"China is the most prosperous country in the world," proclaims a low-level Communist teacher. "America is the poorest."
No wonder that ballet dancer Li Cunxin was totally confused when Ben Stevenson, then the artistic director of Houston Ballet, whisked him off to Houston for summer class. Stevenson (now artistic director of the Fort Worth-based Texas Ballet Theater) was part of the first delegation from America ever to visit communist China to teach at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. There he discovered Cunxin.
That is only a tiny bit of an incredible story, based on Cunxin’s award-winning autobiography, which has been made into the movie Mao's Last Dancer, now playing at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.
In many flashbacks, we see Cunxin’s impoverished village, and how officials from the Communist party came to his school, looking for children who might have the makings of a ballet dancer. Fifteen students from his province were selected out of 70 million people. He was 11 years old, and would not see his family again for many years.
The dreary scenes of China, the torturous technique of bending arms and legs past endurance, Madame Mao’s complaint that ballet should have soldiers and guns and the rigid control of everything in China shows through with gripping clarity.
Once in America with its shining high-rises, clean streets and abundant food, Cunxin is dazed and puzzled, as well as suspicious. He is stunned by the wealth—by how Stevenson could buy him $500 dollars worth of clothes when his own father made only $50 a year.
But the real drama came when Cunxin decided not to go back to China. In a showdown at the Chinese consulate where Cunxin was held hostage, his lawyer, Stevenson, ballet board members, several dancers and his new wife refused to leave. By morning the place was swarming with press from all over the country. The pressure was on, going all the way to the White House, and after a day Cunxin was released.
The drama did not end when he became a principal dancer with Houston Ballet. In the most moving scene the curtain was held because "two important people have not arrived." We imagine it would be Barbara and George Bush, since they were big promoters of Houston Ballet. It turned out to be his parents, who were watching him dance for the first time with tear-filled eyes. When they came forward to the stage to greet their son he sagged, sobbing, to his knees.
If there is any flaw in this film, it is the really, really dreadful choreography. You would never guess that Swan Lake was Swan Lake, except for the music. There are endless flying leaps, exaggerated pretzel back-bends and dreary sets. Obviously none of it was close to Stevenson’s best work.
All the actors are terrific. Bruce Greenwood has only a hint of Stevenson’s British accent, but he conveys Stevenson’s teaching technique perfectly. The boy playing Cunxin (Wen Bin Huang) shows such convincing awe, fear and surprise—and determination to succeed—that we’re compelled to root for him. Equally compelling as the teenager is Chengwu Guo. As the adult Cunxin, Chi Cao the actor is as impressive as the dancer. More lean than Cunxin and more flexible—I saw Cunxin in Houston—he is just as gifted. He is compelling in every scene, but best of all, as a ballet partner, his emotions carry truth.
Mao's Last Dancer is rated PG. It plays at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas through Aug. 31 and at the Angelika in Plano through Sept. 2.
Directed by Bruce Beresford, screenplay by Jan Sardi, photography by Peter James, produced and designed by Herbert Pinter and choreographed by Graeme Murphy. Filmed in China, Houston and Sydney, Australia.
►Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill and Dance Magazine.
►On the cover: Wen Bin Huang plays Cunxin as a child. The film also stars Kyle MacLachlan as Charles Foster, Joan Chen is Niang and Amanda Schull as Elizabeth.