Dancers & Companies

Espionage, Acrobatics and Ballet: Ma Cong on Choreographing M. Butterfly's Broadway Revival

Jin Ha and company of M. Butterfly. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Polk & Co.

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.

Choreographer Ma Cong. Photo by Chris Humphrey, Courtesy Polk & Co.

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.

Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M. Butterfly. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Polk & Co.

"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."

Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Polk & Co.

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."

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From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at

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