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Espionage, Acrobatics and Ballet: Ma Cong on Choreographing M. Butterfly's Broadway Revival
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."
One of the biggest myths about ballet dancers is that they don't eat. While we all know that, yes, there are those who do struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, most healthy dancers love food—and eat plenty of it to fuel their busy schedules.
Luckily for us, they're not afraid to show it:
Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
What does a superstar like Carlos Acosta do after bidding farewell to his career in classical ballet? In Acosta's case, he returns to his native country, Cuba, to funnel his fame, connections and prodigious energies back into the dance scene that formed him. Because of its top-notch, state-supported training programs and popular embrace of the art of dance, Cuba is brimming with talented dancers. What it has been short on, until recently, are opportunities outside of the mainstream companies, as well as access to a more international repertoire. That is changing now, and, with the creation of Acosta Danza, launched in 2016, Acosta is determined to open the doors even wider to new ideas and audiences.
There's so much more to the dance world than making and performing dances. Arts administrators do everything from raising money to managing companies to building new audiences. With the growing number of arts administration programs in colleges, dancers have an opportunity to position themselves for a multifaceted career on- or offstage—and to bring their unique perspective as artists to administrative work.
While Solange was busy helping big sis Beyoncé give Coachella its best performances of all time, an equally compelling project was quietly circulating on Instagram:
New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
In the world of ballet, Arcadian Broad is a one-stop shop: He'll come up with a story, compose its music, choreograph the movement and dance it himself. But then Broad has always been a master of versatility. As a teenager he juggled school, dance and—after the departure of his father—financial responsibility. It was Broad's income from dancing that kept his family afloat. Fast-forward six years and things are far more stable. Broad now lives on his own in an apartment, but you can usually find him in the studio.
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.