Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

Cuba: incubator of talented, world-class ballet dancers. Filmmaker Mary Jane Doherty set out to learn what makes their training so special. The recent Dance on Camera festival, copresented by Dance Films Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, premiered her documentary Secundaria in New York. Doherty followed a secondary-school class at Havana’s famed National School of Ballet over a three-year period, observing these dedicated teenagers as they study, train, rehearse, perform, and chatter with friends and family. Focusing principally on two girls—the shy and talented Mayara, from a poor family with a single mother, and the equally talented and extroverted Gabriela, who lives in a better neighborhood with her mother and father—and their friend Moisés, poor, black, who works hard to rise to the top of his class. Given carte blanche access, the filmmaker records these aspiring dancers at school, at home, and on tour, offering intimate glimpses of their successes, failures, and challenges. This absorbing and unscripted documentary culminates in a startling climax when Mayara makes a sudden, unanticipated decision to defect to the U.S. while on tour in Canada. Nadine Covert interviewed Mary Jane Doherty via e-mail.

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

I’m an associate professor of film at Boston University and have been teaching there for 23 years. I never expected teaching to be my fulltime job, but early on I discovered how much I love to teach; now it’s as central to my life as filmmaking. I’ve made dozens of mostly commissioned films. Then, several years ago, my teaching load eased, the dog died, my son safely fledged. Suddenly, I had the time and space to go back to my other true love: filmmaking. My goal now is to catch up with my astonishing students!

How did this film come about? Had you filmed in Cuba before?

I had never been to Cuba before, but—like many others in the U.S.—I had romantic notions of a vaguely illegal country filled with music and dance. In 2006 I read a short piece in the New York Times, something about “Fourteen Cuban ballerinas defect.” It struck me in a flash: beautiful bodies, Latin rhythms, decaying pastel-plastered walls—the sound and visuals are already in place! The movie will walk itself into my lens. Indeed, that’s sort of what happened. Also, I had just finished a cerebral, nonvisual film, so I was particularly adamant about finding a story with sensual elements at its base.

So, with only one contact, I jumped on a plane to Cuba, marched into the director’s office at the National Ballet School, and pitched my idea: to immerse myself in the dancers’ lives, focusing only on those moments about the process of learning to dance that could not be told in words. The director, Ramona de Saá, then and there gave me carte blanche access to students, their homes, and all classes. I had no prior idea about Cuban ballet or, for that matter, ballet itself. I did not know what the story would be about. The idea was to let the process of filming the teenagers determine the story. (Most documentaries, for good reason, start with a carefully planned treatment.)

Then, Lyda Kuth—she is a major philanthropic force in the New England arts community—stepped in to fund the travel expenses for this wild gamble. Lyda was and is the proverbial angel we’re all looking for.

Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

What was it like getting to know the students?

Astonishing in every respect. Such warmth, generosity, patience, tolerance. The students and their families did not protect their personal space the way we do here in the U.S. In order to get good sound, there were times when I was too close, the scene too intimate. One time I put the camera down and said, “You should tell me to stop filming.” The teenager said, “Why? You’re fine.”

The experience of working with the dancers grew more emotional with each trip. At first, I saw only a sea of beautiful young dancers; I couldn’t keep track of anyone’s name. Soon enough, though, their individual personalities emerged and we grew close. The dancers became less film subjects and more partners and deep friends. It was a thrilling experience to develop intimate relationships with some of the dancers, but also worrisome: I had an ever-increasing responsibility to make sure the filming process reflected their true selves.

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

Most, but not all, parents were eager to have their child profiled. I was careful from the very beginning to make sure the parents did not view this film as a pathway out: the teenagers would not be paid, there were no guarantees of anything, including whether or not a film would actually get made!

Do you speak Spanish? Were you able to communicate directly with students, families, and teachers?

Technically, no, I do not speak Spanish. But I knew a little, enough to communicate directly with students and families if I used my hands and jumped around a bit. Of course, we did not need to speak, since everyone understood that the focus of the film was on what the students DO, not what they SAY. I did have a Cuban friend nearby when filming the students in their homes, but he was not part of the filming process itself.

Gabriela Lugo Moreno
Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

You followed this class over three years. How much time did you spend visiting the school, getting to know the teachers and students, and actually filming?

I traveled to Havana every six to eight weeks, spending a week to ten days each visit. All told, I made 21 trips. But I began filming from the very first day. The students and teachers were introduced to me as a package deal: “Meet Mary Jane and her camera.” It was important that the dance community accept not just me but the film process itself: the students reflect the light rays, I gather them into my lens. We work together!

Did you do all the filming by yourself? Or did you have a crew with you at times?

Yes, I filmed every moment by myself, operating both camera and sound. So, in essence, I was the only crew member.

Did you travel with the students on tour, or were some of those scenes filmed by others?

I traveled on my own to each tour location. The students called me “Mary Poppins” because no matter where they traveled—South Africa, Italy, Toronto—I always seemed to “pop up.” There are no scenes in the movie filmed by anyone else, except for Mayara’s home video of herself in the mirror.

Did you receive any support from the Cuban authorities to make the film? Was it difficult to get the necessary permissions?

I did not receive financial support from any source, except for travel expenses from Lyda. Then again, I didn’t ask for any. The director of the Ballet School immediately understood the premise. She knew I was making a film, not writing a book, and that is why she loved the idea of my focus on sensual material only.

Several shooting sessions later, though, a high level Education administrator got wind of the project. Then we underwent a round-robin scramble of placatory meetings between the Ministers of Culture, of Education, of Press. Not one official had the authority to say “Yes.” But we found a crack in the circle somehow and, perhaps through sheer persistence plus Lyda Kuth’s formidable producer skills, we finally received a signed and stamped letter of approval from the Minister of Culture.

Most of the teachers understood the premise of the film and tolerated me weaving in and out of rehearsals and performances. For some, I believe they were gratified that their teaching skills received documentation. But not all teachers were amenable. To this day, one formidable teacher thinks I had something to do with Mayara’s defection. It’s difficult to explain to her that I was as stunned as everyone else!

Mayara de Jesús Piñeiro Cantillo
Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

Did you have any hint that Mayara was considering defecting?

No, I had no idea whatsoever. I was so shocked I could barely hold the camera upright. I am filming my dancers parade through the airport arrivals door and then, suddenly, the arrivals door shuts. I look up and realize “Mayara’s not here!” I had one of those classic blood-draining sensations. But, somehow, I stopped shaking and managed to film the mild chaos in the airport.

Why do you think ballet is so popular in Cuba?

Back in the 1950s, Alicia Alonso and [her then-husband] Fernando Alonso introduced classical ballet to Cuba, via their own Russian and American Ballet Theatre training. Alicia is the matriarch of the program to this day, even in her mid-90s. (Fernando died this past year, at age 98.) The Alonsos built the program and the audience, the ballet culture, by traveling the country tirelessly, providing workshops and exhibitions. Their work coincided with Fidel’s takeover and so ballet was folded into the revolutionary spirit.

Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

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

The National Ballet School is perceived by Cuban teenage dancers the way medical school is for U.S. students. It’s difficult to get into the program, but if you do, you’re virtually guaranteed some kind of job—either as a dancer or as a teacher of dance. Children, starting at age seven or eight, work their way through elite elementary ballet training schools just for the chance to be one of thirty or so chosen high school students.

Parents are very much a presence: helping out with makeup, meals, transportation, worrying and stewing during performances. (They are the Cuban version of our U.S. soccer moms!) Technically, the student’s skill alone determines her pathway, regardless of parental involvement. But, just like anywhere, the relationships the parents form with the teachers must help on some deep level.

There are no fees to attend the school. The entire educational process, from elementary through high school is state-supported.

Moisés León Noriega
Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

Have you shown Secundaria in Havana? What was the response of the students, teachers, and parents? Can it be shown publicly?

It was shown at the 35th Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano this past December. This festival is a big deal in the international film world, and, for me, it was nerve-wracking. It would be the first time the parents, students, and administrators would see the film. Sadly, due to travel and schedules, very few students or teachers portrayed in the film were actually in Havana at the time of the festival. So the screening could not, by definition, be the celebratory showcase event I had always imagined.

Responses were mixed. Some mothers were unhappy that I did not include their child. They asked, “Why follow Mayara, the one student who left early?” On the other hand, a well-known Cuban dance historian said that “I am still sobbing. Secundaria reaches my very soul.” A low-level administrator thought that the film was too political. This last remark I find ironic since not a few journalists in the U.S. wish the film included politics more overtly. You can’t win.

Tell us about your plans for distribution. Do you have a U.S. distributor yet, or one in Europe or Latin America?

We have not figured out a distribution pathway yet. The first year of release is devoted to festivals. We do have a Spanish-language version of the film. Bit by bit, we’re finding our small but potent audiences, those who respond to the story viscerally. And we’re learning more and more about Cuban-U.S. art organizations, where more conversations about the endlessly complex story that defines Cuba can take place. I believe this is where Secundaria belongs.

Courtesy Mary Jane Doherty

What’s next for you? Any more films in or about Cuba?

I just finished Primaria, another film shot at the same time as Secundaria. This story, following three young dancers from age eight onwards, is near and dear to my heart; it does not have the narrative drama of Secundaria, but it has something special and rare—the joy of witnessing young people emerge into ineffably beautiful young adults. (I say this because the children, in a sense, make the movie themselves—as if there’s no cameraperson or editor.) The entire process of filming and then editing Primaria was a gift, an exercise in pure joy.

What festival or other public screenings are coming up?

The next major festival is the FICCI in Cartagena, Colombia, this March (Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena 2014). Then our focus shifts to the official rollout of Primaria. We’ll continue to screen Secundaria, but upon invitation only.

Anything else you want our readers to know about this project?

Some viewers have asked whether I orchestrated any actions, or set up scenes. It’s important to me that people understand that was not the case. I shot every single moment on the fly, as it was happening. But this process is not quite the same as “observational filmmaking.” Instead, as I mentioned, my characters and I formed a relationship. My job was to convey this mutual respect to the audience through technically satisfying cinematography.

Most films about competitions are shot backwards; the filmmakers film the winners first and then film interviews after the fact. Later, when they edit the movie, they build a story around those interviews and make sure the audience is attached to the characters in the beginning. The competition itself then provides an appropriate pay-off for the story. This is a legitimate and practical approach for “competition films.”

But Secundaria is not a competition film. It did not matter who won, who lost—what matters is that we, the audience, feel warmly invited into every corner of the dancers’ world. So, for no logical reason, I began filming Mayara, Moisés, and Gabriela from the very beginning. It was sheer coincidence that I happened to pick Mayara, the one dancer who turned the story on its head.

So, I want the audience to trust the journey we go on together, since it’s essentially the engine of the story.

[Ed. Note: Mayara Piñeiro currently dances with the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Ballet.]

Thank you for your time. Good luck with the rollout of this film and with your next projects.

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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).