The Big Leap 

Richmond Ballet unexpectedly becomes a cultural ambassador to China.

click to enlarge One reason Richmond Ballet is headed to China has to do with the insight of artistic director Stoner Winslet in working with Chinese choreographer Ma Cong, whose “Lift the Fallen” is pictured here. Cong will be accompanying the ballet on its China tour next year.

Sarah Ferguson

One reason Richmond Ballet is headed to China has to do with the insight of artistic director Stoner Winslet in working with Chinese choreographer Ma Cong, whose “Lift the Fallen” is pictured here. Cong will be accompanying the ballet on its China tour next year.

When the Richmond Ballet goes to China in May, renowned choreographer Ma Cong will travel with it, helping the group with any language difficulties.

Translation skills notwithstanding, without him, the invitation to perform at the 2015 Meet in Beijing might never have happened.

Ma began as a dancer for the National Ballet of China and ended up in Tulsa, Okla., in 2004, where he was a principal dancer in the Tulsa Ballet. Stoner Winslett, artistic director for the Richmond Ballet, says she heard about him and his work and invited him to Richmond for one of the New Works festivals.

Held annually at Richmond Ballet, the festivals give choreographers the opportunity to develop new pieces and show them to an audience. Ma accepted the invitation and presented a section of a ballet he was working on.

“We all fell in love with him and his work,” Winslett says, “so I invited him back to take that sketch and make it into a full one-act ballet, which became ‘Ershter Vals.’” The work became part of a program titled “Made in the USA: Traditions and Innovations,” which Richmond Ballet performed in 2012 to critical acclaim at the Royal Opera House in London.

The connection made years ago became important after the Richmond Ballet performed the program at the Kennedy Center in New York. Because of Ma’s ties to China, people from the Chinese Embassy attended. Soon afterward, the company received an invitation from the embassy to perform it at next year’s Meet in Bejing arts festival.

Winslett and Managing Director Brett Bonda say they never anticipated this opportunity — or the subsequent invite for something called the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Pillar Delegation for the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange. That’s government speak for a forum that promotes cultural understanding.

Also in the New York audience was Li Hong, minister counselor from the embassy’s office of cultural affairs, who suggested that Winslett and Bonda participate in the Bejing cultural exchange. “She just really liked our work and we became great friends with her and her staff,” Winslett says. “It’s not anything I ever thought was going to happen.”

Also chosen to represent the United States were delegates from the National Geographic Society, Carnegie Hall and the National China Garden Foundation. “We felt like that was awfully good company to keep,” Winslett says. “When Uncle Sam wants you, you should probably go.”

Held annually, the exchange invites representatives from government and private sectors to discuss strategies to strengthen ties between the United States and China in the areas of education, science and culture, among others. Winslett says the Road to China and Beyond initiative that she and Bonda presented at the exchange was well-received.

That initiative includes the ballet’s Minds in Motion program for children, which will teach them about Chinese culture. In addition, two dancers from the National Ballet of China are coming to Richmond Ballet in February to perform “Don Quixote” with the company. A Chinese New Year celebration also is in the works for ballet patrons.

That the initiative already was part of the 2014-’15 season, planned long before any of the invitations to China, reflects Winslett’s belief in the value of cultural exchange.

“Maybe I’m just an optimist,” she says, “but I think most people are pretty good people and I think that we share a lot more than we think we do with people with different ideas about government, different religions, geographic locations. It always gives me more hope for a more unified, more compassionate global community when you meet citizen to citizen instead of big entity to big entity.”

Richmond Ballet’s tour of China will take it to Beijing, Jinan and Dezhou before concluding in Shanghai. Despite the challenges of international travel, dancer Thomas Ragland says he’s looking forward to the trip. “The Richmond audience is amazing,” he says. “But it’s also nice to have an audience who doesn’t know you at all.”

Well acquainted with the company, Ma has been commissioned twice by Richmond Ballet since “Ershter Vals” in 2010. His piercingly beautiful “Lift the Fallen” was part of the program that closed out the ballet’s 30th anniversary season in May. Because of the overwhelmingly positive response, the work will replace “Ershter Vals” in the “Made in the USA” program.

For Winslett, dance is especially well suited to breaking down barriers.

“I think we dance because we can say things that words can’t,” she says. “The kinds of things it can say are those kind of baseline human emotions. I think people in the U.S. really love their children, and in China, I think they love their children too. There are more things that bind us than things that don’t, but the things that don’t get in the way so often.”

Information on Richmond Ballet’s 2014-’15 season is online at richmondballet.com.

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