Angel, César, and Marcos

Three—count them! The documentary To Dance Like A Man (58 min., 2011, U.K.) introduces us to three lively, articulate, and talented 11-year-old identical triplets whose mutual ambition is to be good enough to join the National Ballet of Cuba. Angel, César, and Marcos are enrolled in Havana’s highly competitive and world-renowned National Ballet School. Their days are filled with training, dance lessons, rehearsals, and academic classes as they pursue their dream of becoming professional ballet dancers. Their parents provide support and encouragement, helping the boys to maintain their rigorous schedules and assisting with daily physical exercises.

Filmmaker Sylvie Collier was granted extraordinary access to the National Ballet School, and the camera tracks the boys from home to school to rehearsals and a public performance of Peter and the Wolf. We also meet some of the 17-year-old male students of the National Ballet School, including twins who hope they will both be accepted to the National Ballet of Cuba; they have never been separated and can’t imagine not continuing to work together.

Cuba has trained and nurtured the careers of many outstanding male ballet dancers, several of whom have gone on to achieve international fame. Graduates of the National Ballet School include José Manuel Carreño, who has performed with the American Ballet Theatre in the U.S. and the Royal Ballet in England, and Carlos Acosta, who also joined London’s Royal Ballet.

The documentary captures a surprise visit to the triplets by one of their idols, José Carreño, who encourages them to pursue their dreams. He notes the importance of discipline and determination in achieving their goals—traits these 11-year-olds already display in abundance.

Cuban Art News caught up with director Sylvie Collier as she was traveling and asked her about her background and her experiences filming in Cuba.

First, tell us a little about yourself and your own career.

I’m a professional British filmmaker based in Sussex, U.K. I’ve made documentaries on many subjects for most major TV networks in the U.K., and some time ago for WGBH (the PBS station in Boston) in the U.S. I am independent and in recent years have specialized in making films about the arts.

How did this film come about?

It came about as a result of my recent documentary made in Cuba: The Crab, the Crocodile and Love in Cuba (2009). This was a successful film focused on the internationally acclaimed Cuban artist and ceramicist José Fuster, his community of Jaimanitas, Havana, and their audacious public art project. The artist and his neighbors transform the community with exotic, colorful, Gaudi-like mosaic sculptures. The film was shown at the Havana Film Festival in Cuba. It’s distributed by Electric Sky, U.K., and is currently running on Sky Arts television. While the film was being exhibited at a festival in the U.S., I was contacted by the Center for Cuban Studies, who told me about the triplets. Of course I was interested, and I made a trip to Cuba to meet them and set about making a film. 

Angel, César, and Marcos

What was it like getting to know the triplets? How are their personalities different? What were the challenges of having three lookalike boys as your focus? 

The three boys are charming, lively, and impressively eloquent. Hardly anyone can tell them apart, although by the end of filming I had gotten to know them and was sometimes correct—not always—in identifying them. The boys themselves say they are different personalities: one stronger, one more outgoing, another lively. What’s impressive is their total support of one another, their desire to help one another to achieve. I thought they were emotionally mature for their years and was impressed by their dedication to their chosen career.

How did their parents respond when you approached them about filming the boys? Were there any difficulties in filming in their home?

They wanted assurance that the film would be responsible and would treat their sons with respect. When I returned to Havana and showed them my initial trailer, they were delighted. The difficulty in filming had to do with schedules: the triplets are more often than not engaged with classes, training, practice, and academic homework. Not a lot of time left for normal childhood pursuits.

How did the National Ballet School respond to your interest in filming at the school? Was it difficult to get the necessary permissions?

I met the director of the National Ballet School, Dr. Ramona de Saá, described my interest, and asked her permission. She graciously permitted full access throughout the school, and my crew and I wandered about as we wanted.

Did you receive any support from the Cuban authorities to make the film?

No, other than I was granted consent for filming after outlining the project. I hired a great Cuban crew and that helped a lot. You never know where you are going to go with documentary. I wasn’t really expecting to make such a long commitment to this project; I had to return several times to be there for filming certain events. So it meant a big personal investment in terms of finance, time, and energy!

Is there a large audience for ballet in Cuba?

Cubans love ballet. People from all walks of life go to see the ballet whenever they can. Cuba’s Alicia Alonso and Fernando Alonso took classical ballet to a high art.

In the film, it appears that ballet is as important a goal for Cuban youth as sports is for North American boys. Was that your impression as you were making the film?

Certainly ballet is very popular and a great passion. But so is baseball. And other sport. Ballet is a respected art form within the society, like many others. Cuban talent and enthusiasm is notable in many areas. I was interested in how Cuba can turn out so many internationally successful male ballet dancers. On my last visit I was happy to see on stage some of the talented 17-year-old boys I’d filmed at the ballet school who were chosen to be successful dancers with the National Ballet of Cuba. They each have a DVD of the film.

Tell us a little about the National Ballet School and its program. Is parental support and involvement—like the triplets’ parents’—one of the criteria for selection? Are there fees involved in attending the National Ballet School?

Ballet training, academic tuition, health care, all are free to students throughout their careers at the National Ballet School. Entry is competitive and based on physical attributes, suitability of attitude, musical sensibility. Parental support is essential if the students are to maintain strict standards, and the school recognizes that.

Have you shown To Dance Like A Man in Havana? What was the response?

It was important for me that the first showing of the film should be in Havana, with the people involved in the film. The film was selected for the Havana Film Festival. It was a great occasion, which I really enjoyed, and the doc was very well received. We scheduled a subsequent special showing in a huge cinema for all the students of the ballet school. The triplets performed an opening dance, and students were enthusiastic about the film.

Tell us about your plans for distribution. After the Dance on Camera festival premiere, what opportunities would our North American readers have to see the film?

I am hoping that the film will be acquired for distribution in the U.S., either via television broadcast or other means, so I am seeking suitable partners at the moment. I would be interested to hear of suggestions for distribution possibilities at: sc@pondpix.co.uk.

Thank you for introducing us to these charming and talented boys. Good luck with your next project.

To Dance Like A Man has its North American premiere on February 5 at the Dance on Camera festival, presented by Dance Films Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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Nadine Covert
Nadine Covert is a specialist in visual arts media with a focus on documentaries. She was for many years the Executive Director of the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA) and Director of its American Film Festival, then the major documentary competition in the U.S. She later became director of the Program for Art on Film, a joint venture of the J. Paul Getty Trust and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Covert has served on the board of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and is currently a consultant to the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).