Dance: From soldier to butterfly: a spectacular metamorphosis

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The Independent Culture


WE ARE as familiar with mainland China's embryonic contemporary dance scene as with the inside of Russia's Lubyanka prison. So the prospect of Jin Xing's performance in the ICA's Peking-London season had curiosity value. Add to that the fact that Jin Xing was once a male colonel in the People's Liberation Army and is now a woman, and you have an irresistible mix.

Which is hype? Which is reality? Trained by the army as a ballet and folk dancer, Jin Xing was reportedly one of China's finest male classical dancers. After 16 army years, he spent four years in New York studying modern dance, set up China's first independent contemporary dance troupe in 1996, and won praise as a choreographer. A year earlier, thanks to a Peking surgeon, he had also become a she. The state-run media, reviewing Jin Xing's performances, mentioned her sex change - a sign that this most conservative of societies had shifted its thinking. Today sex-change operations are performed openly in China; though Jin Xing negotiates a delicate compromise between self-expression and official approval, this has brought her choreographic commissions from government-backed organisations and allowed her to open a night-club in Peking.

At 32, she may indeed be China's leading modern choreographer, if they are few and far between. According to one of her pieces at the ICA, however, "red butterflies are even fewer" - because they are dying out, rather than newly emerging. For whatever reason The Last Red Butterfly juxtaposed a ladder, a human butterfly (Jin Xing in Chinese-style red costume) and Negro spirituals. The dance movement looked feeble; yet the presentation had an interesting originality, bringing Jin Xing together on stage with Michael Harper, a black counter-tenor who not only sang, but also participated in some of the movement.

The opening piece, 3am, had the naked intensity and wild imagery of up- to-the-minute dance theatre. Jin Xing was a figure thrashing in the harsh beam of a side lamp, trapped in the agonised solitude of night, poised between childhood memories and an adult future. It seemed a metaphor of her own life-story, as we watched her first in a soldier's cap and jacket, then stripped down to her girl's shift, her long hair unplaited. If the lighting and music were not as well synchronised as she would have wished, she did not need to apologise in tortured English at the end. 3am carried more conviction than the extract from Deja vu by the American Murray Louis, in which Jin Xing, clothed in vaporous white, was required to tremble like a leaf, right down to her long, opalescently varnished nails.

Is she a talent hampered by the absence of precedents in her own country? Can she pioneer a new form of dance? I have no idea, although her stated desire to become an actress suggests she is more interested in dispersing her energies. Perhaps even she thinks that her claim to be China's answer to Martha Graham is going a bit far.