Life doesn’t usually work the way it has for Xiaochuan Xie. People don’t give up successful careers in distant countries to pursue—and achieve—their dance dreams in New York City. Now 24, Xie was already a member of a prestigious Chinese dance company, Qianxian Art Theater, when she flew to Beijing to see the Martha Graham Dance Company perform. The program included Graham classics: Appalachian Spring, Chronicle, and Maple Leaf Rag. “I was amazed,” she remembers. “I thought, I need to go there.”
Xie found herself fascinated by the Graham approach. “It’s all about emotions,” says Xie, known to her American colleagues as Chuan. “In Chinese dance you’re like a tool—it’s all for someone else. I realized I had to dance for myself.”
Born and raised in Nanjing, China, Xie was an accidental dancer. She began her studies at 11, when her mother took her to the Nanjing Secondary School for Dance Performance, an academy run by the Chinese military. Xie studied ballet and Chinese classical movement. Morning class began at 6:00 a.m., followed by academic studies and evenings filled with more dance classes.
She graduated at 16 and was accepted into Qianxian, where she danced for the next six years. But after discovering Graham, she had a new goal. The only route for her into the company was through its school. So she applied, and with acceptance in hand, got a visa and moved by herself to New York City in 2009.
She didn’t know a soul in New York, but the Graham classes thrilled her. “Chinese classical dance is all about outside appearance—where my neck was, my hand, my head,” she explains. “All the girls have to be the same.” Graham was a different world altogether. “You have to talk with your heart,” she says.
As a Graham neophyte, Xie started in beginner classes, but faculty members were soon praising her to Janet Eilber, the company’s artistic director. “You could see how exceptional her technique was,” says Eilber. “She’s so precise and exacting that there’s nothing extra—no decoration to camouflage something she can’t do. ”
At the start of last year, Xie joined Graham’s two-year professional training program and Graham 2 as an apprentice. Her technique developed rapidly, says Virginie Mécène, director of the Graham School. “Chuan embraces space more now,” she says. “There’s a certain way of using the weight of the body specific to Graham, and she’s matured into it.” Last summer, Xie became a full company member.
Yet beyond technique, Xie’s charisma lights up audiences. Last spring, in Robert Wilson’s Snow on the Mesa, she was light yet sculptural in her movement quality. She blends an unusual mix of precision and energy, giving each step its full dramatic emphasis. Her emotional commitment, says Eilber, is what makes Xie a fit with the company. “Chuan is smart, she’s beautiful, she’s got extraordinary technique—and she is able to communicate that inner landscape,” Eilber says. “That is the essence of the Graham world.”
Rachel Elson is a New York writer who frequently writes on the arts.
Xie in Diversion of Angels. Photo by George Ballantini, Courtesy Graham.