Film: “Secundaria”—A Complex Portrait of Dancers in Training


Filmmaker Mary Jane Doherty set out to learn what makes the training for Cuba’s talented, world-class ballet dancers special. The recent Dance on Camera festival, co-presented 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. Here are excerpts from Nadine Covert’s interview with the director:

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.

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

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. [. . .] 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.

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.

For full article and interview, see

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