When Xiang Xu, 24, joined UCLA’s Master of Fine Arts in Dance program in 2012 after graduating from the Beijing Dance Academy, one of China’s most prestigious schools—he found that the program did not meet his expectations of a place where he could solidify his technique. He shared his feelings with a professor at UCLA who suggested that he try out Santa Monica College’s dance department.
“Before I came, I thought it was just a community college,” says Xiang. “But now I think, uh-oh, it’s better than UCLA!” After enrolling in dance history, advanced classical ballet and modern dance classes at SMC, Xiang also was accepted as a dancer and student choreographer into the performance classes: Global Motion, SMC’s world dance company and Synapse, its contemporary dance counterpart. Xiang is one of 1,120 students from Mainland China—SMC has a total of 3,394 international students, the second largest in the United States.
Xiang has just been accepted into the MFA in Dance program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Speaking with a mastery of English belying the fact that he taught himself the language just three years ago, he describes going to NYU as a dream of a lifetime.
Xiang grew up in Ningbo, a seaport city in China’s Zhejiang province. One of his earliest memories is that of his grandmother taking him to a temple to watch a Chinese opera—it was the first time he saw people dance. He came home and began mimicking the movements, and when his parents saw him, he uses his favorite expression to describe their reaction: Uh-oh. A boy who likes to dance? They expected him to be like any other boy, to finish school and university and get a good mainstream job—but they were in for a surprise.
At age 12, Xiang was accepted at Zhejiang Art Academy—a middle and high school that taught classical Chinese and folk dance, ballet, and some modern dance alongside traditional subjects. He then went on to the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA), whose alumni include Chi Cao, former principal ballet dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet and actor/dancer in the film Mao’s Last Dancer, and the BAFTA and Golden Globe nominated actress Zhang Ziyi.
At BDA, Xiang majored in choreography but did not really know what he wanted to do with his passion—until he met the late Sun Ying. Sun, a pioneer of Chinese classical dance who was prominent for creating the Han-Tang style of Zhongguo gudianwu, the official dance form of China, had been labeled a “rightist” in 1957 and sent away to “reform” for being against the idea of replacing Chinese classical dance with Russian ballet. When Xiang met Sun, he found his calling and identity as a choreographer and a dancer, and began studying Chinese classical dance under Sun’s tutelage at BDA.
“No matter where I go, I will be Chinese,” says Xiang. “I may be doing modern dance but I need to find and know myself.” Xiang’s future plans include graduating from NYU and then establishing Chinese contemporary dance technique based on Sun Ying’s school of Chinese classical dance.
Mark Tomasic, SMC Dance professor and co-director of Synapse describes Xiang as an “intricate, interesting and mature” dancer.
“He can merge so many different styles and techniques, and in his own choreography is very fluid—but with power and thickness at the same time,” says Tomasic, adding that those two opposing qualities are rarely seen together.
Xiang will be performing in several pieces, including a solo he choreographed at the Synapse performances this spring at The Broad Stage at SMC’s Performing Arts Center.
“I love Xiang’s personality,” says Jae Lee, SMC Dance professor who co-directs Synapse with Tomasic. Lee describes Xiang as humble and open to correction.
In March 2014, Xiang traveled with Lee and other SMC faculty and students to the prestigious American College Dance Festival in Georgia, where SMC was the only community college selected to perform in the final gala. Global Motion was also invited to the Beijing International Tourism Festival in 2013 and will be traveling back to China to perform at the International Folklore Arts Festival this fall, alongside artistes from all over the world.
“At SMC, we teach dance as an art form, not as entertainment—either for personal expression or to represent a culture,” says Judith Douglas, chair of the Dance Department. “Really, what you get here is the highest quality for the lowest price. All our faculty are accomplished professionals, with years of experience—we are top rate.”
SMC offers an Associate in Arts degree in Dance and prepares the serious dance student for university transfer. Classes include six different technique levels of ballet, commercial and modern dance, dance history and choreography.
“What makes us different is our diversity, we embrace so many different kinds of students,” says Lee. “Then, for us, technique is key—once you get that, you can do anything else. That was why Xiang came to SMC from UCLA. We prepare students to go to conservatory schools where technique is strongly emphasized, like NYU.”
As for Xiang, he knows what he wants from his future: “A lot,” he says. He wants to gain a complete understanding of western culture and modern dance—and to be a good choreographer, dancer and professor.
“I want to be a bridge between the US and China,” says Xiang, adding that he wants to teach in both countries, taking the art and culture of one to the other.
For more information on SMC’s Dance program, check out www.smc.edu/dance.