Behind The Scenes with Ma Cong: “Lift The Fallen”
April 29th, 2014
Chinese-born choreographer Ma Cong returned to Richmond for two weeks in April to begin work on his new ballet, Lift The Fallen. Within that short period, the Richmond Ballet dancers learned the entirety of the new work, setting the stage for a brilliant Studio Three.
Take a look behind the scenes as Ma Cong rehearses the dancers for Lift The Fallen.
Rehearsal this morning calls for work on the ballet’s opening pas de deux. The studio is largely empty, save for the small handful of dancers who will be working with the visiting choreographer, and two strands of pure white, elasticized fabric that are cascading from the rafters like streams of water. Ma Cong approaches the two couples standing at the center of the room, and begins to speak. But more so than with his words, he speaks through the movements of his upper-body and arms, both of which are beautifully expressive, molded by years of classical training. His arms speak to a feeling, to a deep love that lives within not only his muscles, but within his soul. Ma Cong’s new ballet, Lift The Fallen, set to premiere on May 13, charts the choreographer’s own reckoning with the loss of his mother. It is his memory of her and his love for her that forms the beating heart of this new work, itself an element of the choreographer’s grieving and healing process.
The dancers wait patiently as Ma consults notes on his iPhone before delving further into rehearsal. This is not a frequent occurrence – the ballet is firmly within his head, and already very much a part of his body. As the dancers begin to work, in their bare feet, they become intertwined in the cascading fabric, and it stretches and pulls as they move closer together and then further apart. The image is clean, elegant, innovative.
Despite the ballet’s tragic inspiration, rehearsals are nonetheless light-hearted, peppered with Ma’s happy and bubbly laugh. In one particular moment of levity, the dancers begin to engineer a complicated, rotating lift that, from a distance, resembles something of a helicopter – it always makes one pay attention when phrases start with “for your safety” in the context of a ballet studio. It is taking five minds and bodies to negotiate its mechanics, but clearly, once all is settled, both Ma and the dancers are pleased.
Rehearsal now moves along to one of the ballet’s larger group sections, and it’s the men that lead it off. Set to the powerful music of Max Richter’s Memoryhouse album, the opening pass across the floor rips at such a speed that most of the company’s men are left in fits of laughter, having to navigate traffic patterns at break-neck speeds. However, in an instant, they have formed a revolving ring that covers the entirety of the stage, infusing the work with weight, matching the soaring emotional music with their impressive leaps and bounds.
The day closes with yet another group rehearsal, with the ballet’s entire cast of 12 dancers. Ballet Master Jerri Kumery has joined Ma for this rehearsal, and as she stands behind him, mimicking his words with her body, as though she is absorbing his language into her arms and legs. Fellow Ballet Master Malcolm Burn remains seated by the stereo, playing the role of maestro once more, the keeper of counts. Oftentimes the sound of his steady counting can be heard over the quiet, trembling of the music, forming a baseline of sorts that propels the rehearsal forward.
Ma begins with a series of poignant movements that are infused with his Chinese heritage, as well as his pain and hope. Elegant and emotional, the steps are weaving together in a heartbreakingly beautiful pattern, paying homage to the folk dances of his homeland and to the great love for the woman whom he calls “his best and and most beloved friend.” Ma plays every role, and demonstrates every step. Yet, every now and then, Ma steps back, and carefully observes the full breadth of the work. He puts his hands just under his chin, and a joyful, youthful smile breaks out across his face. Ma is happy. No doubt, his mother would have been as well.
Photo: Richmond Ballet in rehearsal for Lift The Fallen by Ma Cong. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.