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Swinging Waltz

Ma Cong's “Ershter Vals” mines folk dance, Hollywood and the Jewish ghetto.



During a recent afternoon rehearsal at Richmond Ballet, a group of men tear into the center of the large, third-floor studio, where three casts of three are jumping exuberantly through a section of choreographer Ma Cong's “Ershter Vals.” Activity on the margins of the room — dancers stretching, chatting quietly — ceases while the men leap and spin, tossing their heads and riding along on a swinging waltz.

With “Ershter Vals,” Chinese choreographer Ma Cong — who's danced and choreographed in the United States for more than 12 years — mines folk dance and music traditions from around the world. Trained for seven years in Chinese folk dance, Cong says it inflects much of the movement he creates, while his ballet experience gives him some grounding in European folk dance as well. “I'm using a lot of folk dance movement,” he says, “a little bit of everything.”

“Ershter Vals,” inspired partly by Hollywood films about World War II, and partly by music originating in the Jewish ghettos of the time, celebrates the moments of brightness that can still shine in the midst of dark times, Cong says. He choreographed an initial version of the piece for Richmond Ballet's New Works series last fall. For Studio 1, he's added one section, tweaked others, and now calls the work complete.

Working with the dancers in the studio, Cong appears relaxed and attentive to detail. When discussing a pas de deux, he steps into Cecile Tuzii's place in Philip Skaggs's arms, smoothly taking Skaggs's hands to demonstrate how the movement should go. The dancers seem relaxed as well. As the men finish running through their trio, there's a question among them about the timing of a step. When Cong answers, dancer Thomas Garrett exclaims, “I knew it!” and others shake their heads. It seems there may have been a bet.

Cong loves working with the Richmond Ballet troupe. “I feel the connection between myself and the dancers,” he says. “We read each others' minds. Everything just happens immediately, and it clicks right away. I feel like whenever I ask them to do something, they give me 100 percent.” They are quick studies, he says. “I don't have to spend a lot of time explaining or showing details. They have really good musicality, and I feel like they love to dance this piece.”

Judging from the gorgeous dancing happening in this rehearsal, audiences will love watching it too.

“Ershter Vals” will be performed with Salvatore Aiello's “Clowns and Others” on Sept. 30-Oct.3 and Oct. 13-17 at Richmond Ballet's Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St. Information at


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