Jessica Xuan
Photo: Jan Willem Kaldenbach

Jessica Xuan


Of the five years she spent in her hometown of Beijing, principal dancer Jessica Xuan remembers very little. Her mother, who gave lessons in playing traditional Chinese instruments in the Chinese capital city, wanted to see more of the world. So she and her husband – an engineer – emigrated, with their only child, to Toronto, in Canada. There, a few years later, Jessica’s primary school class went to see a performance of La fille mal gardée by The National Ballet of Canada. “I absolutely loved the story and the way the dancers could express their emotions in movement.” A bit later still, her mother took her to an amateur ballet school, just to have a look, and when the ten-year-old Jessica saw some older girls at work, she was ‘sold’. “It turned out I wasn’t flexible at all, but I was extremely inspired nonetheless. I wanted to be just as good as the girls I’d seen.”

‘Why not?’

Two years later, she was accepted for Canada’s National Ballet School. “My years there were tough, with long days filled with dance classes and regular school lessons. But once you’re in the routine, you take it completely for granted. And for me, discipline wasn’t a problem. At least not for ballet, although it was for the piano lessons I had from my mother.”

In Jessica’s final year of training, Mavis Staines, the director of Canada’s National Ballet School, suggested that Dutch National Ballet might suit her well, so it might be an idea to transfer to the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam. “I didn’t know the company or the school very well, but Mavis herself danced with Dutch National Ballet for a while, so I trusted her judgement implicitly. Besides, I was pretty open-minded, so I thought: ‘Why not?’”

‘One of my best years ever’

Suddenly finding herself so far away from her parents and living in a room in Osdorp was no easy matter. But when the Dutch National Ballet’s Junior Company was founded the following year – in 2013 – and Jessica was one of the group’s first crop of dancers, everything fell into place. “That first year in the Junior Company was one of my best years ever. I made friends with dancers from all over the world. We were very close, and on top of that we got so many dancing opportunities.”

After just one year, she made the switch to Dutch National Ballet, where the promotions followed in rapid succession. At the end of 2017, at the age of 22 and still in the rank of coryphée, she danced her first main role as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. “I’d worked so hard for it and rehearsed on all my free days, and when it came to it, I wasn’t even very nervous.” She laughs, “I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?”

Jessica in Swan Lake
Jessica Xuan in Swan Lake (2023) | Photos: Altin Kaftira
Jessica in Swan Lake

Gold in Varna

Six months after this impressive debut – and her subsequent promotion to grand sujet – Jessica won gold at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, which is often called the ‘Olympics of dance’. Previous winners have included world stars like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sylvie Guillem, Natalia Makarova and Vladimir Vasiliev. “I applied”, she says, “with no high expectations. I was going purely for the experience, and for the chance to develop further. And that’s what happened! It turned into the adventure of a lifetime. Sometimes, you were suddenly summoned to a stage call at five o’clock in the morning, while the dawn chorus was just starting outside. The fact that I ended up winning wasn’t only a shock; it also humbled me. There were so many other participants who deserved the prize.”

Heart-rendingly beautiful

Jessica has since greatly expanded her repertoire, with leading roles in ballets like Giselle, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Onegin, La Bayadère and Swan Lake. And she’s worked with “fantastic people like Natalia Makarova (La Bayadère – ed.) and Balanchine répétiteur Patricia Neary”. Of all the aforementioned productions, John Cranko’s Onegin is probably her most favourite, partly because of the poignant, tragic story of unrequited love. Jessica has previously danced the role of Olga (the sister of the female lead), but the role of Tatiana has been high on her wish list for years. “I saw the ballet as a student at Canada’s National Ballet School, when the role of Tatiana was danced with heart-rending beauty by former ballerina Xian Nan Yu. And it was truly as if I was watching ballet for the very first time. I’d never been moved so deeply before.”

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen

Jessica in The Sleeping Beauty
Jessica Xuan - The Sleeping Beauty (2022) | Photos: Michel Schnater
Jessica in The Sleeping Beauty
Jessica in The Sleeping Beauty
Jessica and Jakob in Swan Lake
Jessica Xuan and Jakob Feyferlik in Swan Lake (2023) | Photos: Altin Kaftira
Jessica and Jakob in Swan Lake
Jessica and Semyon
Jessica Xuan and Semyon Velichko in Giselle (2020) | Photos: Altin Kaftira
Jessica and Semyon in Giselle
Jessica and Semyon in Giselle
Jessica Xuan and Davi Ramos in Giselle
Jessica Xuan and Davi Ramos in Giselle (2023) | Photo: Alex Gouliaev


Place of birth:
Beijing (China)

With Dutch National Ballet since:

Career with Dutch National Ballet:
Principal (2020), soloist (2019), grand sujet (2018), coryphée (2016), corps de ballet (2015), élève (2014), Junior Company (2013)

Canada’s National Ballet School (Toronto, Canada), Dutch National Ballet Academy (Amsterdam)


  • 2018: International Ballet Competition Varna (Bulgaria), gold medal

Honourable mentions:

  • 2020: ‘Outstanding performance by a female dancer’, Critics’ Choice Dance Europe