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By Kina Poon
Movies with great dancing are all the rage—from the high-brow documentary (Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse, on the Paris Opéra Ballet) to the feel-good, hormone-charged love story (the Step Up series). Striking a delicate balance is Mao’s Last Dancer, with superb performances rooted in a highly emotional journey. The film, which opens nationwide on August 20, is based on the bestselling autobiography of Li Cunxin, a Houston Ballet star who rose from abject poverty in Qingdao, China, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (see “DM Recommends,” Sept. 2004).
To his family’s great fortune, Cunxin is selected from hundreds of boys based on his proportions and flexibility to train at the Beijing Dance Academy (the way the boys are tested makes for one of the film’s most harrowing scenes). Under the auspices of then Houston Ballet director Ben Stevenson, Cunxin is invited to come to HB and train at the school. When Cunxin’s visa renewal is denied, he defects and is held captive in the Chinese consulate, an event that made national headlines in 1981.
The film may make another Chinese dancer a household name—Chi Cao, the Birmingham Royal Ballet principal and Lausanne and Varna gold medalist, who plays the adult Cunxin in the film (younger versions are acted and danced terrifically by Chengwu Guo and Huang Wen Bin). Cao, 32, was recommended for the role by Cunxin (Cao’s father was the director of the Beijing Dance Academy and trained Cunxin). Cunxin remembers seeing a young Cao at the Academy—and being impressed by his soaring jumps and lovely épaulement. “When we began looking for someone,” says Cunxin, “I told the producers that I knew of a great dancer who spoke Chinese and English, good-looking—but I didn’t know if he could act.”
Cao remembers that when he first met director Bruce Beresford (whose film Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar in 1989), Beresford didn’t ask him to act. Instead, “he asked me about my life.” Cao feels that the similarities between his and Cunxin’s training earned him the role. Not only did they both attend Beijing Dance Academy, but Cao also left home to further his training. At 15, he moved to London to attend the Royal Ballet School. “I could relate to the character’s loneliness, especially missing my family, who I couldn’t even talk to because phone calls were too expensive.”
Cao jumped into his role, eager to learn from Beresford and his fellow actors. While he struggled with memorizing lines and the presence of the camera, the most difficult thing was getting used to hearing his own voice. “I’m so used to expressing emotion with my body. To use my voice—I had a lot of difficulty controlling the volume.” He instantly connected with Amanda Schull, of Center Stage fame, who plays Cunxin’s love interest Elizabeth. “She’s an actress but also a dancer, so she really helped me. And we just got along really well. I asked her about all the gossip from Center Stage.”
Cao enjoyed working with choreographer Graeme Murphy, former director of Sydney Dance Company, who choreographed the dances. “Most of the time dancers are just told what to do, but Graeme asked me what steps I wanted to do.” Cao counts the Rite of Spring sequence among his favorites, which is also a cornerstone of the film’s dramatic arc.
Cunxin, who went on to dance with The Australian Ballet and who is now a stockbroker and motivational speaker in Australia, has high hopes for the film. “It’s the first dance film in a long time with such a powerful story. I will be so happy and grateful if it’s well received in the U.S. It gave so much to me. Even though it’s an Australian film, it’s really a story about China and the U.S."
Pictured: Li Cunxin in 1988. Photo by Jim Caldwell, Courtesy Houston Ballet.