Mao’s Last Dancer, an award winning autobiography by Li Cunxin, was made into a beautiful film by director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). This movie is a love story with exquisite dance scenes. More importantly it is about creative freedom, celebrity, the pain of exile and an individual’s victory over oppression.
Cunxin’s story is inspirational as it traces his impoverished childhood in Shandong to international fame as a ballerino. At age 11, Cunxin was selected to train in Madame Mao’s legendary Beijing Dance Academy. Removed from his family, dancing for 15 hours a day six days a week, he experiences firsthand the impact and demands of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978 the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson, O.B.E. travels to China on behalf of the United States as part of the first cultural exchange program. Cunxin, the top student in the academy, earns a place as an exchange student at the Houston Ballet and comes to America.
Cunxin falls in love with his new freedom and begins to question his loyalty to the Communist Party. He also experiences his first love with an aspiring dancer, Elizabeth Mackey. They marry to avoid his deportation. When he refuses to return to China the standoff is heard around the world. There is a 21-hour international incident at the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Houston where Cunxin is kept behind locked doors. The FBI surrounds the building while the debate ensues. Even Vice President George Bush senior intervenes. Cunxin becomes a free man, but loses his Chinese citizenship.
Filmed in China, the U.S. and Australia the lead actor, Chi Cao, is an incredible dancer and soars. This movie was an audience favorite in the Toronto Film Festival. It also won at the San Paulo Film Festival and was the runner up for the Best Film and Golden Space Needle Award, at the Seattle Film Festival. The American debut is getting a lot of buzz as well as the red carpet event with Jane Fonda and other celebrities.
Note: Ben Stevenson, O.B.E., is the current artistic director for the Texas Ballet Theater now celebrating its 50th anniversary. The first performance of the 2010-2011 season is Cinderella at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas and the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.
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