Communist Ballet to a Texan Welcome

Mao’s Last Dancer

Juxtaposing forces combine in the brilliant ballet film Mao’s Last Dancer directed by Australian Bruce Beresford. Dancing under Communism only to be released into the world of Texan Ballet is Li’s story in Mao’s Last Dancer which triumphs as a superb cinematic ballet.

Bruce Beresford’s film of the autobiographical novel Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxan is infused with a passion for dance and immediately sets up the dichotomy of a boy raised under the rigid government of Mao Zedong’s Communist China in the late 60’s and early 70s and the brash Western commercialism of Texas in 1981 the era that the hit TV series Dallas exemplified, a state built on vast oil wealth.

The Original series about Texan wealth and Eighties Decadence

Li develops into a promising ballet dancer at the Beijing Ballet School and is chosen to represent his country as he goes to America and dance with the Houston Ballet, of which the then First Lady Barbara Bush was a patron.

The opening scene is wonderful as Li arrives at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and is greeted by the Houston Ballet choreographer Ben Stevenson played with a joie de vive by Bruce Greenwood, reprising a similar role he played as Truman Capote’s lover in Capote. Li is a citizen of communist China and is soon taken shopping at the vast malls in Houston and overwhelmed by the freedom, choice and brashness of the Texan capital, not to mention the bags of outfits from Armani,  Vuitton and Calvin Klein.

Superb Ballet film about a passion that far outweighs the political restraints of the era

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Mao’s Last Dancer excels in tracking Li’s development as a Ballet Dancer from being the principal dancer in Carmen to the final breathtaking sequence in Rites of Spring. His political status is soon revoked as he refuses to return to communist China after a sensational incident at the Chinese Consulate in Houston. Li’s opportunity at Houston ballet outweigh his desire to return to China but at the cost of not seeing his family for years.

As the Chinese communist regime softens in relations towards the West in the mid-80’s, the film shows Li returning to his home province in a tearful welcome.

This is a ballet film in all its entirety and despite the international political turmoil involved in Li’s journey to freedom, Mao’s Last Dancer will not disappoint any avid Dance fan especially those who appreciate Ballet. The film is very much Li’s story and does not dwell on the residual flamboyance of any international Ballet company and is not nearly as good as Robert Altman’s film, The Company about the Chicago City Ballet.

Another Altman Masterpiece about Ballet

Watch out for a great cameo by Kyle MacLachlan as Li’s International Immigration Lawyer which only makes the viewer wish that MacLachlan who made such cult hits in the 80’s as Dune and Blue Velvet would frequent the Big Screen more and free himself from the set of Desperate Housewives.

Australian born Beresford, director of Driving Miss Daisy and Crimes of the Heart does a fine job marrying a story about two conflicting society’s brought together by Li’s superb talent as a ballet dancer and his eventual triumph. Mao’s Last Dancer won a host of awards at the Australian Film Institutes 2009 Awards including Best Picture, Costume Design and Director.

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