Every Broadway debut is the culmination of a journey. But for Ma Cong, who makes his this week as choreographer of the revival of David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning play M. Butterfly, the trip has had as many improbable twists as the plot of a Peking Opera.
It's the tale of a provincial boy whose dance talent takes him from Yunnan to study in China's capital city, where he catches the eye of a powerful leader. She nudges him out of classical Chinese dance and into an alien form called ballet, then sends him to a faraway country to compete with other outsiders. There, he's invited to dance in another place, Tulsa, and the young man leaves behind the world he knows to discover not only a new land, but who he really is. And, 18 years later, at 40, he's a U.S. citizen with a blooming choreography career, a husband, twin boys on the way and a Broadway show that partners him with director Julie Taymor, one of his idols.
M. Butterfly, Hwang's meditation on the West's relations with the East, intertwines Puccini's 19th-century romantic opera Madama Butterfly with a bizarre case of 20th-century espionage. In 1983, French police arrested a foreign service official who'd passed documents to his longtime Chinese lover, a Peking Opera star whom he believed—mistakenly—to be a woman. The play begins in a Paris jail cell but travels back to 1960s China as the Frenchman, played by Clive Owen, searches his memory for understanding.
Hwang has revised the play to incorporate revelations that were not known in 1988, when it opened, and Taymor has made room for a choreographer—the original production had relied on "Peking Opera consultants." But he or she would have to be a remarkable amalgam: a choreographer with deep knowledge of the intricate gestures, stylized gaits and acrobatic combat conventions of traditional Peking Opera who was also at home with classical Western ballet technique and familiar with the flashy heroics of the ballets of China's Cultural Revolution. Hwang and Taymor asked former Houston Ballet dancer Li Cunxin (who defected from China and wrote about his life in Mao's Last Dancer) if he had any ideas. He did: Ma Cong.
"It's unbelievable," says Ma, whose given name is Cong but who retains the Chinese custom of preceding it with the family name. "You think the world is so big, but actually it's really small...I never thought I would get an opportunity to choreograph on Broadway. And then, I thought, 'Oh my god, am I really getting to work with Julie Taymor?' Lion King is one of my favorite Broadway shows."
The play intersects with Ma's life in ways large and small. Growing up, Ma knew the classic Peking Operas, like The Butterfly Lovers and The Legend of the White Snake, which are sampled in M. Butterfly. The classical dance vocabulary he studied in Beijing is rooted in Peking Opera. During his four years with the National Ballet of China, he danced many roles in The Red Detachment of Women, one of the famous "Red ballets" that replaced classical fare during the Cultural Revolution. So he felt prepared when Taymor told him she wanted one for M. Butterfly at the Cort Theatre. "But the challenge was using my own language to choreograph it while remaining true to the very special style of the time."
Another challenge was finding the dancers: "They have to have all the skills—a very, very good ballet technique and a martial arts background. They have to tumble, and have experience working on Broadway, because we have to use them in some scenes as actors." And the four dancers in the budget look like a Red Army regiment in the ballet section. "I use rich, powerful formations and stylized shapes and poses so that it doesn't look like four dancers."
Working on M. Butterfly took Ma back to his past in other ways, too. "There's a line in the play—'Comrade, there's no homosexuality in China'—that really got me," he says. "It's one of the reasons I left China. I love my home country, but at that time, I was never able to explore the truth about myself. Truly, I was living a lie. Coming to the U.S., I had the freedom to really explore myself. I fell in love with a beautiful, wonderful person. We got married in January." He recalls that when he first arrived in Tulsa, it was all so strange that he was tempted to return home. He stuck it out, he says, because of what he was learning in the Tulsa Ballet studio: "Every day I danced something different." Ultimately, he became a principal, then a choreographer and now, he says, "I'm just really, really living a dream."