From the moment Eileen Hofer first heard about Alicia Alonso – the prima ballerina assoluta, choreographer and close friend of Fidel Castro’s, born in 1920 in Havana, who hit hard times early on in life – she was immediately fascinated by the story of this woman’s life. The gifted dancer was just 19 when she was diagnosed with irreversible retinal detachment. Although strongly advised to stop dancing, Alicia Alonso decided to choose her own path. The path towards her passion, her destiny. Instead of giving up in the face of progressing blindness, she learned to find her bearings on the stage by using the spotlights. This was an immense challenge not only for her, but also for her dance partners, who always had to stand in exactly the same place to make sure they could catch her when she jumped. She made her big break on the international scene with her debut role in Gisele in 1943. Five years later she founded what was initially the private academy “Ballet Alicia Alonso”, which she has been running as the state-subsidised Ballet Nacional de Cuba since the Cuban revolution of 1959.
Of discipline and passion
Inspired by this universal theme of success by overcoming disability and adversity to follow one’s dream, 40 year-old film director Eileen Hofer decided to travel to Cuba and seek out Alicia Alonso. “At the time”, she says, “I hadn’t planned to include her in the film. My purpose was to talk to her about her influence on Cuban ballet”. Originally she meant to draw up a portrait of three different kinds of dancers, then gradually the idea of making Alicia Alonso one of the protagonists, and focusing on three ballerinas of different generations, ripened. The result is a poetic documentary that comes alive with beautiful shots, and paints an authentic and captivating picture of the lives of these Cuban ballerinas at very different stages in their careers. Alicia Alonso represents the past – the prima ballerina assoluta who has reached all her goals and carries on dedicating her knowledge and her heart to ballet. The present is embodied by 35-year-old Viengsay Valdés, the current prima ballerina of the Cuban national ballet, who has honed her body and its movements to perfection but who is also having to contend with the first signs of physical decline. Fourteen-year-old Amanda with her humble origins is also beguiling and one of the most promising young talents in the country. The camera follows these three women’s every-day life as a silent observer. It captures their daily efforts to attain ultimate grace and perfection as they fight the pain in their sometimes battered bodies, but also their quiet and personal moments. It watches Alicia Alonso in her private quarters, in the ballet room, and in her public appearances, where the people hail her like a national hero. Horizontes depicts hopes and dreams, but also courage and passion. Every single angle and take in the film is an intoxicating work of art in its own right. An almost sensual backdrop is provided by the antiquated practice rooms with their flaking plaster, and the characteristic colourfulness and charm of Cuba, a country that for decades has been following its own path, cut off from the rest of the world.
Filming in Havana
Horizontes was shot in three instalments in Havana, in 2012 and 2013. This masterpiece was achieved with only one cameraman, one assistant and one locally-sourced sound technician. The filming there was quite a challenge and could hardly be described as plain sailing. The practically non-existent Internet connection, the lack of mobile phones, the recurring power cuts, and the government officials hovering in the shadows were just a few of the obstacles that forced the crew to sharpen their improvisation skills. Yet the Swiss–Lebanese director with Turkish origins says that’s exactly the sort of work she loves. This provides excitement and the freedom to come up with new ideas and to try something different.
The stars lined up
The fate of Horizontes was dangling by a thread though, because when it came to post-production, the money had run out. In her search for sponsorship in 2013, Eileen Hofer contacted Geneva private bank Union Bancaire Privée, and this marked the start of a wonderful collaboration. “From the word go”, Eileen Hofer recalls, “there was this compassion towards me that I’ve rarely seen”. After the first meeting with Bernard Schuster, Global Head of Corporate Communications at UBP, everything went very fast. She had to endure just 24 hours of waiting before she heard the good news. “We were immediately enthused by the Horizontes project”, says Bernard Schuster, “and of course we were happy that, being a family-owned business, we were able to react very quickly and pledge our support to Eileen Hofer for the last step in the completion of her film”. The renowned private bank, which was founded by Edgar de Picciotto in 1969 and is still run by his family today, is not given to ostentatiousness. UBP, which has offices at the prestigious address Bahnhofstrasse 1 in Zurich, has been a discreet philanthropist for many years, working behind the scenes. Whether it comes to sponsoring Camerata Venia, an orchestra of young musicians, or funding many other cultural causes, return on investment is no object for UBP. “For us it’s much more important to foster young talent”, explains Bernard Schuster. Likewise, for Eileen Hofer UBP is much more than just a money-provider. She values the personal contact, indeed the close relationship and support she gets, and compares her sponsor to a parent guiding its child every step of the way. This parent has not only promoted Horizontes, but also organised premieres both in Geneva and Zurich this year.
Omara Portuondo and Russian Salad
Enthralled by Eileen Hofer’s work, which has received many awards over the years, UBP has decided to support two more of her short films. One of them is Nuestro Mare – which was presented at last year’s short-film festival in Winterthur and won the prize for best Swiss film – another wonderful movie, also shot in Havana, starring no other than Omara Portuondo, the only female artist featured on the album Buena Vista Social Club. It was when she happened to be staying at the same address as the Grande Dame in Havana that Eileen Hofer managed to grab her in the lift and get her on board her project before they had completed their 15-storey ride. The director is now putting the finishing touches to another release: a short film titled Russian Salad, in which Eileen Hofer brings together six people from different countries of the former USSR to tell their personal histories and experiences in their homelands. It’s a film about the break-up of the Soviet Union, and reunification around a table with six litres of vodka and a huge spread of traditional dishes. Excitement ahead!
Text: Anka Refghi, Photos: film stills from Horizontes, by Justin Hession
Extract from “Magazine Zürcher Bahnhofstrasse” – July 2016