Making A Difference
by M. Pirozzi
In sitting down with world renowned visionary dancer, choreographer and teacher Michael Mao, one sentiment popped into my head. He’s every transition in his life seem easy and effortless. Not that Mr. Mao’s life has been easy. Michael Mao has been dedicated to his craft his entire adult life and he’s still going strong today. He has met every challenge and has watched how his work, much like this country, becomes a diverse and polychromatic rainbow of talent. For over 50 years, he has worked, danced and learned from the very best in the dance world: Toby Armour, James Waring, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, Joffrey, and Alvin Ailey to name just a few. His works have been performed worldwide.
Mao was 5 when his family emigrated from Shanghai. They felt that opportunities were better here in the US, given the political climate at the time. They chose New York, because his Mom felt it was the city most like Shanghai. He accompanied his Mother to India at the age of 7. It was there and then is where he saw a performance of Chinese folk dances and a ballet class. The dancers moving across the floor left a great impression on him. He told his Mom that he wanted to become a dancer. At her dismay, of career choice, she said: “boys don’t dance!” His 4 sisters and he excelled in school. But as Mao’s dreams turned to dance, his mother wanted a more secure future for him, not because she felt he was incapable, but thought it was a phase he would grow out of.
When he was 15, a family friend stayed with the Mao’s while attending a summer intensive at the famed Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. One morning, she told Mao to “put on your sweat pants: you’re coming to class with me.” That class was taught by Martha Graham herself, and David Wood. His first attempt at a tiptoe walk movement was met with “YOU! SKINNY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” by Wood who proceeded to mimic him. Mao was mortified. Ironically now, his style employs a more delicate balance, but he sees which of his dancers can “take it” and will yell as necessary.
Mao continued classes at Graham. It didn’t interfere with his studies; so it was not met with any resistance by his family. He advanced in his understanding of this modern form expression, taking classes from Martha Graham herself as well as rotating Graham principal dancers and a very demanding teacher June Lewis, who years later proclaimed that he was finally executing the Graham contraction/release “beautifully.” That was something to be proud of. Basically, he was a natural.
A trip to a Graham performance however, piqued Mao’s creative vision soon after. He noticed difference between how the men and women danced. He thought that men’s movements were 2-dimensional, and women’s movements were far more pliable. He felt it was a women’s concept of men’s movements which the issue. Mao decided to take up ballet as well, and auditioned for (and got) a scholarship at the Joffrey School. Robert Joffrey emphasized that ballet for men was not effeminate. They employed a more athletic approach to dance. It was a way to appeal to a broader audience as well.
By now, Mao was pre-med at Princeton University. After a few dissections turned his stomach, he leaned towards psychology and literature courses. He was geared towards the humanities as a major and studied the greats in literature. He attended a class given by the Princeton Modern Dance Club. Only 3 out of 3,000 plus students showed up, which baffled him. He took matters into his own hands and approached the athletic director. He asked if he could make dance class a freshman Phys. Ed. requirement. He agreed, if Michael would run the program. He got 80 freshmen out of 822 to attend on the first day.
His penchant as a visionary quickly took hold. He took the class out of the gym, and found a building off campus which Princeton had purchased for Creative Arts. He schmoozed his way into a beautiful big room to use. He procured a piano for free and got a $500 dollar budget to buy mirrors etc. The first two teachers didn’t teach in a way to hold the boy’s interest. Quickly, 20 students dropped out. So Michael did what Michael had always done, took over the class himself. His style and approach, alternating between simple ballet with emphasis on jumps and folk movements and simple modern, he thought was essential to get the men to move, and not to get bogged down in the details of professional training. This was, mind you, as a junior at Princeton University.
While still a scholarship student at the Joffrey a pre-fame Twyla Tharp came to recruit men. He received a part in a piece called Medley. He was the only male of 50 dancers that performed in Central Park, and remembered how helpful company dancer Mary Rose Wright was to him. This tells you the kind of person Michael Mao was. Where others may have boasted about themselves, Mao talks about himself almost in passing.
He graduated Princeton with a degree in Oriental Studies and took graduate courses at Harvard in Chinese Fiction. After an 8 month sabbatical due to a sore ankle, his body again wanted to dance. After trying the Boston Ballet and the Boston Conservatory, he was urged to go to the Cambridge School of Ballet, where he got a full scholarship. While taking classes at the Boston Ballet, he had been sighted by Toby Armour, who had herself been trained by Graham. Michael danced with Armour for the next decade. He was in the original cast of most of Armour’s group works. At 23 Michael was performing for a nationally recognized company, continued daily classes at Cambridge, and was at graduate school at Harvard, and after 2 years began teaching at the university as well.
In time Mao took on more duties with Armour’s company. In 1978 Toby told Mao it was time for him to make a work, which he did successfully. Another followed, and by the time he choreographed his 5th work, it was evident to all that this was the right path for him. In 1980 Mao was given a National Endowment grant to take on the duties Toby didn’t want to deal with anymore. His initial struggles dealing with dancers, led to a therapist help him tackle this issue. It was here he evolved a style which suited him; authoritative but loving.
Mao began taking classes with David Howard in New York City. Howard would come to Boston to give Sunday company class to Armour’s company which he now is directing. In 1985 David was looking for a new space. He asked Michael to move in with him in New York. A detailed artistic time share was worked out. The target space was the Ansonia Ballroom. However the balcony collapsed, and a move to the far west side derailed the time share plan. Company and David Howard Dance Center each took their spaces side by side linked by a long corridor, and thrived, but each side struggled to afford the rent.
Mao stayed on an artistic roll of making dances and nurturing a full time company. For the decade between the mid 80’s to the late ‘90s he choreographed over 30 works, many them have become iconic classics re-staged for his dancers and re-set on other companies. The most recent was the Kosovo Ballet dancing his Verdi Requiem. He was able to take the company on tours in the US and abroad which included Oslo, Paris, Mexico and more.
The late 90’s bookings for dance companies became very competitive. After overhearing that the Nutcracker still booked well, fate may have intervened. In 1998 Michael went to Shanghai on a short visit. It was here that he came up with the idea for perhaps his greatest masterpiece. Mao did some research on the Art Deco hotel he was staying at. The story proved so intriguing that his vision for his trademarked FIRECRACKER (A sort of Chinese inspired Nutcracker) was born.
It was his homage to the era gone-by in Chinese history. Set in 1937, Michael poured his heart and soul into this work. He assembled a tremendous team, from set designer Ming Cho Lee to dancers to directors. After a booker claimed to have problems selling the show, Michael took it upon himself. He secured a venue at Purchase Pepsico, offered by the director of Purchase Performing Arts Center. The show opened to rave reviews. It went to China in 2002.
Mao has spent the last several years, diversifying his company. He strives for it in his work and his dancers. He doesn’t employ full time dancers now; he assembles dancers as he books work. For the next decade he wants to set his works on other dance companies and continue to create new works, and to archive his dances so that they are available online as well as for research at the New York Public Library.
Asked about the state of Modern dance today, Mao feels it has outgrown itself, meaning it has gone past the peak where things could be innovative and expressive at the same time. “There is a lot of rehashing in the name of new, mostly because it’s something people haven’t seen before.” But he holds out hope, citing a moving work by Chrystal Pike for the Royal Ballet.
He attributes his abilities and confidence from his family’s support, and also by truly kind elders he has encountered along the way. He remembers how his Father retired without any hobbies or interests, and spent his remaining years more or less bored. Mao will NEVER let that to happen to him. He will do what he does until his last dying day. Recently, he was given a ticket to a dance performance at the Met. Somehow, he went on the wrong night, and was forced to buy a standing room only ticket. Here was a giant in the industry, happily standing to see a performance, delighted that he was THAT interested to see a dance.
He gets his greatest satisfaction in the studio. After he introduces movement material, researches it, does work on the subject matter and music, then progressively works it in little bits. He will hear himself giving directions; and it reminds him of the natural rhythm of an Ouija board. He feels that it emulates what it must be like to fly.
A Norwegian critic once said of Michael. “Despite his Chinese last name, he is a product of the American modern dance tradition.” Michael adds that it was not only modern, but also the cross fertilization between ballet and modern which occurred during his formative years as a choreographer, for which he is grateful to have been a part of.
Mao’s advice: Do what you want to do. If you want to dance, dance; if you want to choreograph then do that. As time moves forward, so will Michael Mao. Never standing still, always trying something new and more often, doing it very well.