by director Bruce Beresford
Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the autobiography of a Chinese ballet dancer, Li Cunxin (pronounced Shwinsin, a first name, not a surname), who grew up in poverty in rural China under the eccentric, bizarre and repressive regime of Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), a leader who managed to starve 50 million of his subjects to death while allegedly improving their living conditions.
Li Cunxin studied ballet from the age of 11 and, at the age of 19, was invited to study with the choreographer Ben Stevenson (played by Bruce Greenwood in the film) at the Houston ballet. A couple of years later, he had married an American ballerina and decided to defect. He was then kidnapped by the Chinese and held hostage in the embassy in Houston. Through the intervention of a lawyer, Charles Foster (played by Kyle McLachlan), and with the help of George Bush Sr., he was eventually released and allowed to stay in America where his career flourished.
He achieved international fame, although the stress of severing his links with China destroyed his first marriage. He married again, this time to an Australian ballerina and continued his career until the age of 38—very advanced in the rigorous world of ballet. He now lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and three children. He is still connected to both the Australian and Houston ballet companies and has forged another career as a stockbroker.
I read Li’s autobiography when it was first published a few years ago. I found his story totally compelling but rejected any idea of trying to film it as I didn’t believe anyone could be found for the central role. This necessitated finding a young Chinese dancer in the very front rank, fluent in English and Chinese, handsome, and able to handle a complex acting role. However, I didn’t take into account the determination of the producer, Jane Scott, who bought an option on Li’s book and insisted we embark on a worldwide search for our leading man.
After casting trips to Hong Kong and America, where there was no one who fulfilled all of our requirements, Li Cunxin himself called us and told us of a young Chinese dancer, Chi Chao, about whom he had wonderful reports. Chi was dancing in the north of England with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Jane and I took the long flight from Sydney, then drove up to Sunderland (near the border with Scotland) and settled down apprehensively waiting for Chi to make his entrance.
When he did, we gasped in unison. A superb dancer. A handsome man. We had our lead. We now went ahead with the film—the amazing story of Li Cunxin, the boy from rural China, a man of formidable determination and charm, whose passion for ballet swept aside innumerable obstacles.
Filming with a cast of American, Chinese and Australian actors and dancers took place in the U.S., Australia and China. I was convinced that Li’s defection, not being regarded with favour by the Chinese authorities, would prevent us from getting permission to film in that country. Again, I hadn’t taken Jane Scott’s determination into account. Nor, it seems, had the Chinese bureaucrats, who gave way and allowed us to shoot not only in Beijing, but in the rural areas we needed for scenes of Li’s childhood.
I hope you enjoy the filmmaking it was a wonderful experience.