Working with Choreographer Ma Cong: A Q & A with Madison Morris

Guest writer: Sarah Lam, public relations intern

Ma Cong, Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer and principal dancer, has swiftly risen to become one of America’s most exciting choreographers. He has created many works for Tulsa Ballet and received various awards including 1st prize and Audience Favorite in the 21st Century Choreographic Competition in 2008. Recently, he choreographed an original piece for Houston Ballet II. We chatted with Houston Ballet II dancer Madison Morris to find out about what it was like working with Cong and get the scoop on his new work they will unveil at their Academy Spring Showcase, April 16-17.

How long have you been dancing with Houston Ballet’s Academy?
Five years.

I understand that a choreographer traveled to Houston to create a new piece for Houston Ballet II. Can you tell me about that
Sure. Ma Cong came to Houston in the fall, before The Nutcracker, to work on setting a piece for us. Then he came back for 3 days at the end of March to clean it up, fine-tune, and finish it.

What’s the piece called?
It’s called Calling.

When is it going to be performed?
In our Spring Showcase this Friday and Saturday. Also, when we tour Germany April 21-27 for five shows.

Had you seen any of Cong’s work before he arrived in Houston
We were all curious and looked on YouTube, but it was still difficult to know what to expect because some of his work was on flat, some on pointe. One thing that I noticed that was so unique about his pieces was the music he used.

What music is Calling set to?
It’s set to music by Goran Bregovic and Kroke. He told us he heard it on Chinese iTunes and was struck by inspiration!

What is Calling about?
Good question! It goes through a lot of different emotions. The first movement is very dramatic and sets the mood. The second act is more fun and playful. He told us it’s more of a flamenco feel. Then the third movement is back to serious and dramatic but at the end it shifts into a very fast pace.

So it’s a modern piece?
Yes. We’re not in pointe shoes. We wear ballet flats.

How many dancers is it choreographed for?
Three girls and three boys. The first movement is mainly about the boys then the girls come on later.

What would you say is unique about Calling?
It’s a really unique style and really fun to learn. Actually, it reminded me of a piece we danced last year called Journey. It’s fun to dance something in a style that’s different from classical ballet–more modern with different movement.

What makes Calling challenging to dance?
The hardest part is having the stamina. Two of the couples are on stage the whole piece, so about 10-12 minutes. It’s pretty exhausting. You have to rehearse the piece daily to keep it in the body. What I’m really looking forward to is seeing it with our costumes. We have these long, flowy skirts to wear that we make shapes with.

Was this the first time you had ever worked with the original choreographer of a piece, and how is it a different experience?
Yes. For me this was the first time working with a choreographer that was creating something specifically for Houston Ballet II. Most of the time we’re learning second-hand from a video. When you learn from a video, each dancer may have a different spin on the piece. When you work with the original choreographer, it’s a clean slate from the beginning. With Cong we were able to really see exactly how he wanted it done.

Did having Cong in the studio with you make the process more challenging?
It’s exciting, and it’s also better because you can ask questions. Overall it was fun because it was my first time working with a guest choreographer, and it was great to be a part of the process and help create the ballet. 

You can see Ms. Morris dance in Ma Cong’s Calling and other works in the upcoming Academy Spring Showcase, April 16-17.

Madison Morris, photo by Mitch Walker
Madison Morris stretching before rehearsal. Photo by Mitch Walker.

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