POSTED ON MAY 22, 2013:
Glissade into a New Path
Questioning the word “retirement”
Questioning the word "retirement"
Earlier, Urban Tulsa Weekly profiled two dancers taking their final bows for the Tulsa Ballet Theatre after lengthy careers. The last of this amazing trio is also making his exit as the 2012-2013 season draws to a close. Just as Alexandra Bergman and Alfonso Martin are hanging up their dance shoes after storied careers, so is Ma Cong.
If you've only seen a couple of productions by TBT, you might only know him as The Jumping Guy, as he seems to be able to jump higher than anyone has ever even thought about jumping.
But Ma Cong is much more than just a dancer, more than a jumper, more than a retiree. Now, he's fast becoming a world-renowned choreographer, and as his choreography calendar fills up, he's finding it harder and harder to make his schedule work within the confines of performing with TBT.
Plus, at 36, he's got some wear and tear that helped him make his retirement decision.
"I started dancing so young, and my joints are getting to the point that I kind of felt that it's a little bit harsh now," he said. "Your body sends you a message and says you need to take care of yourself. I thought this was a good, good moment at my age, at this time, to think about something new and set a new start."
That new start really chose him as much as he has chosen it, his first choreography opportunity coming out of Cong just goofing around trying to cool down after a day of rehearsal.
"I was super-tired, and I was just trying to get my muscles to feel better just dancing to music right after rehearsal, so I closed the door of the studio and put on some music and just started moving the way I wanted to move," he said. "So Marcello (Angelini, TBT's artistic director) peeked his head into the studio and watched, and the next day, he called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to choreograph something. I was like, 'Absolutely.'"
The pieces he set on his home ballet company were instant hits, and very soon, he started getting calls to come and set pieces on other companies. Now, he has choreography gigs scheduled through the fall of 2014, and the guy hasn't even stepped all the way out of dancing.
Although he was born and raised in China, Tulsa is where he will continue to hang his hat, no matter where his new job takes him.
"Living in Tulsa for 14 years, when I travel and come back, I truly in my heart feel like this is home," he said. "When I go out, and people ask me where I'm from, although I'm from China, my first reaction is always, 'I'm from Tulsa.' The people here have paid such great attention to the arts. I'm very grateful that I could be one of those people who can go out and say, 'I'm from Tulsa, and we have great arts, and here's my work.'"
When he left China in 1999 after having danced for the National Ballet of China, he had a lot of questions, and a few fears.
"At that time in 1999, we did not really have a private passport. To have a private passport, you have to write an application letter to your employer, so I had to ask my artistic director saying that I needed a private passport, and they ask you why," he said. "It's very complicated. If you tell them, 'I'm leaving the company,' you could lose your job. I chose just to be honest and tell them that I got an offer from a company and I would like to learn more things."
He knew no company wants to lose its best dancers, but he also knew of the job opening here in Tulsa, and he wanted to give it a go, despite the fact that life as a member of the National Ballet of China was pretty sweet.
"We started getting great benefits, and we were getting paid more, and we had nice places to live, and to live in Beijing is such a great, great life," he said. "But the only thing I was missing was I am an artist. I wanted to be able to learn and experience as much as possible."
Cong wanted to see what else was out there, and he wanted to feed his fascination with western culture and dance.
"I was really lucky to receive an offer from Tulsa Ballet," he said. "Tulsa was such a strange name to me. I was leaving Beijing, and my first question was, 'Can you please tell me where's Tulsa?'"
In order to be able to leave his country, Cong had to make a deal with the National Ballet of China.
"They said, 'Ok, you can go, but put down some money as a deposit. Two years later, you come back and get it,'" he said. "I thought about it for a couple of days and thought it was worth it. So I put down the deposit and give it a try. The result is I never went back to go get my deposit. That was 14 years ago."
And as he leaves the stage, he bristles a little at That One Word.
"'Retirement' for me, especially for Chinese, is a word that just says 'Go home and go on vacation,'" Cong said. "You do that to people who are over 60. I won't really call this retirement, especially someone like me who is so passionate about this art. I don't think I will ever retire from this art. What I like to say is I'm stopping dancing. Now, my knee hurts. But in a year, maybe it's better and maybe I dance one or two pieces for fun. But of course, it has to look good. If it doesn't look good, I won't even get on stage."
As he segues into a new part of his life, we in Tulsa can only hope his knees feel better.
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