excelling in dance may be the only opportunity for them and their families to rise out of grueling poverty and the personal and political constraints of Castro’s Cuba.
While things eased a little bit in Cuba since the ailing Fidel Castro (who just recently died) stepped back and let his young brother take over, the country as a whole is still gripped by economic collapse and social oppression. Cuba tries very hard to keep its citizens, particularly its prized ballet dancers, on a short leash, since many try to leave the harsh life in Cuba for better lives in other, freer parts of the world.
However, as the students progress, the better ones are tapped for performance in touring productions, giving them a taste, however restrained and controlled, of what life outside of Cuba is like.
Even as they struggle and jostle for more visible and prestigious roles, Mayara and her friends eventually seize opportunities to break free of their restrictive and harsh homeland. And there is a happy ending. Mostly. While Mayara and some of her friends manage to escape repression, the families have not, to date, been so lucky.
Serendipitously, Mayara and three of her friends (Arian Molina Soca, Dayesi Torriente and Etienne Diaz) have all ended up here in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Ballet where this year Mayara was promoted to Principal Dancer. At a Q&A session with the four of them and director Doherty held after the showing of Secundaria, Mayara admitted that, to this day, she is still working to gain exit visas for her family.
Doherty’s honest, poignant and sometimes gritty portrait of the lives of these young dancers gives us a brief glimpse of the struggle of these kids, and how they have only their heart, their talent, and their art to lift them out of the harsh world they were born into.