A couple weeks ago, I went to see New York City Ballet's Tribute To Robbins, which featured Warren Carlyle's lovely restaging of Jerome Robbins' Broadway choreography. But as the number from The King and I began, I felt a familiar discomfort.
I rolled my eyes at the faux-Thai headdresses and the "exotic" musical motifs—irritations transferred from the musical, whose Orientalist tendencies are well-documented. But my disappointment doubled as I realized that I have never seen a ballet choreographed by an Asian American on that stage.
I left frustrated and confused. As a young dancer and Filipino American, I look up to performers and choreographers who share my Asian-American heritage. Where are they?
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.