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Painter of Stage: Q&A with Ballet Choreographer Ma Cong

In demand worldwide and a rising star in dance, Chinese choreographer Ma Cong is in town to launch his world premier of “Acceptance” at the Sacramento Ballet’s three-part production of Wild Sweet Love, playing this Valentines Day weekend from February 13th-16th . Cong’s piece, which he describes as “very intense and very physical,” is one of a trio of ballets that center on the complexity of love. Cong has an eighteen year career as a dancer, eleven of which he was both dancer and choreographer.  Last May, he gave up dancing to focus solely on choreography. He has an impressive array of recognitions and awards, including being named Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” and receiving the Choo-San Goh award for choreography in 2007. His choreographic works are well-received by both audiences and critics worldwide.

I got a backstage pass on Tuesday night to meet with Cong during the intermission of a dress rehearsal for the show. I was impressed at the caliber of his talent and the degree of passion he has for what he does. His piece is moving and visually stunning, and, yes, very intense. The production is remarkable and well worth seeing. I sat down with Cong to discuss his piece, his passion, and what the process of creating art on stage is like from a choreographer’s perspective.

Bethany Harris: Tell me about Acceptance.

Ma Cong: This work is a brand new work I created. I finished the work in eight days with a company, which is a pretty fast process. It’s a very intense and very physical work based on how humans try to find their life path and find their lifeline and find each other. And how they have a certain moment and also very, very dramatic, passionate moment and how they end up together in the end. So there is a lot of texture in it.

The work—why I call it “Acceptance”—doesn’t mean “I’m feeling comfortable.” Why I call it “Acceptance” is because I accept what music is telling me, what music is inspiring me. The work is very musical. Every step has a little catch, has a little texture…For the dancers, it’s quite challenging because if they miss one step they will miss the entire combination. So it’s very, very challenging for them mentally. Also I insert of a lot of element and culture from my background. I grew up learning Chinese Folk Dance, so I mix both Eastern culture and Western culture. I find this collaboration very interesting. This is my goal in my choreography as well. It’s almost like my signature. I like to insert both Eastern and Western cultures together.

B: You talk about the music. I think of the art of ballet as the human body telling a story. How does the music and the human body work together to tell a story?

M: Right, there are quite a lot of different groups of sections. They are coming from trio, pas de duex–which is dancing by two–and pas de six–which is three couples, six people. So when you watch this work you will have a very clear sense that it’s the magic of the music telling you this is sort of like a painting in your mind. This is how I understand music. It’s hard to explain. [It’s like] going to a museum and you ask your friend, “What is this painting about?” Ten different people will say ten different things. This is why I create this work. Because after they see it I want them to take away a sense of their personal experience—how they understand their pieces throughout their life experience. So people might say, “Oh my, this is so intense. This is my love.” Or some people might say, “Oh my, look at their hands touch. It’s just like me and my fiancé when we got engaged.” So it’s about 22 minutes of work and packed with a lot of stuff.

B: How do you create that? What’s the process of creating a dance?

M: I start to search for the music. Music is the first thing. Music is my biggest inspiration. Sometimes I start with a concept first or a movement first and put it to music later. But almost 80-90% of the time I go with music first. So I choose good music that can inspire me and I listen to it a thousand times so I can put it in my mind, almost like a recording in my head that I can see. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I have this image, like a dance image—this craziness is going on—so I have to wake up and write it down. And later on, I don’t use it unless I know the dancers well enough. But if I don’t know the dancers well enough, I will leave it as a blank canvas, then come to the studio to get to know all the dancers. Because everyone has their own personality on stage so I create it special for them.

B: That’s fascinating! That process is something only a true artist could do.

M: Yeah, it’s almost like a vision, like something you see and it’s there, but not there yet. You just want to develop it to there.

B: You really are a painter on stage.

M: Absolutely. Did you see the Summer Olympic games, the open ceremony in Beijing in 2008? There was a section with all the artists, dancers, and gymnasts, and they put colored ink on their feet and hands and they leave an entire canvas on the floor. They dance on it to draw a beautiful picture. So this is sort of like the process I’m going through.

B: Tell me about your decision to go from dancer to choreographer. For a while you were doing both, but you retired from dancing and are doing only choreography now. Why did you transition from dancer to choreographer?

M: It’s because the choreography opportunity has gotten very, very busy…To be a dancer you have to be in a company pretty much full time and it’s really hard to mange both my feet in two different careers. It came to the point that I got really frustrated. I had to focus on one or the other. I’ve been doing this for almost 11 years as a choreographer while still dancing, so it came to the point last year in May that I finally decided this is the best moment to hang up my ballet shoes. I’m just going to focus on my choreography career so I can put a lot of energy to it while I’m still young. I want to produce a lot of great works for the dance community.

B: How did your experience as a dancer help you in choreographing?

M: It’s what I learned from those 18 years of a professional dancing career—4 years with National Ballet of China and 14 years with the Tulsa Ballet. I danced with many, many repertoires and worked with all different kinds of choreographers and dancing directors. They gave me such a great source of understanding and knowledge and inspiration to be able to have this great input for building up my choreography career.

B: What was it like to have the roles reversed–to go from a dancer and being instructed to a choreographer and instructing?

M: You know it’s very funny you ask that because I just talked to a friend of mine. [I started] in 2003 being a choreographer and it’s a completely different feeling, because when you are a dancer you are facing the mirror only. You are trying to fix what’s wrong with you. But when you are a choreographer, you are against a mirror. You are looking at the entire company, entire dancers—you are facing 30-40 dancers or even more—so you’re not dealing with yourself only. You are taking care of the entire floor, you are taking care of their feelings, taking care of their technique, taking care of your artistic goal. And there are a lot of things I learned from these 11 years of being choreographer. It’s a completely different feel, different perspective.

B: What do you believe the role of a choreographer is?

M: A choreographer needs to have a very, very sharp eye and very, very unique language to be able to show your work in a unique way. A big responsibility for a choreographer is how you want to use your choreography language and how you want to use your skill set and your ability to inspire dancers and use you choreography to make them push their boundaries to their limit. It’s a very, very interesting career. I enjoy it very much.

B: What should the audience know about the show before they go?

M: It’s called Wild Sweet Love so every production put on stage means something. This entire evening is talking about love and humility and also talking about relationships. That’s why I think the company directors, Ron [Cunningham] and Corrine [Binda], tried to put it at Valentines time. It gives everybody a little bit of a treat, a little bit of everything. Love can be intense, love can be very dramatic, love can be sweet, love can be wild. So when people come to see the show I don’t think they have to be prepared. Just like when you go to a wine tasting, you don’t have to be prepared for wine tasting, right? When you go there you just enjoy the wine. You enjoy how it tastes. If its Merlot, if it’s Cabernet, if its Chardonnay. They are all quite different wines. So that’s like this show. It’s exactly the same. ♦


See the world premiere of “Acceptance” at the Sacramento Ballet’s production Wild Sweet Love at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 13th – Saturday, February 15th and at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 16th at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L Street, Sacramento. Tickets are $19-70. To learn more about the Sacramento Ballet’s upcoming events, visit their website at www.sacballet.org.

Painter of Stage: Q&A with Ballet Choreographer Ma Cong via @sacramentopress

About the author

Bethany Harris

Bethany joined Sacramento Press in 2013 and enjoys writing articles that uncover the happenings of the city and the people behind the stories who make them so worth telling. A native of Sacramento, she also loves photography, running, gardening, coffee, and discovering new places and new things to do--both in the city and throughout California.

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