Chinese Dancer Looks Back

New film traces a dancer's career from the Cultural Revolution to the present day.

last-dancer-305.jpg Film poster for Mao's Last Dancer.
Photo: RFA

HONG KONG—A movie portraying the life of a top Chinese ballet dancer who defected to the West at the height of his career, sparking a diplomatic incident, opened Aug. 20 in the United States.

Mao's Last Dancer portrays the rags-to-riches story of Li Cunxin spanning two decades and three continents.

"The movie spans a time starting in the 1970s when Mao Zedong was still around, and ending in the 1990s," said Li, who lauded the film as an accurate filming of his book and a close-to-reality picture of his life story.

"This is a movie about how China evolved," said Li, who was admitted to Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy at age 11 in 1972.

"Even though I was only five or six when the Cultural Revolution ended, I think it had an extremely large impact on the years that came after."

Li said Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who had grasped tight political control of cultural output around the country, had a huge influence on the academic life of the institute.

"Her notion was to turn us ballet dancers into Red Guards," Li recalled.

"So even though I attended the Beijing Dance Academy in order to learn ballet, I still spent a huge amount of time studying communism and political studies."

'Little space for freedom'

In the movie, stern portraits of Mao look down on ballet rehearsal rooms, where a young Li, played by Chi Cao, hones his art, but finds little freedom of expression.

Told against the backdrop of two very different societies, post-Mao China and the oil-rich modern city of Houston, Texas, Mao's Last Dancer tracks Li's progress to the United States in 1981 and his terrifying detention in the Chinese Consulate there, before his release was negotiated by diplomats.

"Those 20 hours [that I spent in the Chinese consulate in Houston] were the most terrifying and darkest hours of my life," said Li, who is currenntly working on a second, non-autobiographical, book.

"It was like being in an unimaginable nightmare. I really thought that my chances of getting out alive that evening were very small."

He said his intention in developing his dance and career had always been to help out his family, but also to get to the top of his profession. And his defection to the United States fueled his career with even greater energy.

"When I was working in the troupe, there were things I came up with that I wanted to do regarding my own art, but had to put aside because either the troupe leader didn't agree with it, or someone else didn't agree with it," said Li.

Li is shown in the movie performing graceful, soaring leaps instead of the muscular, revolutionary style of dancing favored by Jiang Qing.

"Back then, as an artistic performer, there was very little space for freedom of expression in terms of your personal art. You weren't allowed to study stuff from Western ballet, and this was extremely painful for me," he said.

Scenes from life

Mao's Last Dancer opens with Li wandering the streets of Houston, interspersed with scenes from his earlier life in China. It progresses through the crisis of his defection, and shows him matured into a top professional dancer five years later, while showing his early life and training in flashbacks.

Li said the movie is as much a portrait of the Chinese people through their recent history as it is of himself.

"I hope that people, especially the audience in the West, will reach a new awareness of how society has changed in the People's Republic of China," he said.

"I think that it's possible to experience, through my story, the fighting spirit that is so widespread among Chinese people, their diligence, and their work ethic."

He said he hopes his success will make Chinese audiences proud.

"I hope that they will learn a few lessons from my life story," Li said.

"We should never again return to the restrictive society of the Cultural Revolution, or before it, in which there was no freedom, no hope and no opportunity."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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