review by Heather Desaulniers
Most dance movies can be categorized in one of two ways: the non-fiction documentary or the fictional major motion picture. The former seeks to share actual events through historical footage and interviews while the latter is a made-up story in which dance is prominently featured. Both types have their niche, yet both also have their problems. Dance documentaries can be incredibly fascinating, revealing and educational, but they generally don’t enjoy a very wide audience (and viewership definitely matters). The wider release fictional movies often end up combining good acting with bad dancing, or great dancing with horrible acting. If an actor is cast in a dancing role, then the director has two choices. Try and teach them or use the very obvious dance double. Both options are just not good. Casting professional dancers in lead roles is also not a solution because more often than not, they must be taught how to act (and this attempt can be unsuccessful). There are a few exceptions to this (in my opinion, at least): “The Turning Point,” “Dirty Dancing,” and “The Company.” These three managed to overcome the obstacles, and featured wonderful dancing coupled with fabulous acting.
Still a third format exists where true events are adapted into a screenplay. Though not as common with dance-based movies, this winning formula produces successful and compelling results. This is exemplified by “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a film that retells the unique journey of ballet dancer Li Cunxin. In two hours, we learn how he was selected from a rural village in China to compete for a spot at Beijing’s national ballet school and we follow him through: his acceptance into that academy; spending his youth and adolescence training for a professional career at this rigorous institution; being separated from his family during these formative years; traveling to the States for a summer intensive; finding love; becoming a star; making the difficult decision to stay in America; fighting to make that happen; and enduring the consequences of that choice. At each point, the audience is keenly aware of three desires: Cunxin’s longing for home, his continual search for artistic meaning, and his pursuit of freedom. Throughout his life, these yearnings were often at odds with each other. However, by the end of the movie, Cunxin has experienced the joy of an existence where all three were finally realized.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Chi Cao was absolutely superb in the title role; a combination of solid acting and transcendent dance. One scene particularly stood out. After years of not being permitted to see or communicate with his parents, Li is reunited with them toward the end of the film. This moment was so raw - Cao was pure emotion as he dropped to his knees in tears. All of his dancing was extraordinary, but specifically the Act III variation and pas de deux from Don Quixote. The way in which the cinematography captured Cao’s technique was stirring; the audience in the movie theater applauded like they were watching him live on stage. That’s how genuine, authentic and transformative “Mao’s Last Dancer” is.
Two members of the supporting cast also deserve particular mention. Madeleine Eastoe (as Lori) was delightful, both in the dramatic portions and in her few instances of comic relief. The excerpts of Eastoe and Cao in “Swan Lake” were teasing to any ballet fan. I immediately wanted to see more of them in this particular version of the full-length classic. Amanda Schull (as Liz) has really come into her own as an actor. A decade has passed since her first foray into film (“Center Stage”), and she has certainly used this time to improve her acting. The scene in Liz’s apartment where she watches Li dancing on television was fabulous. Schull had no lines here, but her face spoke volumes. She is no longer just ‘a dancer who acts’; she is an actor. Having said that, I will admit that I missed seeing her dance in this movie. Now that her acting and ballet skills are on par with each other, it would have been nice to see the latter utilized.
review by Carmel Morgan
“Mao’s Last Dancer,” based on the best-selling autobiography of the same name, is the true story of Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer who turned heads and grabbed headlines when his trip to the United States for a summer intensive resulted in an international incident.
The film began with Li, played expertly as an adult by Chi Cao, a principal dancer with the Royal Birmingham Ballet, marveling at the wonders Houston has to offer – tall glass skyscrapers, a room of his own, an Oilers cap, a blender, the shopping mall, candy, an ATM, etc. A real fish out of water, Li learned the word “fantastic” to describe these new things that he had not had a taste of in China. The movie frequently flashed forward and backward. From the relative opulence of life in America, the film headed to the beginning of Li’s ballet journey, when he was plucked as a peasant child from a ramshackle rural Chinese classroom and given the opportunity (more like forced conscription) to go to an arts academy in Beijing. Rather than being filled with wonder at the sights Beijing brought, little Li, far away from his family, sobbed at night in the gloomy student dormitory (although crying was not allowed, as it showed weakness).
Li’s experience with ballet was not love at first sight. The ballet training he received was harsh and very hands-on. Teachers literally tugged and pulled his limbs as he grimaced in pain. At the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, ballet became a propaganda tool, and Madame Mao asked the school to produce only ballets with communist themes. When one of Li’s beloved teachers balked, the teacher was summarily whisked away, presumably to toil at a labor education camp. This teacher, who deeply believed in Li’s potential as a dancer, snuck him a videotape of Baryshnikov as a source of inspiration.
Li grew to be a technically proficient dancer in China, but his dancing lacked emotional depth. When given a chance to study ballet in America, Li leapt. And when a substitute was needed in the Houston Ballet’s production of Don Quixote, Li came to the forefront. Meanwhile, in addition to taking in the material wonders of Texas, Li had begun dating a U.S. citizen dancer, Liz (Amanda Schull, who many dance fans will remember as “Jody” from the movie “Center Stage”). Although the pair genuinely fell in love, they married hastily in an attempt to keep Li from having to return to China.
Li’s refusal to return to China resulted in a standoff of sorts at the Chinese consulate in Houston. On one side were Li’s lawyer, his wife, and the Houston Ballet, and on the other side was the Chinese government, which opposed Li remaining in the United States. Eventually, after a great deal of tension and what basically amounted to a kidnapping of Li, a deal was brokered. Li gained permission to stay in America with the condition that he would never be allowed to go back to China. That meant leaving his parents and his hometown forever, an especially tough choice given that Li realized his family members would suffer due to his perceived disloyalty.
Li’s career continued to skyrocket, but all was not well. His parents in China were cruelly harassed, and his American wife failed to find success in Houston as a dancer. Jealousy erupted, and when the spousal spats became unbearable, Liz and Li divorced. Once Li established a partnership with Australian dancer Mary McKendry, his future wife, things started looking up. In a scene that caused sniffles all around the theater, Li finally reunited with his parents in the United States. Despite not understanding their son’s passion for ballet (and his bare-chested costumes), Li’s parents, of course, never stopped loving him. Another tear-jerker moment occurred when Li, at long last, was permitted to visit China, where he saw his former ballet teacher. Li and Mary spontaneously danced in the streets, a triumphant homecoming for a man whose dancing is big and whose heart is bigger.
The movie is kind of schmaltzy and overly simplistic, particularly with regard to its political themes, but it is also charming and fun, plus the dancing is high quality, if a little spare. Chi Cao captured Li’s sweetness and strength, and he danced in a way that made you want to see more. In contrast to this year’s “Dancing Across Borders,” “Mao’s Last Dancer” actually radiated warmth and left one feeling pretty satisfied. Here, the dancing took a back seat to the story, but the story is one you cannot help but enjoy. Don’t we all love happy endings?