Yu Xin’s path through life has been shaped by ballet and led to a profound teaching philosophy. He was recruited to the Beijing Dance Academy as a child, and his training launched him on a course of excellence, challenge, and beauty. He shared his story with The World Dances with rare honesty and reflection. Through the ups and downs of a remarkable career, he has ended up sharing his love of ballet with a young generation of students who are discovering beauty in themselves and the world through Yu Xin’s inspiring teaching.
Yu Xin recalls the day representatives from the Beijing Academy came to his school in Shanghai. He was 11 years old. “They came into my classroom, as the went into many classrooms all over the city. Now I know they were looking for certain pleasing characteristics—an open face, certain proportions. At the time, I did not know what was happening. I was called to the principal’s office and asked to show them my legs. It was scary!”
Yu Xin was deemed pleasing and invited to audition. He was one of six children accepted out of over 1,000 students at the audition. “It was a great honor and I felt glory as I left for Beijing. The government provided us with everything and I wanted to be worthy of the opportunities I was being given,” he remembers.
The Beijing Dance Academy taught a cousin of Russian ballet technique. “There was a connection between Russia and China at the time because of Communism,” Yu Xin explains. “But our style evolved in its own direction over time so they’re not quite the same.”
When he was 17, Yu Xin graduated from the Academy and joined the Shanghai Ballet, where he would dance five years as a Principal Dancer. “Returning to my home to dance professionally was a joy!” Despite being one of the youngest company members, Yu Xin was given spotlighted roles from the beginning of his professional career. “It was wonderful to have such opportunities and I started learning how to be a better artist through the experience.”
Some few years later, Francia Russell, then Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, visited Shanghai on a mission of cultural exchange. She set Balanchine’s La Walz on the company and worked closely with Yu Xin on a lead role. Impressed, she invited him to visit Washington to dance with Pacific Northwest for a three-month exchange program. He went and loved it.
“The company’s style was based in the Balanchine technique. I enjoyed it so much and loved Seattle and the company. Francia Russell became a mentor to me. I wanted to stay, but it would be years before I could return after the end of the exchange program. But I told them, ‘I will be back.’”
Moving to the United States from China proved complicated. The Chinese government viewed Yu Xin’s training with the Beijing Dance Academy as an investment for Chinese dance, and he wasn’t allowed to leave until his five-year contract was completed. When he was able, however, he returned to PNB and achieved the level of soloist.
He also won 6th place at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. “It was really hard!” Yu Xin describes. “I was dancing full-time with PNB and training on my own after work for the competition. I had to prepare four variations, three classical and one contemporary. This period of intense work pushed me to improve and reach new levels.”
He was grouped with the Chinese team, comprising former company and academy colleagues. “It was wonderful to see them and I was happy to have the chance to show them and some of my teachers the dancer I had become. I still remember standing on the stage with them holding my Chinese flag.” But it felt strange being on Chinese team and coming from an American company.
Despite his success, that sense of being “in between” worlds would prove a foreshadowing of challenges to come. “I became depressed, I think. I had accomplished things that were important to me, but I felt very alone. At the time I could not afford to call my family much and I did not have any real friends. My English wasn’t very good and most people wouldn’t take much time to try to talk to me. The isolation affected my inner being, and that came through in my dancing. I felt I was becoming worse, which was also depressing. It was a difficult time.”
Realizing he needed a change, Yu Xin booked a ticket to New York. He planned to audition for New York City Ballet because of the Balanchine kinship. However, when he arrived, Peter Martins could not see him and he met with a cold reception. “In New York, nobody cared who I was. It did not matter that I was a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet at all.” Resiliently, Yu Xin decided to try American Ballet Theatre while he was in New York. “They would not let me take the company class when I walked in, but I was invited to take the adult class. Since I was in New York and classes were expensive, I thought, ‘A free class, why not!?’”
It turned out other aspiring company members were taking that very adult class as an audition and that ABT higher-ups were there to observe. Kevin McKenzie offered Yu Xin two contracts that day to join the company as a corps de ballet member for the remainder of its current season and into the next.
Yu Xin accepted and began touring with ABT immediately. “There are so many stars in that sky,” he says, describing his experience with the company. “It could feel like it was too bright too see everywhere sometimes.” While performing with the likes of Angel Corella, Jose Manuel Careno, Ethan Stiefel, and other luminaries made advancement difficult, it also offered a rare chance to learn about artistic charisma. “I became close friends with many of these beloved ballet stars. It was a chance to think about and learn from them what makes people love these dancers so much,” Yu Xin reflects. “They have special qualities that shine through them when they dance beyond their phenomenal technique. Every move they make has a reason. They use their artistry to create stories, not just dance.”
This commitment to artistry would remain with Yu Xin as he moved on from his performance career after six years with ABT. He became a teacher with the San Jose Ballet, both for company and community outreach programs. “This experience of teaching everyone and all levels made me realize a passion for teaching and prepared me to open my school,” says Yu Xin. He opened the Yu Xin Ballet School in 2005 and became one of the first teachers to become certified in the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum.
Yu Xin speaks about his students with genuine love and he channels that love into remarkable results. For instance, one of his students is nearly completely blind. She joined the Yu Xin Ballet School at the age of four, and this last year was able to perform on stage in a duet, matching her partner for spacing and ability.
Yu Xin describes his love for teaching, “When you dance ballet, you imagine beauty and create it with your body to share with the world. When you teach ballet, you help others find that idea of beauty in themselves to share, no matter who they are. It feels like what I am meant to do. And not just with professional dancers, but with everyone who wants to feel that beauty.”