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Mao's Last Dancer: Culture, politics and being in the right place at the right time

A scene from Mao's Last Dancer.

Mongrel Media

3 out of 4 stars


Mao's Last Dancer

  • Directed by Bruce Beresford
  • Written by Jan Sardi
  • Starring Chi Cao and Bruce Greenwood
  • Classification: PG

Mao's Last Dancer is a tale of many journeys all scored in the major key of inspiration. Our young traveller ventures from childhood to maturity, from poverty to plenty, from obscurity to fame, from country to city, from austerity to art, from East to West, from entrapment to freedom, and from separation to reunion. That's quite the thematic itinerary, even for a true story, yet the delight of this film isn't so much in the tale as the telling. The themes may soar but everything else - the dialogue, the performances, the direction, the dancing itself - is credibly grounded. That makes for a very pleasing contrast. Not many movies bring their uplift down to earth.

The latter-day pilgrim is Chinese dancer Li Cunxin who, in the tradition of Nureyev and Baryshnikov before him, defected from his communist homeland, trading in the gilded shackles of the state for capitalism's artistic license. But that's just the latter stage of his odyssey. In the opening frames, the script flashes back to the first step, to the early seventies and a small village deep in Mao's China. There, the Communist Party's culture vultures, always on the prowl for malleable young bodies, spot a boy in his single-room school. Not for the last time in his life, Li becomes the chosen one, whisked away from his parents and off to the ballet academy in Beijing, where bone-wearying training and entrenched loneliness await him. Having overcome that struggle, the teenage Li finds himself caught up in another, the battle between the academy's classicists who favour the Russian style of dance and the Maoists who prefer gymnastic tributes to the revolution.

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Ultimately, though, nothing benefits Mao's last dancer more than Mao's last breath. After the Chairman's death, when relations with the West have begun to thaw, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) arrives on a cultural mission. The director of the Houston Ballet, he assesses the local talent with a practised eye: "They're all more athletes than dancers, except for one." Yes, again, Li is chosen, paying an exchange visit to America, wandering dazed and confused through the delights of Texas, among them a blonde ballerina from the corps. While they fall in love, he plays the star-is-born card - taking over at the 11th hour from an injured principal and scoring a triumph in Don Quixote. The darling of the Houston audience, Li is bound to conclude, "I dance better here. Feel more free." And so he does.

What redeems these clichés is the casting, especially Chi Cao in the title role. Recruited from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Chi is a pro who brings both power and lyricism to the performance scenes. Too bad Bruce Beresford's rather static camera can't keep up - the dancing in these sequences is far better than the direction. So, yes, Chi can dance; more surprisingly, he can act too, capturing that blend of fear and awe that besets every stranger-in-a-strange-land. But let's not underrate the often underrated Greenwood. Although he's essentially fifth business here, his take on Stevenson is a tour de force of character acting, digging into the marrow of a guy who, running a big dance company, is something of a dictator himself, by turns poet and pragmatist, benevolent despot and cruel totalitarian. It's no wonder that, when the drama reaches the defection climax, his sympathies are with the Chinese.

During that climax, Beresford rebounds to acquit himself quite well. It's an extended stand-off held in Houston's Chinese consulate, but without the usual quorum of heroes and villains. Instead, this war is waged by functionaries and lawyers, and, as with all political defectors, victory is bittersweet, bought at the high price of estrangement from family and country. Only years later would the debt be cancelled, when, on the dirt stage of a small village deep in a China unknown to Mao, politics stepped aside to let art do what it does best - defy boundaries.

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