October 10, 2011

Good Monday. Nice morning here, starting out at 28, bare trees with trunks shining in the sun.

We watched in interesting film, Mao’s Last Dancer, about Li Cunxin, a Chinese boy who was taken away from his family at age 11 to be trained at Madame Mao’s ballet academy in Beijing. The film is based on Li’s 2003 book of the same title. About 1/3 of the film was done in China. When he was 18, Li was selected to be a student dancer at the Houston Ballet. He was warned to beware of capitalists and women, and most of all, women capitalists. Just kidding about the last part. Anyway, in Houston he was quickly recognized as a world class ballet dancer (his idol was Mikhail Baryshnikov). Chi Cao, principal dancer of the Birmingham Ballet played Li at Li’s own request. The Chinese government denied a request by the Houston Ballet to extend Li’s stay. Meanwhile, Li had fallen in love with a dancer (played in the film by Amanda Schull, a former SF Ballet dancer) and on the advice of a Texas immigration attorney, married her, then announced he was staying in the US. This led to an ugly political standoff, with Li a hostage in the Chinese consulate in Houston, that made headlines around the world.

Li stayed in the US but could not return to China to see his family. He was naturally worried about what the government would do to his family. Soon after that Mao died, Madame Mao was sentenced to prison, and some of the repression was eased. Li returned to China in 1989 (not long after the Tienanmen Square massacre of dissident students). He eventually settled in Australia as principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. The film was directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies) and has some saccharine moments, but overall it provides an interesting look at China under the cultural revolution of Mao as well as behind the scenes views of ballet training and some superb excerpts from major ballets. Very enjoyable, with some good perspective on cultural differences between China and the US, though perhaps not an outstanding film. Bruce Greenwood, as the Houston Ballet artistic director in whose home Li stayed while in Houston, was praised by critics for this out of character role. Available from Netflix.

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