Succeeding on her own terms

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 3:31 PM

Born a boy, dancer and choreographer Jin Xing is now one of China's most prominent women in modern dance.

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The Jin Xing Dance Theatre Shanghai in “Shanghai Tango.”

Photo: Angelo Palombini,

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Some people have life stories that seem drawn from a movie -- or are capable of inspiring one. Choreographer Jin Xing is one of those people. As artistic director of China's first independent modern dance company, Jin Xing has faced many challenges. And yet she always seems to prevail, perhaps because her strong will trumps any political or social barriers.

Her troupe performs Saturday night at the Orpheum Theatre, a presentation of Northrop Dance.

This fearless personal drive began in Jin Xing's childhood. Forty-four years ago she was born male to Korean parents in the northern Chinese city of Shenyang at the height of the Cultural Revolution. As a boy Jin Xing (whose name translates as "golden star") fell in love with ballet and eventually joined the People's Liberation Army's dance ensemble, a seemingly unlikely combination of military training and classical ballet technique.

Early success on stage afforded the 19-year-old Jin Xing an opportunity to travel to New York -- and into the studios of such American modern-dance legends as Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. The young dancer's mind was opened to new possibilities for movement unlike any practiced in China, and he wanted to experience more.

For six years Jin Xing studied and performed in the United States and Europe. He returned to China in 1993 to teach and to act upon his deepest yearning -- to become a woman, and to undergo the procedure in China.

After overcoming initial resistance, Jin Xing had the first sexual-reassignment surgery ever officially approved by Chinese authorities. And although some sneered, many others, including those in influential positions, supported her.

"I think that prejudice exists wherever there are transgender people," Jin Xing said by phone from New York, where her company recently performed at the Joyce Theater. "You have to strongly stand on your feet and show what you can contribute. I continue to carry on and sacrifice and fight and I never gave up. I always believed that what I was doing was right."

A colonel in the Chinese army

After her transition, Jin Xing resigned from the military's dance company (after achieving the rank of colonel) but continued performing and choreographing. By 1996 she launched the Beijing Modern Dance Ensemble, the first of its kind in the city. And in 2000 her eponymously named troupe settled in Shanghai. "I'm part of the first generation of modern dance [in China]," she said. "In modern dance there is a lot of individualism, which is a very different approach."

Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, feels that Jin Xing stands out for her fresh perspective on traditional movement. "The story of Jin Xing's sexual and gender identity tends to dominate much of the writing about her, but when I see her work, what is clear is that she works from a core sense of joy in dance," Chatterjea wrote in an e-mail. "Her work repeatedly suggests images of a whimsical, unpredictable, yet graceful femininity that we associate with 'Chinese dance' -- dancing with ribbons and long trails of fabric -- yet there's also a decisiveness that characterizes Jin Xing's entrepreneurial spirit in dance."

For its Minnesota debut, Jin Xing's company will perform "Shanghai Suite," a collection of 10 career-spanning dances. Don't expect any tango-influenced dancing -- although music by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla is in the mix.

"It's like a diary of a choreographer," she said. "Everything from the colors, the music, the performance truly presents who I am. I look at the influence between West and East as well as the clash within one person, from the male to female gender."

The performance also, Jin Xing said, is an ode to the urban scene she inhabits with her husband and three adopted children. "Shanghai is a metropolitan city, very much a female-dominant city, very charming -- it's like Shanghai is dancing the tango with the whole world. Seduction is very much in the work," she said.

Although "Shanghai Suite" earned less than glowing reviews in New York, much of the criticism was leveled at the conventionalism of the work, suggesting that Jin Xing is still reconciling her personal and artistic risk-taking. It's doubtful, however, that she will be deterred. This is the same woman who last fall was pulled from her role as a judge on a "Do You Think You Can Dance?" type of television program. Her explanation? "I was very straightforward, very truthful."

This March, Jin Xing will launch her own talk show about the arts. And needless to say, she'll have the last word.

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  • Jin Xing

  • SHANGHAI TANGO

    Who: Jin Xing Dance Theatre Shanghai.

    When: 8 p.m. Sat. 2/18

    Where: Orpheum Theatre, 805 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $25-$50, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

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