The Fearlessly Radiant Xin Ying Is Every Bit as Tough as the Graham Heroines She Embodies

September 13, 2020

Even when just walking down the street, Xin Ying often can’t help herself: She has to dance. One evening in June, while visiting family in Indiana, she paused on a stretch of suburban road bathed in golden-hour sunlight. To the sound of birdsong, she let her impulses guide her in a short improvisation, or what she sometimes calls a meditation: spinning in sneakers, saluting the treetops, inscribing the air with her willowy arms.

Talk to people who have worked with her, and they’ll tell you: She dances everywhere, her boundless energy not contained by the studio or stage.

“That’s totally her personality,” says Lloyd Knight, her friend and a fellow Martha Graham dancer. “Ying can’t sit still.” As the choreographer Annie-B Parson puts it: “She simply can’t stop dancing.”

The moment in June, captured on her phone by her husband (her most frequent videographer), became one of the many impromptu dances Xin has shared with the world on Instagram, where she documents her life as a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Scroll through her posts from the past few years, and you can find her improvising on subway platforms and hiking trails; in airports and parking lots; on the streets and sidewalks of Paris, Florence, Shanghai, New York, and other cities around the world.

“My improv is like my own voice,” she says, “coming out very naturally.”

These in-the-moment expressions hold traces of where she has been, from her early training in Chinese folk and classical dance—which she studied growing up in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province of China—to her immersion, over the past decade, in the work of Martha Graham.

Since moving from China to New York City in 2010, Xin (pronounced “shin”) has become an exhilarating, nuanced interpreter of both the Graham canon and the contemporary works that round out the company’s repertory. At 36, she is at the height of her powers as a performer, while also overseeing her own arts center in Shanghai and adjusting to life as a mother. (Her daughter, Frankie, was born in February.) Joyous and gregarious—Knight describes her as “very, very bubbly”—she is also every bit as tough as the Graham heroines she embodies.

“I think she’s a genius dancer,” says Parson, who gave Xin a central role in her 2017 work for the Graham company, I used to love you. “She doesn’t have a conservative bone in her body, so she has all this technique under her belt, and it’s supporting this very liberal, very free spirit.”

That free spirit seems to have been instrumental in Xin’s journey from China to the U.S. Without the indepen­dent streak that resisted a narrower path laid out for her, she might not be where she is today.

Xin began dancing around age 6, taking lessons in Chinese folk dance that emphasized extreme flexibility and acrobatic skill. A dedicated student, she took her college entrance exam a year early, and by 15, she had been accepted into the Nanjing University of the Arts. Her college training focused heavily on Chinese classical dance, a form that incorporates elements of Chinese opera, ballet and other influences.

But what excited her most were her contemporary dance classes, where she found a respite from the delicate femininity—a particular kind of prettiness—so valued in Chinese classical dance.

“I remember thinking, Wow, modern and contemporary dance! I feel so cool, so real!” she says. “I didn’t like teachers always telling me, ‘You’re not pretty enough. You need to put a pretty smile on your face.’ I just hated it.”

After graduating, Xin faced pressures from her mother—who had raised her alone and maintained a strong presence in her life—to take on a stable job and get married. Adhering to her wishes, Xin accepted a position teaching dance at Sichuan University of Culture and Arts; she also obliged when her mother set her up in a relationship (with a man whom she would marry and later divorce). But as she settled into that path, she worried she was abandoning her dream of becoming a great dancer.

She recalls a turning point when, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—which ravaged the city of Mianyang, where she was living—she went to pick up her costume for a dance competition, part of a local children’s celebration. When she arrived, the costume maker told her that many children had not come to claim theirs. Xin found herself confronting the grim implications: that they had died, or that the trauma of the earthquake otherwise prevented them from dancing.

“I still get really emotional when I think about that moment,” she says. “I realized: I have to do something with my life. I have to do something.”

Xin sought funding from her university to attend the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance for one year, and at 25, she was on her way to New York. She chose the Graham school because, in her mind, it was synonymous with the “modern dance” she had embraced in college.

“I thought I was going to learn something like ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ ” she recalls with a smile.

Initially placed into the school’s lowest level, and just beginning to learn English, Xin struggled in her early days at the Graham studio. After class, she says, she would often return to her one-room apartment and cry. Yet she made stunning progress, entering Graham 2 (the junior company) and then the main company within a year.

She attributes her growth, paradoxically, to the language barrier. “I watched a lot,” she says. “I really paid attention to the teacher’s body, which muscles they are using. I saw the truth of their body.”

Janet Eilber, the main company’s artistic director, witnessed Xin’s rapid transformation. “I can remember her being like one of those colts that hasn’t quite got their legs underneath them, a little disconnected and flailing,” Eilber says. “But charismatic, beautiful and smart—and within months, she was company-ready.”

In the years since, Xin has evolved into a fearless and versatile performer, who thrives on unlocking the psychology of Graham’s characters as much as diving into newly choreographed roles. As Eilber says: “She can do the lead in Chronicle and be that fierce, powerful woman rallying the troops; she can be the conniving Electra in Clytemnestra, or the silly, joyous lead character in Maple Leaf Rag, Martha’s comedic dance. And at the same time, she’s been chosen over and over again by the choreographers that we’re commissioning to be in their works.”

While Xin put aside parts of her Chinese folk and classical training to learn the Graham technique, she sees a connection between her background and Graham’s dance theater, with its formidable female leads. As much as she recoiled when told to be pretty, she also enjoyed performing the roles of female warriors in Chinese opera, like Hua Mulan and Mu Guiying.

“My mom was kind of like that, a very strong woman,” she says admiringly. In the past few years, their once rocky relationship has been healing. In 2015, her mother saw her onstage with the Graham company for the first time, when the troupe toured to Beijing and Xin opened the show with the 1937 solo Deep Song.

“She saw me perform in the best theater in China, and afterwards she just told me, ‘I guess you should keep going,’ ” Xin says, at once smiling and holding back tears. Through that simple but meaningful affirmation, she felt her mother finally recognized her as an artist. “From there she’s been fully supportive.”

Looking into her future, now as a mother herself (who performed until she was 31 weeks pregnant), Xin aspires to take on more leadership roles. Her popular Instagram dances have brought her invitations to choreograph, and she has a clear vision for the Xin Ying International Dance and Art Center in Shanghai, hoping it becomes what she calls “a bridge” between Graham’s legacy in the U.S. and young dancers in China.

While ambitious, she also believes in pacing herself.

“If I was in China telling myself, ‘I’m going to become a principal dancer in the Graham company,’ I don’t know if I would be here,” she says. “I just took a step at a time to see how much further I could go, then I would push a little more.”