Meet Ma, The Dance Film That Won't Remind You Of La La Land At All

Photo: Courtesy of
Dance was Celia Rowlson-Hall's first language. So when she wanted to explore a question such as, "what does womanhood mean to me?" or "how does the Virgin Mary fit into the American Western landscape?" she looked to dance. The Virginia native's first feature film, which arrives in New York City this weekend, is a bricolage of dance, soundscape, and storytelling — it eschews dialogue for a different kind of language: movement.

"I think for me, dance is first and foremost my first language," Rowlson-Hall told me over the phone. "That's the way in which I love to express."

Titled Ma, the film recounts a modern Virgin Mary's pilgrimage to, of all places, Las Vegas. Rowlson-Hall grew up very religious. When she was young, she wanted to be Jesus, a fantasy I'd wager most have entertained. (The water-to-wine part comes to mind as a skill that could be particularly handy.)

Rowlson-Hall says that she "very much took the Bible to heart, and quite literally."

"I wanted to be Jesus, and I wanted to heal people. I was very afraid of death and sickness," she admitted. Being Jesus would be awfully convenient, but it's simply not feasible. "As I grew up, I realized you can't be Jesus, and all you can be is yourself. And so this film for me is a real searching for identity and also understanding what it is to be a woman."

In creating the film, the choreographer took on several identities. Rowlson-Hall is director, writer, star and, of course, choreographer of Ma. Since it was made without words, Ma ventures to communicate with everything but. Rowlson-Hall doesn't find the lack of language limiting at all; in fact, she finds it productive.

"When you say a sentence, you're limited by those words that you said," she pointed out. "Dance creates a bit more of a question and an expression and more of a feeling...the body doesn't lie and movement doesn't lie, and it can be multilayered."

As the main character in the film, Rowlson-Hall wears an oversized T-shirt and, in the iconic image featured above, dons a sort of towel habit. She tops the outfit off with cowboy boots. (She told me that this is an homage to the American West.) What results is a dusty image of Madonna in the modern West. Indiewire calls the film "a highly specific vision that embraces the surreal and the mystical alike." And even that might not capture the volume of the film. The director herself seems to struggle to find the right words to describe it.

"The film" — Rowlson-Hall paused — "It's a lot. Many layers."

More specifically: "In one aspect, it's a story about sexual assault. In one aspect, it's a story about love, and in one aspect, it's a story about gender-bending and exploring different ideas of femininity on screen."

"There's a lot inside of it." Language, it seems, is entirely unhelpful.

When words fail, turn to the image — something about pictures and a thousand words comes to mind. In this case, the image is a feature-length film that will be playing at the IFC center January 13-19. This weekend, Anne-Katrin Titze, Lena Dunham, Hailey Benton Gates, and New York Times dance critic Siobhan Burke will lead Q&A's with Rowlson-Hall and crew. Enjoy the trailer from the film, below.
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