Film Review #236: Mao’s Last Dancer
Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Cao Chi, Joan Chen, Bruce Greenwood
In his weekly email bulletin to patrons of Manlius Art Cinema on the eastern outskirts of Syracuse, Nat Tobin announced on Monday that Get Low had done so well he was holding it over for a third week. Since Nat has stuck to a firm opening date of Friday the 15th for Never Let Me Go, that meant that the single week’s run he had scheduled for Australian director Bruce Berseford’s Mao’s Last Dancer just got squeezed out of the queue. Good news if you haven’t got around to Get Low yet – not so much if you put off a drive to see Mao’s Last Dancer so you could catch it here. That film ends today at Rochester’s Little Theatre, but it’s being held over again in Ithaca at Cinemapolis.
Furthermore, this Sunday the theatre hosts Cornell University Law School’s own nationally recognized immigration attorney, Steve Yale-Loehr, who leads a discussion after the 4:25 PM screening. As it happens, Yale-Loehr is old friends with Houston attorney Charles Foster, who won asylum for Li Cunxin in 1981 after the 19-year-old Chinese dancer, on a summer exchange program with the Houston Ballet from the Beijing Dance Academy, decided to defect so he could remain in the US.
Filmed in China, Australia and Houston, Bruce Beresford’s film is based on Li Cunxin’s best-selling 2003 autobiography of the same title. Portraying Li is Chi Cao, principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the north of England, who was himself trained first at Beijing Dance Academy and whose parents, both dorm directors there when Li was a student, remember the 11-year-old poor farm boy plucked from a remote Chinese peasant village’s freezing one-room school for dance training.
In 1981 Li Cunxin went to Houston as one of the first two visiting Chinese students finagled by the British dancer, choreographer and ballet director Ben Stevenson. Formerly a dancer with the British Royal Ballet, Stevenson directed the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2004 (he now directs the Texas Ballet Theatre in Forth Worth). Also in 1976, China’s Mao Zedong died and his wife, the eccentric, doctrinairely literal and brutal Jiang Qing – aka “Madame Mao” – was denounced and imprisoned, creating an opening for some change. In 1978 Stevenson first went to China as part of a cultural exchange program and long returned almost annually to teach at the Beijing Dance Academy. Stevenson brought teachers of modern dance and jazz to China – for example, Gwen Verdon, and in the film Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) brings Gershwin’s music – and in 1985 helped create the Beijing Academy’s Choreography Department. Stevenson is the only foreigner to be named “honorary faculty” at that school.
We see only the tip of this lengthy and deeply significant relationship with the infrastructure of Chinese dance in Mao’s Last Dancer, though perhaps enough to account for Stevenson’s fury when Li Cunxin first admits he’s secretly married the young American dancer Elizabeth Mackey (played by the San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull) and plans to defect, aided by several defiantly sympathetic Houston Ballet board members. “How could you be so selfish!” Stevenson demands at first of the young man whose name means “keep my innocent heart,” perhaps stung that all Li’s evenings at Kung Fu movies must’ve been something else, and adding that Li’s defection would “ruin all I have worked for.”
That moment occurs on-screen inside China’s Houston consulate, which briefly held Li Cunxin prisoner after the young man agreed to go inside to state his case, and quickly catches the attention of the international press, not to mention the drawling judge awakened from his night’s sleep by attorney Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan), the FBI and one Texan vice-president who negotiated Li’s release from Washington. In fact Stevenson got over his angst at Li’s defection, forged ahead and that relationship with Beijing dance endured, his long-range plans only briefly deflected. In July 1995 – in the film this is compressed to a short text scroll before the final credits that highlights Li Cunxin alone – Stevenson took the Houston Ballet on a two-week tour of China with performances in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The Houston Ballet was the first full American ballet company invited by the Chinese government to tour the country. The opening night performance of Stevenson’s production of Romeo and Juliet – Li Cunxin danced the lead – was broadcast live on television to over 500 million Chinese.
Li Cunxin danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years. Elizabeth Mackey left him to pursue her own dancing – though the credits thank her especially for her cooperation on the film – and in 1987 Li married Australian ballerina Mary McKendry (Australian Camilla Vergotis, who dances with the Hong Kong Ballet). Later in 1995 – after the China trip – they moved to Melbourne, where Li became principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Now 49, Li makes his living as a stockbroker. The 2003 autobiography this film is based on stayed on that country’s best-seller list for a year and a half. So Li is a much appreciated figure is his adopted land. And despite the international cast and location shooting, this is very much an Australian film – director Beresford, screenwriter Jan Sardi and principal producer Jane Scott are all Australian, as are many in the production company and the film’s choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.
Hence perhaps the unusually detailed sequences about how dancers learn their profession – I found myself so wanting to watch this film with a dance teacher to check out my intuitions there – and the undercurrent, since Australia has had its own racial tensions, of quiet pride in both this adopted son’s odyssey and success and Australia’s own growth. Hence also the patient affection with which Beresford draws Li’s village and family and his Chinese teachers. The great Chinese-born Joan Chen plays Li’s mother – coincidentally she too landed in the US in 1981 to begin an American career. Zhang Su is the gentle, non-doctrinaire teacher Chan, who reveres Russian ballet and, spotting young Li’s talent, gives the boy a VHS tape of Baryshnikov soaring across a stage after his defection. Thus when the performance scenes occur – Li’s sudden elevation in Houston, when the lead dancer strains a muscle, in Strauss’ Don Quixote, then later Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s fiery Rite of Spring – they are both magnificent and coherent because they come out of a discernible process. And I defy you to come away from Li’s surprise reunion with his parents dry-eyed. For such moments was the word “unabashed” devised.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the Octber 7, 2010 issue of The Eagle weekly in Syracuse. “Mao’s Last Dancer” is held over another week at Cinemapolis, 120 Green St., Ithaca, 607.277.6115. Following this Sunday’s 4:25 PM screening, a discussion with Cornell University Law School professor Steve Yale-Loehr. Go to their website at cimemapolis.org for directions and screening schedule. Cinemapolis is located at the edge of Ithaca Commons, with tickets and popcorn both cheap enough to offset your gas from Syracuse.