“Mao’s Last Dancer” is a rags-to-riches tale of a Chinese pauper, Li Cunxin, who became a prince, coming to America and reigning on stage in Houston, Texas as a principal dancer in the ballet company there. While the script takes some dramatic license and compresses events, it’s heart is in the right place and more than a few sniffles could be heard in the audience at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 during a Sunday matinee.
For those who haven’t heard the story, Li was chosen from his classroom by delegates sent by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, to find 10-year-olds who could be turned into dancers. Her goal at first was to train them in the classical ballet tradition and then, as politics changed, in a new Chinese Communist tradition. Li was taken from his small village and large family (he had six brothers) to live in a dormitory where he trained for seven years at the Beijing Dance Academy, only seeing his family once a year.
In 1978, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, the British-born Ben Stevenson, came to Beijing and offered Li a six-week scholarship. Texan George Bush senior was the envoy to China at the time and his wife, Barbara, was a trustee of that ballet company. In November of 1979, Li was allowed to return to Houston to train and dance for a year.
When the year was up, Li decided not to return. Instead he quickly married an American dancer, giving him the right to stay in the U.S. under international law. His confrontation with the Chinese officials in Houston resulted in a 21-hour period of confinement in the Chinese Consulate in Houston. The FBI surrounded the compound, a lawyer called friends in high places and Li had his Chinese citizenship taken away. He could not return to China, not even to see his family and he was afraid to contact them.
By 1984, Li was a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet. That same year, then-vice president Bush senior, arranged for Li’s parents to be flown to Houston to see Li perform the double-lead of the Snow Prince and the Sugar Plum Prince in “The Nutcracker.” It would be the first time Li had seen his parents since his defection.
In 1987, Li divorced his first wife and married one of his partners at the Houston Ballet, Australian Mary McKendry, In 1994, he joined the Australian Ballet with his wife. Yet the career of a ballet dancer is short. The 49-year-old Li is currently a stockbroker in Melbourne, Australia. In 2004, his autobiography was published. The movie, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” uses the same title as the book and refers to Mao’s last wife, often known as Madame Mao.
The Australian-born director Bruce Beresford is probably best-remembered for the bittersweet 1989 “Driving Miss Daisy” or the angry 1980 “Breaker Morant,” and in “Mao’s Last Dancer,” he allows us to feel the awkwardness of a foreigner, with little command of the English language. You could almost hear people shifting uncomfortably in their seats, waiting, wishing to help Li as he haltingly expresses himself in English. We see Li experiencing Houston after coming from a small hut and an only slightly better academy dormitory. The contrasts are heartbreaking and more convincing than political rhetoric.
Jan Sardi’s screenplay compresses events. Li has a whirlwind summer romance with another student, Elizabeth Mackey (former San Francisco ballet dancer Amanda Schull). In the Hollywood tradition, Li suddenly takes the stage as a last-minute replacement bringing him glory and prominent friends in Houston. That pays off when he finally defects. Yet this isn’t a happily-ever-after tale for the young couple. Mackey isn’t as good a dancer as Li, but wants to dance. And this, along with different expectations, eventually breaks them up. Mackey leaves and joins a dance company in a different state. By that time, Li has found his perfect dance partner, the woman he would eventually marry.
Because so much is covered in this 117-minute film, sometimes events are expressed in a montage, making the flow choppy, yet all three actors playing Li hold the stage well. The young Li is played by Huang Wen Bin, a boy from an athletics school in Mainland China.
Chengwu Guo, a top graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy and current member of the Australian Ballet, played the adolescent Li. Chengwu Guo won a prize at the international junior ballet competition and a gold medal in the Shanghai ballet competition in 2006.
Chi Cao, who plays Li as an adult, was trained at the Beijing Dance Academy and is the son of two former academy teachers. He’s been a member of the Birmingham Royal Ballet since 1995. Chi Cao is charismatic and expressive on stage, much in the way of a young Rudolf Nureyev and is convincing as the at first confused then awe-inspired man who comes to savor the taste of freedom in America he at first feared.
The casting of real dancers makes this dance movie a movie not only about a dancer, but a movie for dancers. Further, the casting of this Australian production directly contrasts recent movies where the Asian and Asian American experience has been whitewashed.
After American-made movies that took the Asian American experience and whitewashed it as in the case of “21,” “The Prince of Persia,” or the more recent “The Last Airbender,” it’s refreshing to see this 2009 Australian production allows Asian men to portray an Asian man’s journey and even cast actors who look Chinese (unlike “The Memoirs of a Geisha” casting). Even better, this movie hasn’t been reduced to a white man/woman looking in and translating the events.
This is an inspiring, sensitive look at a man who rose through chance and determination and gave up everything for a brief career center stage as a principal ballet dancer in America and then Australia. Dancers and lovers of dance get the opportunity to see an exceptional ballet dancer playing another exceptional dancer and, of course, see the kind of sacrifice and discipline required to become the best, even if for a short time.
“Mao’s Last Dancer” continues at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 and on Friday opens up at other Laemmle theaters.