Ma Cong in the studio with Tulsa Ballet. Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

The Man Behind the Music: Ma Cong's Newest Work for Tulsa Ballet Explores Tchaikovsky’s Life

Without him we wouldn't have The Nutcracker, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. But how much do you know about Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the man behind classical ballet's most recognizable music? Did you know that the Russian composer hid his homosexuality for much of his life? He also struggled with depression; there's been speculation that his death in 1893 was in fact a suicide.

Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer Ma Cong dramatically recounts his life in a new full-length ballet titled Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music, premiering March 29-31. If you think a story ballet about the most renowned composer of story ballets set to, yes, a Tchaikovsky score, is a bit meta, you wouldn't be wrong. But considering the renewed importance of LGBTQ rights in society, it's a ballet perfectly timed to our era. In Russia, censorship still asserts that Tchaikovsky was not gay. The subject also calls to mind backlash surrounding an LGBTQ-themed work at Louisville Ballet just last month.


We talked to Cong (the man behind the movement behind the man behind the music—see, we told you we were being meta) to hear all about his boundary pushing creative process.

How did the idea for a Tchaikovsky ballet come about?

Marcello Angelini and I talked about doing a full length and went through all the fairy tales, but we landed on Tchaikovsky. A lot of people know about his music but not his life. The most interesting thing for me was that he had a double identity. To the public he was an amazing and internationally known musician. But underneath, being a gay man during that time was such huge pressure. Really dramatic things can push artists to create extraordinary work; I think that happened to his music.

What parts of his life did you choose to focus on in the ballet?

The story centers on three of his most important relationships. There's an opera singer named Désirée Artôt. Early on Tchaikovsky really did express interest in dating women, and through Artôt he discovers his sexual identity. But due to societal forces, he could not speak out. Then there's his secret lover Iosif Kotek, a violinist who helped Tchaikovsky compose his violin concerto.

In the second act, I put Antonina Milyukova into his life. Antonina is Tchaikovsky's students who falls in love with him and writes him love letters for years. When he's at a critical juncture, he receives a letter from her saying "I love you so much, please marry me." And that's like a sign: Better to cover himself and not to destroy his career. So he married Antonina and there's a wedding scene and a bedroom pas de deux. But they separated very soon after; it's very complicated.

Wedding scenes and bedroom pas de deux are pretty standard tropes in story ballets. How are you modernizing them here?

I wanted to maintain the late 19th century Russian classical aesthetic, but at the same time have a modern touch. I invited Tracy Grant Lord, a very brilliant costume and set designer from New Zealand, plus lighting designer Matt Marshall from Australia. They're very good at the modern look.

And for the choreography itself, I tried to not do the mime scenes, for example. People point to a finger and it means you're married. They cross their hands; you're dying. I dislike those things because I think they're old fashioned. I tried to use the body and the dancers' acting skills, to put more theatricality in there. I think that's what I'm looking for in this ballet, for it to be very easy for people to understand.

Tulsa Ballet dancers depicting Tchaikovsky and Kotek

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

What sort of research went into crafting the story?

I did a lot of online reading about Tchaikovsky's life and career. I watched documentaries and other dance productions about his life like Boris Eifman's version. Marcello also invited Russian history expert Daniela Kolic as a consultant and composer Oliver Peter Graber to put the music together.

Tchaikovsky is part of the reason we have classical ballet. Was it intimidating to take on his story?

Not so much. I think his own music tells the story of his life. I learned that right before he died he composed his sixth symphony, which is his most dramatic and successful. And that's coming from his relationship with Antonina, which was so intense. And we used the violin concerto he composed with Kotek for the male pas de deux between them. I do feel that this ballet has a message: Be brave with your sexuality and to be who you are. Especially doing this in Tulsa.

Why especially in Tulsa? Do you think people there won't be receptive to the theme?

I think it's half and half. Tulsa is very educated in the arts. But we live in the bible belt, and some people don't want to talk about homosexuality. This ballet is going to really open discussion for this. I crafted it in a refined way, so I don't think it will be shocking. But I feel like the ballet will inspire people to understand that love is love. Or at least I hope so.

Latest Posts


Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Gavin Smart, Courtesy ROH

Calling All Ballet Lovers! World Ballet Day 2020 Is on October 29

While very little about this year has felt normal, we're excited to share that one of the dance community's landmark events is returning despite the pandemic. October 29 marks World Ballet Day 2020.

This year's iteration of the annual social media extravaganza features three of the world's leading companies: The Royal Ballet, The Australian Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet. Additional participating companies will be announced closer to the event. Last year's World Ballet Day was the biggest yet, reaching over 315 million social media users around the world.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

For Dancers, 2020 Has Been Full of Uncertainty. Here's How to Keep Coping

Since starting Counselling for Dancers in 2017, psychotherapist Terry Hyde has worked with dancers of all ages on performance anxiety, auditioning and career transitions. He is particularly focused on destigmatizing mental health issues among young dancers and has created workshops for Elmhurst Ballet School, Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, among others.

He admits that it's been difficult to get through to dance companies and schools. "Performers were crying out for help, but dance companies don't want to be seen as having mentally ill performers," says Hyde. "But you don't have to be mentally ill to see me. It's a work in progress, but it is working."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks