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Mao's Last Dancer

By Li Cunxin

Book Review by Leland Windreich

For Li Cunxin, born in 1961, the chances of becoming a world acclaimed ballet dancer were a million to one. Number six in a Chinese family of seven boys, sleeping head to toe in a peasant commune hovel near the costal city of Quingdao, Li had neither special talents nor childhood yearnings to be a performer. The farming family survived on a diet of dried yams, supplemented with a monthly portion of fatty pork. Frequent purges for intestinal parasites plagued the community, where colds were treated by eating an onion wrapped in snakeskin and asthma symptoms were alleviated with a broth of chicken boiled with a toad.

Li’s education was barely fundamental. Much of his early schooling was dedicated to mouthing paeans to Chairman Mao, and knowledge of a world outside of China was limited to the information that the United States was an evil generator of poverty, corruption and crime. But when he was 11 his school was visited by a committee of talent scouts who were touring China for recruits in Madame Mao’s new performing arts academy in Beijing.

A pretty girl with large eyes was pushed forward by the faculty, and when the judges selected her, the mathematics teacher suddenly pointed to Li and made the fatal suggestion: “What about that one?” Li was accepted on the spot. Arduous physical examinations and an intense investigation of Li’s understanding of Mao’s ideology followed. His family background was scrutinized and passed muster. But a period of agonizing suspense transpired as his qualifications were screened by a complex bureaucracy before he was ultimately transported north to begin his education in the theatre arts. (Years later when he returned to his village after many years abroad, he found his old teacher and inquired why he had been chosen. She had no substantial reason, other than her awareness that Li had been a fast runner. More likely was her appreciation of his youthful progress as a model communist).

Desperately lonely for his family, Li was initially unhappy with his education at the academy. The training in classical ballet, movement style of the Chinese opera, and acrobatics presented a daily task of dealing with the contradictions that each posed to the others. The instructors were stern and cruel, manipulating the students’ bodies mercilessly to achieve correct positions.

Li did appreciate a new life which offered him three meals a day. It became clear that a better existence was a possibility if he applied himself to his studies. After his first vacation at home, he returned with a new vigor. A new ballet teacher, Xiao Shuhua, became a role model and an inspiration. Within a year he had progressed to the head of the class. He had also been accepted as a member of the Communist Youth Party. As his training advanced, so did his affiliations to the party.

During the Cultural Revolution the ballet technique acquired earlier from Russian teachers was maintained in the academy, but the theatrical productions were created with communist themes and ideas respectful of the Maoist ideology. But after the death of Mao and the routing of the Gang of Four, western ideas began to be introduced to their studies. Videos of Baryshnikov dancing in "The Turning Point" and in his production of "The Nutcracker" were shown to the advanced students. In these Li witnessed the power of classical dancing and the perfection of a craft unseen in isolated China. A visit to Beijing by the London Festival Ballet brought further stimulation. But the turning point in Li’s education came when Ben Stevenson of the Houston Ballet arrived to conduct master classes in the academy. Li was one of 20 students chosen to participate. When Stevenson offered a summer scholarship of ballet training in Houston, Li was one of the two prize pupils selected to go.

Li’s account of his first visit to the west is a saga of culture shock. On the Northwest jet crossing the Pacific he offered to help the flight attendant do the dishes after his meal. In Houston he was astonished by the prosperity of the land, noting that the tip that Stevenson left at a Chinese banquet could have fed Li’s family for a year.

Following his summer interlude in Texas, Li applied for a visa to return to Houston as a guest dancer with the ballet, only to be thwarted by a negative response from the Beijing authorities. Ultimately, and with connections, he was able to return, and on his second visit to the west he began his training in the classical roles of the Houston repertoire. He also had an impulsive and short-lived marriage to an American dancer. But his seduction by western values and the opportunities to advance his career made it necessary for him to defect.

Li’s story is a personal one, filled with fascinating observations about Chinese life under a repressive regime and sprinkled with examples of traditional stories and folklore. The reader more interested in his dancing accomplishments in the west might wish for a more detailed account of his professional activities. What comes across in his story and what will be long remembered, is his staunch family connection and the fierce loyalties he continues to express to his parents and brothers. As a principal dancer in Houston he had found a launching pad which took him to international competitions and guest appearances abroad, and, ultimately to a stellar position with the Australian Ballet. There he finished his career at age 37 with his second wife, Mary McKendry. From the world of ballet he turned to a successful career as a stockbroker. Perhaps his prophetic mathmematics teacher saw in the dark-skinned boy not so much the basic qualities to make him a dancer but an ability to survive and become a winner.

Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin. Penguin/Viking, 2003. 444 pp. illus. $26.00
ISBN: 0 670 04024 X

Edited by Jeff.

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