Mao's Last Dancer

22:53, Jul 06 2010
Mao's Last Dancer
Mao's Last Dancer

Mao's Last Dancer has leapt from the pages of Li Cunxin's best-selling autobiography to the cinema screen.

Mao's Last Dancer covers the extraordinary life of a boy who grasped the opportunities he was given with both hands.

Li was born into poverty in rural China, but at the age of 11 an incredible stroke of fate found him studying ballet as one of just 44 children selected from across China to train at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. Dragged from his loving family, Li had a difficult time at the academy, but grew to love dance.

The artistic director of Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson (played by Bruce Greenwood), in Communist China to teach master classes, was impressed with Li's dancing and invited him to Texas for a summer on a scholarship. In that summer of 1981, Li fell in love with an American ballerina and made the difficult decision to pursue his love and his dance career, to marry and defect to America. (If you don't already know Li's life story stop reading now!)

While his first marriage didn't last (they were teenagers when they married), he would later fall for his fellow Houston Ballet principal dancer, Australian prima ballerina Mary McKendry.

The film ends with Li in his 30s but his remarkable story goes on. Having retired from dancing in 1999, Li is a father of three - named Australian father of the year 2009, in fact - and is a successful stockbroker, living in Melbourne.


Star of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Chi Cao, who trained at the Beijing Dance Academy and coincidentally is the son of two of Li's former dance teachers, plays Li Cunxin as an adult and does it superbly. He manages to fulfil the long list of qualities the role required: a brilliant ballet dancer who can speak Mandarin and English, can act and is also rather good-looking.

It's a pretty impressive cast with Kyle MacLachlan as American lawyer Charles Foster, Joan Chen as Li's mother and Jack Thompson in a cameo as a US judge.

Never dull, there are, however, a few clunky bits and awkward moments, but they're forgivable in the larger scheme of things. There's no way an entire life, or even an entire autobiography can be crammed into two hours, so what you get here are the bare bones of Li's life journey.

However, it's such an impressive story of fate combined with self- determination that you can't help be swept up, even if you're not a ballet buff. (In the gala screening I attended, there was a large contingent from the Royal New Zealand Ballet, who laughed at a couple of ballet in-jokes that went over the heads of the rest of the audience.)

The Press