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‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ tiptoes through China’s forgotten history

Posted by Author on August 19, 2010

By Maria Puente, USA TODAY, Aug. 19, 2010 –

Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to remind Americans how good they have it. Australian-born filmmaker Bruce Beresford and a Chinese-born former ballet dancer named Li Cunxin are happy to oblige.

On Friday, Beresford’s latest film, Mao’s Last Dancer, based on Cunxin’s best-selling 2003 autobiography, arrives in U.S. theaters, following a successful opening last year in Australia and a fistful of nominations and awards. Besides spectacular dancing and music, the film packs an emotional wallop about the power of art and love to transcend borders and America’s continuing allure to freedom-seekers.

“It may be the only pro-America film done in 25 years,” says Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy), exaggerating just a little. “I was aware when I was making the film that a lot of people, at least in the Australian press, think life in China under Mao was better than life in America under Bush (either one).

“I’d like to tell them they’re wrong,” he adds. “This film shows someone’s amazing dedication to his art and the value of the freedom to practice it, which is what he had in America.”

But with U.S. movie audiences dazed by Inception, breathless from Salt, or chuckling over Dinner for Schmucks, can a small biopic about a forgotten era and a little-known dancer get any traction? After all, it’s likely most Americans know more about Dancing With the Starsthan they do about classical ballet.

Besides, in a youth-skewed moviegoing audience, how many remember the era of defectors, 30 to 40 years ago, when scores of artists from behind the Iron Curtain (the what?) escaped to the West to pursue their art? Nowadays, with the Soviet Union in the dustbin of history and communist China a rising capitalist world power, most artists come and go as they please, and almost no one defects anymore except Cuban baseball players and Iranian nuclear scientists.

A difficult choice

“I was the first and the last, the first person from the cultural field ever allowed out of China to come to America,” says Cunxin, now 49. “After that, China began to open up.”

But not in 1981, when Cunxin, then a 20-year-old Chinese exchange student at the Houston Ballet, stood up to the madness of China’s Cultural Revolution and refused to return to China as ordered. Legally, he did not defect: He had fallen for and married an American dancer and sought to remain under immigration law.

But like the famous and acclaimed Soviet dancer-defectors before him —Mikhail Baryshnikov (in 1974) and Rudolf Nureyev (in 1961) — Cunxin chose his heart and his art, while fearing for the safety of his family still living in China.

“I thought I’d never see them again. I had lots of nightmares,” says Cunxin, who is retired from dancing and lives in Australia, where he is a stockbroker and motivational speaker. “That guilt, that pain, the emotional uncertainty really haunted me.”

At the time, Chinese officials did not react well. As international headlines blared, Cunxin was held in a Chinese consulate in Houston for 21 hours while Chinese and American officials dickered. Meanwhile, Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan), Cunxin’s politically connected lawyer, gets on the phone to then-vice president George H.W. Bush, a patron of the Houston Ballet.

Mao’s Last Dancer tells what happened to Cunxin (played by Chi Cao, a young Chinese-British dancer and the son of two of Cunxin’s former teachers), and also how he got to that point, itself an “incredible journey,” MacLachlan says.

Compelling true story

It’s the story of how Madame Mao’s party minions plucked him at age 11 from his family in rural China and sent him to the Beijing Dance Academy, whether he liked it or not. How he hated the training at first, and how an inspiring teacher helped him, despite the risks. How he became passionate about dance after watching a smuggled video of Baryshnikov given to him by his teacher. And how at the age of 18, he was discovered during a visit to China by the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood).

“It’s a story of tremendous risk and fortitude … and a reminder that the freedom we enjoy is precious and fragile,” says Greenwood, who took dance lessons to play the British-born ballet master. “It’s a very human story, incredibly touching. When it premiered in Houston, there was a lot of sniffling.”……(USA Today)

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