Journey of a transgender choreographer

  • by Joe Landini
  • Tuesday April 22, 2008
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Queer performance takes on an international slant this weekend, as trans choreographer-led Jin Xing Dance Theatre appears at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium. Jin, a former colonel in the Chinese army, is the first transwoman to be recognized as a cultural pioneer in China. In Germany, Die Zeit (The Times ) has called Jin "probably the world's best dancer."

As a boy, Jin was trained at a Chinese military dance academy, a unique cultural model where some of China's best artists are developed. In an interview with journalist Sheila Melvin, Jin said, "They gave me a fantastic education. For a child who wants to be an artist, it is wonderful, especially with the discipline. I still benefit from this education." In addition to learning traditional Chinese dance, opera, acrobatics and Russian classical ballet, Jin learned how to shoot a machine gun and make bombs.

Jin Xing continued her training in New York and Europe, choreographing for television in Rome, and teaching dance in Brussels. In 1995, Jin returned to China to fix "the little mistake God made when he created me." It was there that Xing transitioned as a woman via surgery. "I'm a very superstitious person. In my first life, my mother brought me into China, and I wanted to be reborn in China. I felt I would be safe on the land of China."

Due to complications to an otherwise successful procedure, Jin was unable to move her left leg after the surgery, and her dance career was jeopardized. With physical therapy, she not only learned to walk again, but perform as the lead dancer in her company. "I never regretted the surgery, I knew I'd take the consequences whatever happened. Maybe it was punishment, I'd made the wrong decision, but I'd take it."

It was during this period that the Chinese government began to develop modern dance in China, and Jin Xing was on the vanguard of choreographing Western contemporary movement. The government invited Xing to run the new Beijing Modern Dance Ensemble, but on the condition the company would not receive any government funding. Xing privately fundraised, largely supported by her mother, and the company premiered at a military theater in 1996. The performances were a watershed moment in Chinese cultural history, ushering in a new generation of contemporary performance.

Jin later moved to Shanghai and founded the Jin Xing Dance Theatre, again financially self-supported in a culture notorious for censorship. "Nobody dares to censor me. They come to see it, but they don't dare say anything. I'd say, 'I don't get a penny from the government.' They also use me so that they can say, 'Look, we have free artists like Jin Xing.'"

Live accompaniment

At Stanford, Jin will be presenting several seminal pieces that have helped shape her company's aesthetic. Red and Black and Half Dream were the first pieces in which she performed as a woman in Beijing, and her interpretation of Carmina Burana (2000) propelled her into the realm of popular international choreographers. The performances of Carmina Burana at Stanford will feature live music with the Cantabile Youth Singers, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and the Stanford Symphonic Chorus.

Jin Xing had a deeply passionate reaction to Carmina Burana's score, but "wasn't familiar with the strong Christian religious dimension of the lyrics, the mediaeval German and Latin language, the different musical influences on Carl Orff's composition. But in the entire creative process, I always had an element that I understood very well. Carmina Burana is full of passion, of desire and despair, emotions which all human beings share."

In Shanghai, Jin lives with her German-born husband and three children. "Everything I am doing is what I dreamed when I was 17, to be a woman, to have my own company, to be a mother, to have a husband. My religion is, you believe. Whatever you want, your fantasy, your dream, you believe, and you can do it."

Special thanks to Sheila Melvin for her contributions to this article.

Jin Xing Dance Theatre at Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University, April 26-27 (see website for times). Tickets ($24-$50): (650) 725-2787 or