Directed by Bruce Beresford from a screenplay by Jan Sardi, Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the memoir by Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), a peasants’ son hand-picked by Chinese officials to train in ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. His story unfolds in 1981, with Li arriving in the United States as a visiting student with the Houston Ballet, and in flashbacks to the earlier decade, as the delicate boy matures into a powerful dancer.
From the beginning, Beresford’s film touches on — dances with — the matter of U.S.-Sino relations, an inevitable backdrop to Li’s saga. And yet geopolitics isn’t the aim of the movie; even at its critical dramatic highpoint, the crux of all suspense and diplomatic tension, Mao’s Last Dancer refrains from any highfalutin speechifying on freedom and oppression. As a son of Maoist China in the bosom of capitalist Houston, Li is hardly an apolitical figure, but his transformation in (and by) the West is portrayed less as some vehement awakening than the natural creative growth of an artist who blossoms in the soil of a distant land.
The New York Times blog interviews Li Cunxin about the film:
What did your defection mean for other artists in China?
A. I’m sort of the first defector from China in the cultural area, and that was still the time when China was so closed. After me, all of a sudden that opened the door for Chinese artists. Through my story I hope the audience will get a sense of the changes that have been happening in China. Also coming from a Chinese background, ballet is so Western, so to be able to get to the international stage and be successful is a great cultural step.
Q. What was it like to perform in America for the first time?
A. It was incredible, when I first stepped in for an injured dancer, I just felt for the first time in my life, I felt free, even though I was so nervous. I was in front of an audience which truly loved the dance art form, and the audience was electrified that night, and people screamed and yelled out, I never could have dreamed of that type of reception.
Watch a trailer and selected from the movie: