Last October, American Ballet Theatre's Xuelan Lu stepped out of the corps for the first time, to perform a leading role in Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe. As one of two dancers who open the ballet, she provided a kind of throughline from beginning to end. It's not a role that requires flash, but it takes something rarer: the ability to communicate emotion and presence, to set a mood, while executing simple steps. Lu pulled it off with grace and lyricism.
Company: American Ballet Theatre
Hometown: Guangzhou, China
Training: Secondary School of the Beijing Dance Academy
Accolades: Most Promising Female Dancer Award at the 2012 Asian Grand Prix, Top 12 at the 2015 Youth America Grand Prix
Xuelan Lu in Alexei Ratmansky's Harlequinade
Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT
Switching to ballet: From the age of 3, Lu studied Chinese traditional dance. But when she was 11, her teacher suggested she try ballet. "I liked it right away," Lu says. That year, she moved far from her family to study at the revered Beijing Dance Academy.
Coming to the U.S.: At YAGP, she was offered a contract to join the ABT Studio Company. "We don't have YouTube in China, but there were videos of ABT on Chinese websites," she says. "I remember really liking Gillian Murphy."
Fitting in: The hardest thing about coming to ABT was the language barrier. "I learned English at school, but here I really had to speak it every day." Luckily, there are now five Chinese dancers in the company. "When I first joined I was lonely. But now I have this group of friends, and we can talk about anything."
Finding her voice: When Lu was preparing for Deuce Coupe, she and ABT principal ballet mistress Susan Jones discussed her approach. "I said, 'Write your own words to the music you are dancing to, and turn it into a story for yourself. That way you can make it your own,' " says Jones. "And she really did."
Russian versus American style: "I studied Russian-style ballet. It's really beautiful and clean," says Lu. "The American style is freer, which is hard for me. But I'm trying to get more comfortable with that. I love watching other dancers move that way."
Corps confessions: The best thing about being in the corps? "Because you're part of a group, you don't feel too much stress." The worst? "Having to stand on the stage when you're so tired, like in Swan Lake and Bayadère—your feet start cramping, and you just can't move."
Dream role: Manon
What her ballet mistress is saying: "She learns quickly, she's responsible and everything she does looks good on her," says Jones. "What's not to love?"
Downtime: When she's not in the studio, Lu likes to explore New York City, read and cook Chinese food. Her favorite dish to make is Coca-Cola chicken wings. "It's salty and sweet," she says.