From Havana yesterday, August 27, came the sad news that Mirta Hermida, the headmistress of the Cuban National Ballet School, died of a heart attack after having spent an afternoon relaxing with colleagues and friends. Below is an interview with Hermida that I conducted on July 14, 2011, at the Centro ProArt in Querétaro, Mexico, during the Festival Iberica Contemporanea de Danza. Portions of the interview appeared in a longer article on the festival on the website criticaldance.com.
How did you get started dancing?
At first, I attended the Conservatorio Principal de Ballet in Havana and joined the Lyric Opera Ballet. We danced as a corps de ballet in operas such as Rigoletto, or operettas. Then the Ballet Nacional de Cuba merged with the Lyric Opera, and came under the direction of Fernando and Alicia Alonso, so I continued to dance in the corps de ballet of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
How was it that you became a teacher?
Understanding that dancers’ careers had a limited time span and usually ended at the age of 30, Fernando and Alicia taught us how to teach, even as we learned. And so, by the age of 19 I had begun teaching. This development of dancers simultaneously as teachers assured the continuity of the Cuban school and style for generations to come. It conferred the stamp of Alicia Alonso as a ballerina assoluta and her accomplishments on the company and school.
What lessons from Fernando Alonso remain with you today?
He was the one who was director of both the school and company, and in the 1978-79 season turned the school over to Ramona de Sáa. I have been side by side with her all the way, colleagues and friends for over 50 years.
What for me stands out about Fernando’s direction is the continuity of development we were able to achieve (with Ramona’s help). She developed the curriculum for the beginner students with my help. But Fernando has that eagle eye to this day, and continues to attend classes and rehearsals and help coach the girls, holding them to his high standards, to assure that we do not lose them. Cuba has created a system of teaching that she and others can carry across borders. It is a system that not only teaches students, but teaches students to teach, and she has received substantial recognition for her work.
Is Ramona’s work well recognized?
Oh, yes! She has taught in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Colombia, and a little bit in Venezuela, where she has introduced the Cuban method to broader and broader layers of students internationally.
Do you have concerns that because a number of dancers have left Cuba that there will not be a sufficient number remaining to continue teaching in generations to come?
Because our students receive a firm base in the Cuban school, which has taken the best from the Russian, English, North American, French and Danish traditions, our dancers are able to go anywhere in the world—as we have seen with Lorna Feijoo in Boston, Lorena Feijoo in San Francisco, Carlos Acosta in London and José Manuel Carreño in New York, and bring an amplified experience back to Cuba, without losing the values of the school and our pedagogy.
Do Cubans resent the fact that everyone in Cuba invests at a high cost in the future of its dancers, and then sometimes they leave for other companies so that audiences in other countries get to enjoy the fruits of Cuba’s labor?
Not at all. This enriches us! Everyone broadens their horizons. Schools and companies in other countries see what we do and we see what they do, and we have demonstrated our capacity to absorb all of it without losing who we are. We have nothing to fear from such exposure. This year is the 50th anniversary of our school, During Holy Week we will have our usual Encuentro de Academias, but to celebrate our 50th birthday, we will also have a special international competition, and we are inviting students from all over the world to join us in this event.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.