Like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, Li Cunxin was a ballet dancer too talented to be hidden from the eyes of the West, and too canny not to defect at the earliest opportunity. He made his grand jeté to freedom in 1981 while a guest artist at the Houston Ballet and danced with the company for 16 years. Later, he moved to Australia with his wife and joined the Australian Ballet. His memoirs, published in 2003, were a surprise international bestseller. Now comes the film, which has been put into the capable hands of screenwriter Jan Sardi (Shine) and Australian national treasure Bruce Beresford.
In 1972, 11-year-old Li (Huang Wen Bin) is plucked from a dirt-poor village in Shandong province and sent to Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. Here, he is subjected to years of gruelling training and Maoist claptrap. Spotted by Houston Ballet director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood), the adult Li (played by Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Chi Chao) is seconded to America, where he quickly realises that the West is not the den of poverty and decadence the party’s propagandists would make out. After falling for an American dancer, Li starts hatching plans to stay with the help of his immigration lawyer, but faces the agonising possibility of never seeing his family back in China again.
The production enjoyed a surprising amount of access to Chinese locations and these scenes – photographed by Peter James in a grainy, nostalgic style – are exquisite to look at. Sydney, meanwhile, stands in for Houston, with a rollcall of Aussie actors playing the Americans. Chi Cao is a likeable leading man whose dancing is spectacular, and Joan Chen is moving in brief scenes as Li’s mother. The film’s galvanising performance, however, comes from Canadian actor Greenwood (Star Trek) as Li’s mentor Ben Stevenson. A scene in which Stevenson has to explain to Li the meaning of a racist term, is quite affecting.
Mao’s Last Dancer’s two hours go by in a flash, and late in his career, Beresford has delivered one of his best movies.