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Dancing into history

Dec 16. 2015
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China's Xin Yang has transformed her childhood passion into global stardom
When Xin Ying starts working on a new dance piece at the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York, she first watches videos of Graham and other renowned dancers of the past. A coach then teaches her the techniques, while at the same time helping her draw out her own feelings and interpretations.
“Dance is a living thing,” says Xin. “Graham’s works are classical and fans remember the choreography, but we’re encouraged to present our own renditions and give them new life.”
Xin’s talent saw her promoted to soloist early this year and now she’s running a course at the Beijing Dance Academy, teaching Graham’s technique.
“The key to the technique – contraction and release – is somehow linked to qigong,” she says, referring to the ancient Chinese practice of slow movements and breathing exercises. “Her spirit of struggling in hardship is also close to Chinese people’s experience.”
Graham met Mei Lanfang (1864-1961) when the Peking Opera icon visited the US in the 1930s and drew on some movements from the Peking Opera, such as woyu, a basic skill for actresses to lie down elegantly, and “walking like a dwarf”.
Xin’s next dream is to become a principal dancer of the company. “And I also hope to work with Chinese choreographers,” she says, noting that the Graham troupe works with many talented choreographers from around the world.
Bulareyaung Pagarlava from Taiwan, for example, choreographed one of the “Lamentation Variations”. The Graham Company commissioned innovations on Martha Graham’s “Lamentation” to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11.
“Xin is a beautiful dancer and she has the combination needed for a Martha Graham dancer,” says Janet Eilber, artistic director and former principal dancer of the company.
“She has very muscular, powerful physical technique and she’s a wonderful actress. She can be slow and powerful and she can be fast and funny. And, of course, she is a wonderful representative for us touring China.”
Born in 1985 in Yichun in northeastern Heilongjiang province, Xin always loved to dance, as do many little girls. But her mother sensed that she had a genuine gift for it and found her a teacher in the provincial capital, Harbin. The seven-year-old Xin was sent to live with a host family 700 kilometres away from home.
In 1997 she began training at a dance school in eastern Shandong province and in 2000 was admitted to the first choreography class at Nanjing University of Arts, where she learned about Martha Graham. The American’s influence on dance has been compared to that of Picasso on visual art and of Stravinsky on music.
Graduating in 2004, Xin joined the faculty of the Sichuan College of Culture and Arts.
In 2010 she gained a full scholarship to the Martha Graham School in New York. After another year of hard work and training in all kinds of dance, Xin became a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Xin’s life in New York started from a small studio on West 34th Street. The first few months were hard, since she had no friends and couldn’t speak English. “When I went to do laundry I couldn’t even tell which was detergent and which was softener!”
“New York is such a busy city where excitement mixes with indifference. People with earphones walk fast in the street. Every day you’d hear bizarre stories.”
But whenever she entered the rehearsal room, she relaxed and became focused, not just because the dancers came from different countries and races, but also because they were united in purpose.
Xin says she’d always merely learned the techniques and copied the coaches’ movements. “I just received everything passively. But at the Martha Graham School and company, the feeling is very different. Everybody knows clearly what he or she wants and why he or she dances. And everybody dances aggressively and passionately. I feel I’m absorbing nutrition every minute.
“Martha Graham used to be a name in my college books, but now I actually dance with coaches like Eilber who once worked closely with her. The feeling is like becoming part of the history of contemporary dance myself.”

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