By Greg Hugh, Staff Writer
China's most celebrated dancer, Jin Xing, and her company Jin Xing Dance Theatre Shanghai, recently performed at the Orpheum Theatre as part of Northrop Dance. Jin Xing's courage, fighting spirit, and beautiful artistry have contributed to her great success as a dancer and owner of China's only independent dance company, which is the resident dance company at the Oriental Arts Theater in Shanghai. Her choreography is graceful, subtle, and filled with visual appeal. Jin Xing is also an accomplished film actress and she is known her support of human rights, artistic freedom, and community activism in China.
Admittedly, this writer is not a patron of contemporary dance, but due to the urging of my wife, we attended the performance partially to satisfy my curiosity about the renowned chorographer. In recent months, the Shanghai Tango performance has generated considerable excitement for Chinese culture and there was undoubtedly interest in how Jin Xing developed.
Rather than presume to be a critic of contemporary dance, I have approached this article from the perspective of a novice who hopes to convey how Shanghai Tango evolved. Much is made of Jin Xing's life story, and rightly so. Her journey from military dance ensemble to modern dance studio, male to female gender, acclaim in China to international applause is an admirable example of barrier busting. But once her company Jin Xing Dance Theatre Shanghai steps onstage -- as it did this recently in a presentation by Northrop Dance at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis -- the choreography is what matters most. And yet this is another instance in which Jin Xing defies expectations.
The community was fortunate to participate in a number of cultural exchanges that preceded the performance. Jin Xing and the dancers held a number of public forums and even conducted classes for the Chinese American Association of Minnesota Chinese Dance Theater and the Barbara Baker Center for Dance at the University of Minnesota. They were also guests at a luncheon with key University and community leaders.
It was fortuitous that we decided to attend a free public forum held at Solera immediately preceding the performance at the Orpheum during which Jin Xing spoke. It was here that we heard directly from Jin Xing in her own words about her exploits and how she persevered in overcoming obstacles to pursue her desire to achieve the lifestyle she felt compelled to accomplish. We also learned that the inspiration for the first dance number titled Opening, was the practical need to provide a dance to settle down audiences in China that traditional takes time to focus. Opening concentrates on a single dancer performing a strenuous spinning dance for approximately 5 minutes. It was so successful that it has become a fixture and has been adopted even for international performances.
While it was helpful to have garnered this little tidbit during the open forum, it isn’t necessary to know the background of Jin Xing to appreciate Shanghai Tango that included 10 numbers that she created over 25 years. In her choreography, she incorporates acrobatics and ballet with by music ranging from John Williams’ “Shindler’s List” theme to tango works by Astor Piassolla which accompanies the title piece.
As noted previously, this writer does not claim to be qualified to review the performance but nevertheless felt that Jin’s choreography is a harmonious melding of Western modern dance techniques with Eastern fashions, cultural symbols and movement forms which were light and dark, traditional and contemporary. So to do justice to these performances, I have taken the liberty to paraphrase the comments from a number of more qualified reviewers with whom I basically agree.
In the tender "Dance 02," a man and woman mirror each other, move in unison and entangle on the floor. In "Island," two men glide through gorgeous slow-motion balances, as awesome as a circus act but freighted with nuance. "Four Happiness" is performed by a quartet of seated women who dance with only the upper halves of their bodies — a lovely yet also quietly oppressive tableaux.
Jin Xing, who designs the costumes for her dances, creates powerful images with fabric and color. In "Steps," the dancers don loose, flowing costumes that float and whirl around them like kinetic sculptures as they move. "Black and Red," the company's version of a fan dance, is as precise as a military formation, the oversized red fans snapping open and shut in the hands of the black-clothed dancers.
In the title number, “Shanghai Tango” the dance is not a tango, but there are flashes of tango's formality and passion throughout, as a woman is torn between her husband and her lover. Near the end, a host of white-coated figures swirl around the dancers, like agents of change or chaos. A similar group appears in "Half Dream," in which Jin Xing, a streak of scarlet weaving between the dozen dancers in white, seems to serve as a sort of muse or priestess.
The final work, "Sense of Colors," is a playful fusion of Jin Xing's diverse influences. To the strains of a Strauss waltz, six women in jewel-toned gowns sweep through classically modern choreography as six men on bicycles, wearing uniforms similar to those of China's Red Guards, ride in circles around them. Despite these allusions, the piece, like all of "Shanghai Tango," transcends time, place and culture to become something greater than the sum of its parts.
Needless to say, attending my first truly contemporary dance performance was an experience I will remember and according to Jin Xing, “People will not need experience in modern dance. They should just come and be open to the experience and relax.”
We were also fortunate to attend an after performance party held exclusively for Northrop Friends and invited guests to celebrate the performance with Jin Xing and the dancers.