Mayara Pineiro talks about her journey from Cuba to the U.S.

Mayara Pineiro, a talented student at Cuba’s National Ballet School, is showcased in a new documentary at Dance on Camera

Mayara Pineiro; Davit Hovhannisyan; Milwaukee Ballet; The Nutcracker

Mayara Pineiro; Davit Hovhannisyan; Milwaukee Ballet; The Nutcracker Photograph: Petr Zahradnicek

When the Dance on Camera festival returns to Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater for its 42nd installment, one highlight will be Mary Jane Doherty's Secundaria, which follows a class at Cuba's National Ballet School. The star dancer is Mayara Pineiro; on a company tour, she crosses the border at Niagara Falls and defects to the United States. Four years later, Pineiro—now a member of Milwaukee Ballet—talked about her journey from the Cuba to the U.S.

The Cuban ballerina Mayara Pineiro was just a teenager when director Mary Jane Doherty made her a subject of the documentary Secundaria. The focus is on Cuba’s National Ballet School, which has turned out accomplished dancers for decades; much credit can be given to ballet master Fernando Alonso, who died last summer and is also included in the film. But the revelation is Pineiro, who, at 17, became the first National Ballet School student to defect to the United States. Now 21 and a member of the Milwaukee Ballet, she will attend this week’s Secundaria screening, presented as part of Dance on Camera. 

Why did you start dancing?
I started dancing when I was three years old because my mom loved ballet and everything that had to do with dance. But my professional training took place when I was nine until 17.

Were you taking real dance classes at age three? 
Yes. Ballet and a Spanish class. I didn’t know that I was good at ballet, but I just loved it from the beginning; I worked really hard to get things right. When I’m dancing, I feel like I can express myself. It’s just different when I’m dancing. The whole world is about me.

When did you audition for the National Ballet School?

I was eight years old. It was hard, and I was really nervous, but I guess I knew I would get it, because I was really secure in what I was doing. They were watching me a lot. [Laughs] Before, I took private classes four times a week with different teachers.

What were those first couple of years like in the school?
I worked really hard, and I learned fast. I was always practicing, turning, doing everything full-out every time. They love that.

What did you want at that time? What were you striving for?
I worked hard to be a principal dancer in the Ballet National of Cuba. I always loved to see the big dancers on the stage doing all that stuff—technically and artistically. I wanted to be like that so I worked hard for the big roles and to be on the stage. I loved Don Q [Quixote] and Swan Lake. Those were my dreams.

When did you start competitions?
My first competition was in 2007. Actually, when I was in elementary school, I won a competition, but it’s not in the film. It was an international competition two years before, and I won third place and nobody expected that. Only four girls from my class were able to go to the competition. I didn’t expect that either. [Laughs] I was surprised. I guess I was 14 years old, and [after that] I got big with the whole school, the whole country, and it was really a surprise for me. That was my first competition. And when I was in the National Ballet School of Cuba, I won the silver medal. But in that one, I was really secure in what I was doing, and my teacher, Martha Iris Fernández, worked with me very hard. 

Why do you think you were so successful at competitions?
I think it’s because when I go to the stage, I do everything that I’ve rehearsed in the studio, and when I dance, I give my best. Because of that, people love what I’m doing. I had a really good teacher when I was in the school: 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, you have to dance, you have to 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 he was really strong. Martha was really hard. All the dancers were always nervous in front of her, because she was very picky, but that’s a good thing because we worked hard.

What was your next competition?
It was when I was in the National Ballet School with Martha Iris. I did Esmeralda, Kitri [in Don Quixote] and Le Corsaire variation. I won second place, but that was really hard too; we had months to get ready, but I wasn’t taken for it in the beginning. My mom asked Martha Iris if I was good enough to go to the competition, and she said, “Who’s your daughter?” And my mom said, “It’s Mayara.” And she said, “Mayara will go to the competition, but later; she works really hard, and I like to work with her,” so after everybody was ready, she told me, “I will start to work with you now.” I was behind everybody, but I worked really hard every day until 9pm, and she prepared me a lot. I won the second place. I was surprised.

The same year you entered a competition in Italy. Tell me about that.
That experience was really good. We were four couples, and I was doing Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. But before that, I went to a national competition in Cuba, and I didn’t pass the first round.

That’s the one documented in the film, right?
Yeah. I was really sad and disappointed, but it wasn’t my fault. I had twisted my ankle, and my teacher said, “You have to dance because your partner has to compete. But don’t worry about that, you’ll be fine.” [Laughs] My ankle was swollen. I had stopped dancing for one month. Everyone was rehearsing, and I wasn’t doing anything. But after that competition, they picked me to go to Italy with the same pas de deux. I told myself, “You have to do it this time, you have to dance well, you have to get it.” So I worked hard for that, and I went to Italy and danced in the competition and I won. That was a relief; I was really nervous; I danced the same pas de deux, the same steps, and when I did it, I was so happy with myself. I remember looking at my teacher, and she was happy too.

What happened next?
After that, with my teacher, I went to Peru for a festival. We were the only couple taken from the school, and I danced Le Corsaire with my partner, Jonah Fernandez. I was in Peru for one week for a festival.

As a ballet student, you got to travel quite a bit, right? 
Yes. I went to South Africa, Peru and Canada. In November of 2009, we went to Canada for a festival—it was the 12 best schools in the world, and it was a choreography competition, so I went there with Fernando Alonso; Mirta Hermida; Ramona de Sáa, the director of the national school; and four couples. My teacher [Martha Iris] wasn’t there. We did Majisimo at the festival, and I did all my performances. I didn’t miss any rehearsals or anything; the whole group danced well. On the last day, we went to Niagara Falls to have dinner, and I don’t know—I guess I had in my mind an idea to not come back to Cuba. So when I was in Niagara Falls, I saw a bridge from the restaurant. I could see everything. I saw that it was my opportunity to go, and I did. 

I told my friends I had to go to the bathroom. There was a buffet, so you could take food and go back to the table and all that—everybody was all around. I said, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and my friends came with me.

Oh, no!
I know. I was like, Oh my God. When they came back to the table I stayed. And then I left. I went to the bridge and crossed it taking pictures. When the bridge finished, I was in the office with the police and immigration; I asked for political asylum. They were freaking out because I was 17. I was nervous too; I didn’t understand anything, not even hello. I started crying and saying, “I cannot go back, because if I go back, I can get in trouble.” They were gentle; they treated me well.

Was it a spontaneous decision?
It was. I didn’t realize what was going to happen after. It was something where you really don’t know what you’re doing. It was like a dream.

Did any of your friends know?
I told one of my friends. I said, “I will leave—don’t say anything.” She didn’t believe me. I left all my stuff on the table. Nobody believed me. Everybody said, “Oh, she’s joking.”

When you walked over the bridge, you took pictures—was that so you would appear like a tourist?
Yes. It was beautiful. And I saw a lot of people crossing at the same time taking pictures, too, so I was like, I’ll do the same.

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