Toba Singer takes a look at Mary Jane Doherty’s “Secundaria”, a documentary about ballet in Cuba, and finds much to take issue with…

A still from ‘Secundaria’.  All images © Mary Jane Doherty

A still from ‘Secundaria’.
All images © Mary Jane Doherty

Dr. Mary Jane Doherty, a Boston University Associate Film professor, says that the idea to make “Secundaria” came to her after reading about fourteen dancers’ defection from Cuba in 2006: “That’s how I learned there was dance in Cuba.” She filmed three ballet students for three years at Cuba’s National School of the Arts because, “I wanted to know how Cuba produces excellent dancers.”

The film opens with Doherty noting that in Cuba, “change is just around the corner” Her insider voice then assumes a scornful tone. It narrates a script filled with misinformation echoing the U.S. State Department’s judgment that Cuba is a dreary, pauperized nation, from which everyone is waiting to defect. Unlike Miami-based detractors, she doesn’t demonize. Instead she floats out what’s already on the airwaves.

The same question Doherty cites, stirred me. A timely suggestion from San Francisco Ballet’s Lorena Feijóo, prompted me to write a book about Fernando Alonso, who designed Cuba’s ballet training system. Despite the seeming similarity of our projects, their results couldn’t have been more dissimilar. I came to view the Cuban school as the living, breathing riposte to Jennifer Homans’ “Apollo’s Angels” lament that classical ballet is dying. Doherty saw it as the opportune setting for a tale about defection from a doomed system.

In November 2009, I was en route by train to the Toronto National Ballet of Canada School’s Assemblée International, where 14 ballet schools would present student choreography. The then-94-year-old Alonso would head Cuba’s delegation. As the Maple Leaf chugged into Niagara Falls, I noticed a new passenger telling border guards that she was on her way to a dance conference. Mentioning her film to me, Doherty said she planned to be at the weeklong Assemblée for a day and a half. I invited her to share a cab there. She said, “I usually walk.” Since she’d made the trip before, I assumed she knew her way not only to the ballet school, but around the world of dance, too.

The last time we spoke was in the cab we ended up sharing, so it came as a surprise when five years later, Doherty called me about the San Francisco Dance Film Festival screening of “Secundaria”.

The National School of the Arts teachers who had seen the Havana Film Festival screening of “Secundaria” expressed surprise that festival organizers had shown it. In an Art Fuse piece by Bill Marx, Doherty says, “I know the ballet program administrators in Cuba will be happy I’m telling the true story, the one they’re not allowed to tell themselves.” But she was wrong. Those administrators had given her full access to teachers, students and their families. She visited 21 times, and accompanied students to dance events in South Africa, Italy and Toronto. How had she used that access and time to show how the school trains and grooms them for professional careers? She hadn’t.

A flyer announced that San Francisco Ballet dancers Lorena Feijóo, Taras Domitro, Carlos Quenedit, and José Manuel Carreño, Artistic Director of Ballet San José, would speak after the screening, but only Feijóo and Carreño did.

Focusing on termites, Doherty, wonders how one can study ballet while living under “such conditions.” She presumes that ballet training in Cuba is akin to training in the U.S., a nation where under “such conditions,” one cannot. Doherty doesn’t mention the U.S.-imposed trade embargo from which “such conditions,” and the scarcities she lampoons, largely issue. Rather than present the Cubans’ inventiveness in the face of that embargo as evidence of their determination to remain independent of foreign domination, she ridicules it: Students laugh as they separate a pointe shoe’s toe box and shank from its satin outer layer to salvage good parts. In its broadest application, inventiveness is the secret to the arrival of Cuba’s dancers on the stages of the world’s best companies.

Doherty’s vision, shrouded in “First World” prejudices, bears the stamp: “Made in USA.” Her one-dimensional image is of dancers flattened into carbon copies of the bunhead caricature, with pre-show jitters, crafting fibs to parents about a post-show party – as frivolous as the U.S. stereotype of the privately educated, overindulged kids of the audience’s social set. Doherty dwells on income disparities to argue that, like in the U.S., where wealth forecasts opportunity, Gabriela Lugo, because her mother is a hotel bookkeeper, is better “positioned” to compete with Mayara Pineiro, whose single mother is jobless. Unlike in the U.S., however, all Cuban youth can study ballet and advance based on talent: economic extremes – with the Donald Trumps at the one end, and ballooning homelessness at the other – do not exist. Whatever the relative privileges, Cuban children are working class. The reason their U.S. equivalents don’t study ballet is that annual tuition here hovers upwards of $20,000. We see Mayara’s mother, Natividad, scrubbing tights by hand. Sixteen-year-olds engage in a contrived dialogue:

Secundaria 2

Mayara: My mother doesn’t have a nickel to buy bread.

Gabriela: Yes. Things are getting worse.

Despite real scarcities, and because Cuban workers do sacrifice, dance students receive the best care, free of charge, in ways that U.S. ballet students never do, not benefiting from a holistic approach that is the hallmark of Cuban training. Cubans know this to the marrow of their bones, but it is something that “Secundaria”, which pretends to pinpoint Cuban training, neither shows nor tells.

Doherty reveals that Mayara, age 17, defects from Toronto to Niagara Falls. It was Mayara’s own decision, she insists, without family or Doherty knowing or helping. Mayara, shown earlier crying and clutching a new stuffed teddy bear after falling out of her turns, and now having lunched with her group, excuses herself to use the restroom, but instead, crosses a bridge to New York, having bid her mother goodbye via a self-recorded video message. In a January 22, 2014, New York Time Out interview with Mayara Pineiro, dance critic Gia Kourlas asks, “Where were you when you made the video . . . at the [U.S.] detention center?” Pineiro says, “No, I was in the hotel bathroom. I felt like when we were going to Niagara Falls, it was my opportunity. I decided to film myself. So I was doing that for my mom, and I left that with all my stuff.”

Upon the students’ return, Doherty (having left the Assemblée after 36 hours) is at Havana’s Rancho Boyeros Airport, camera poised. She excuses unsteady footage, explaining that “shock” prevented her from “barely hold[ing] the camera upright.” Later, at a party, Doherty films Natividad, recording the verbal permission her underage daughter needs to remain in the U.S. Natividad then dances and sings a popular song. Scrubbed spotless of any serendipity, this sequence delivers all the faux-grit of a scripted reality show.

According to Doherty, the last straw came when, without advance warning, the school said it would take a 500-Euro competition prize Mayara wins in Italy in order to buy a new DVD player. In place of “react” quotes from Mayara in Italy, there’s a non-sequitur shot of her seated alone on a Havana curb.

Kourlas asks Mayara, “How did you feel when the school took the prize money you won in a competition?” Mayara says, “I felt bad, but at the same time I felt good. You have to do it, and you feel good when you do it, because you’re helping, it was for us…It’s weird because it’s like an obligation – almost.”

The National School does not tell students to hand over prize money. As Mayara explains, such donations are voluntary. Pressure to voluntarily gift what usually amounts to half the prize money doesn’t come from the school, but first-hand experience with the U.S. embargo, the biggest obstacle to acquiring leotards, tights, dance belts, pointe shoes, makeup, sets, and electronic equipment. In the recent $8.83 billion French BNP Paribas case, a third party country company was penalized for trading with Cuba. Nonetheless, students receive these items, their dance and academic educations, as well as lunch, free, each day. Doherty’s implicit comparison of the monetary worth of Cuban and U.S. dance and academic educations, and the social values that result, including the Cubans’ willingness to donate a portion of cash prizes to their school, misses the mark, and “Secundaria” becomes a cog in the embargo it never alludes to.

What about training quality? Doherty introduces Martha-Iris Fernández as the “most famous” teacher, and relies on the public’s ignorance of ballet rigor to portray her as relentless. Yet, when Kourlas asks Mayara, “Why do you think you were so successful at competitions?” Mayara says, “I had a really good teacher: Martha-Iris worked with me all the time, talking with me. She trusted me, and she worked really hard. She told me, ‘You have to work on your technique, feel it inside.’ She told me things that I remember every time I go onstage now. I had a lot of rehearsals with Fernando Alonso, too. I learned a lot from him. Fernando was an incredible teacher because everything he said was right. If you were doing something wrong, and he gave you a correction, you could do it better – it was like magic. He had very good eyes to see everything that was wrong. He was really sweet, but at the same time, really strong. Martha was really hard. The dancers were always nervous in front of her, because she was very picky, but that’s a good thing because we worked hard.”

  Though Doherty could have interviewed Alonso in Havana or Toronto (where he was an Assemblée keynote speaker), she evidenced no interest in the pedagogue whose curriculum trained the dancers she credits as her inspiration. Nor is there a glimpse into the yearly Encuentro Internacional de Academias de Ballet (International Ballet Academy Encounter), where schools convene with guests from other countries, to discuss and compare methodology, with master classes, workshops, and performances. It shows exactly how Cuba trains teachers who train stellar dancers.

Doherty also followed Gabriela Lugo and Moisés Noriega. Moisés, who is Afro-Cuban, works hard to become one of the school’s most accomplished dancers. Only Gabriela is among four in their class who receive Ballet Nacional contracts. A subtitle reads: “We heard off the record that Moisés is from the wrong race and class.” Doherty cites no source, and yet expects the audience to accept gossip as evidence that institutional racism deprived Moisés of a contract.

Racist laws enacted during the presence of U.S. corporations in Cuba upheld the same separate facilities of the segregated South. The 1959 revolution dismantled institutional racism, and while racist notions persist among some, there is a deliberate effort to improve the ratio of Afro-Cubans in jobs from which they were systematically excluded before 1959. There is only one class in power in Cuba – the working class. While some benefit from job-related privileges, neither the school nor company views anyone as being from the “wrong” class. To most Cubans, the “wrong” class is the one outside Cuba that has imposed the detested embargo. As for the composition of the 82-member national company, José Manuel Carreño emphasized what is much evidence in his own family, among who are some of Cuba’s most famous dancers – “We Cubans are a mix of races – European, indigenous, African and Asian.”

According to 2002 Official Census figures, 10% of Cubans are “Negro” (Black), 23% are “Mulatto,” (mixed race), 65% are “Blanco” (White) and 1.2 % are “Asiatico” (Asian). Approximately 20-25% of the current BNC’s roster are Afro-Cuban: First Dancer José Carlos Losada, Principal Character Dancer Leandro Pérez, Principal Dancer Verónica Corveas, First Soloist Luis David Valle, Corps de Ballet member and choreographer Lyvan Verdecia, as are such ex-members now with companies outside Cuba as Carlos Acosta, Yonah Acosta, and Osiel Gouneo. Viengsay Valdés, the most celebrated current female star is mulatto. Moisés joined the Havana-based Laura Alonso Ballet Company, and then the Cuban Television Ballet, and now dances with Ballet Revolución, a contemporary company that tours internationally, considered its foremost dancer.

In the U.S., where the percentage of African-Americans is 12.1, New York City Ballet, a company of 90, lists three Black dancers, none principals. Boston Ballet has four: three Afro-Brazilian, one African-American. None are principals.

Though Doherty claims the defection “became” the story, every scene sets us up for it. If your starting point is how Cuba creates great dancers, why do you end up shunting successes off to the side to ‘allow’ the defection of the most mercurial student to become “the story”? The early focus on Mayara and her family decodes Doherty’s cryptic opening gambit that “change is in the air.” The change turns out to be Mayara’s change of address. The story? “Here’s how a 17-year-old defected.”

After 17 days in a U.S. detention center, Mayara then danced with several European and U.S. companies. Had she instead defected to Canada or Spain, she could visit home unhindered by U.S. restrictions, but the U.S. grants Cubans expedited permanent residency.

Asked why Mayara wasn’t at the screening, Doherty said the star of “Secundaria” hadn’t come to the opening at ABT where reporters were waiting to interview her, and has declined to appear at subsequent screenings.

Doherty packs “Secundaria” with imperatives defined by the wealthiest in the United States, who avail themselves of little more than a middling dance education for their own children. She sets no such standard for U.S. working class families, nor those in other Caribbean countries where underdevelopment is more akin to pre-revolutionary Cuba’s, some of which have no ballet schools, others of which do, but where no impediments on the order of the U.S. embargo exist, and neither does training on a par with Cuba’s. Even in Miami, where former Cuban dancer/teachers have set up shop, no school produces dancers of the same caliber as Cuba’s. Instead of comparing best ways to teach, those teachers must compete with each other, capitalist-style.

“Secundaria” was not intended as a great documentary. So what is it? After 21 trips to Cuba, plus Italy, South Africa, and Canada, Doherty has spent a fortune to show us that wealth in the United States lures immigrants. Rather than spending great sums to belabor the obvious, couldn’t Doherty have gifted Cuba with pointe shoes? At least that would confirm that she has some stake in the prospects for classical ballet in or outside of Cuba.

“Secundaria”, a 2013 release by Mary Jane Doherty, was shown on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, at the Clay Theater in San Francisco by the San Francisco Dance Film Festival. Doherty’s follow-up film “Primaria” is slated for release later this year.

For trailers and stills from the documentary, see the Secundaria website