Q&A: Xiaochuan Xie talks about dancing for Martha Graham

Xiaochuan Xie talks about growing up in China and joining the Martha Graham Dance Company

Xiaochuan Xie of the Martha Graham Dance Company performs Diversion of Angels

Xiaochuan Xie of the Martha Graham Dance Company performs Diversion of Angels Photo: Hibbard Nash

In 2009, Xiaochuan Xie abandoned a secure job in a company run by the Chinese military to study at the Martha Graham school in New York. Formerly unaware of Western modern dance, the dancer responded to Graham's spirit at a 2007 American Dance Festival overview by Donna Faye Burchfield. Now, a Martha Graham Dance Company soloist, Xie talks about accessing that spirit as she prepares for the company's City Center season.

Growing up in Nanjing, China, Xiaochuan Xie—or Chuan as she is known—wasn’t one of those kids who suddenly announced to her parents, “I want to dance!” She was obedient. So when her mother asked her if she wanted to attend dance school, she did what any good girl would: She said yes. The luminous, silky Xie is now a fresh face at the Martha Graham Dance Company. She’s devoted to Graham, but she’s not nearly so obedient anymore. Modern dance does that to a girl. 

Where did you first study dance?
My mom sent me to the audition [at the Nanjing Secondary School for Dance Performance]. It’s run by the Chinese military, so after school you get a very stable job. So that’s why she sent me there. Also, when she was young, she wanted to be a Chinese opera singer and wanted to dance and sing. She could not accomplish her dreams. Also, my papa too. So they were happy to send me into this world. I didn’t know dance at all, but I guess my physical facilities are naturally good. I’m flexible and that’s what they were checking. They took the measurements of my legs and all kinds of things. I was a very happy kid. I was very energetic. I loved to perform. So they asked me to mime something, and I did very well even though I didn’t have any training. The director said, “Ballet is very boring. Are you ready for it?” At the time, I didn’t really know what she meant by ballet is boring. We had a very strict training. We had to get up at 6am and do a stretching class and then we had breakfast and academic class in the morning and dance technique classes in the afternoon. We had class again in the evening. It was six days a week. It was like that for five years. The second year of school we had a performance; our teacher choreographed a little dance on us, and I just remember that I was so nervous to be onstage. She asked me to lead a straight line in the center of the stage, and I could not find the center of the stage.

What happened?
I think I thought, Oh that was probably the mark. But in my mind, I said, No this is the center. I went for my center. And then when we got onstage, the kids behind me were like [Whispering], “You are off center. You are not in the center.” In my mind, it was my center. [Laughs] But I loved that experience—I loved the energies vibrating in my heart and all over my body. I thought, I want to be a professional dancer; I want to perform for people and share my joy with them. I suddenly understood, when we were onstage, why we were in the studio for so many hours and why we stretched and did tendus and pliés over and over again. It’s the preparation for the real dance. I accepted practice as the sacrifice for being onstage: That’s the thing I have to do. I have to practice. I have to work hard to make me beautiful.

How old were you?
I think 14. In China, in my generation, education was still very disciplined. I was used to discipline and being demanded to do more, work harder.

Did you live at the school?
Yes, it was a boarding school in Nanjing. It was very strict. My parents missed me so much, especially my mom. A lot of kids from the other parts of China could not see their parents, and they missed them, but since I was a local kid, I had the advantage that my parents could visit me once a week. But they could not get into the school. They could only see me on the other side of the gate; they would pass me something, or we would have a little talk. The idea is that they don’t want you to get distracted by family. They want you to concentrate. I remember at the time we had a few boys escape. The girls were so afraid. We were like, Oh my God, how could they do that? I think they caught a few of them. I remember once the whole class of boys—I think 12 boys—escaped together. Some of them were caught. They did it several times. Not a single girl escaped. I think girls are naturally obedient and find it easier to accept reality, but boys are a little like, “I can’t take this anymore!” The boys’ teacher was more strict. There was a little bamboo thing to beat them. They were tough to the boys.

Did you ever contemplate escaping?
No. It’s a whole system: It’s school and then the company belongs to the PLA, or the People’s Liberation Army. We’re supposed to go to the main company. That’s why they trained us, to go straight to the company and if you’re not qualified, they send you to other branches. I was chosen to join the company, Qianxian Art Theater. I stayed in Nanjing, and I kept dancing.

What were you trained in exactly?
Ballet and Chinese classical dance. We performed a lot of repertoire, but mostly it was very political—propaganda. They’re famous, well-known pieces in China, but in the Western world, people have no idea what they are. We also had new creations. In China, art is for the people, for the party. I think that our choreographers also wanted to present artistic things, but they could not really; they would give you a title and ask you to create a dance about the Red Army. We had a lot of that kind of thing. What’s the theme this year? We have a celebration of 80 years of the PLA. Every year the theme is different, but it’s all kind of the same. But we had great choreographers—even though they had to work with these titles or themes, they still tried their best to make something artistic. It was very hard.

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