Despite their obvious visual attraction, ballet dancers are rarely seen in leading roles on the screen. (“The Red Shoes” is six decades old.) It’s all the more unusual, then, that two recent good movies star dancers.
“Dancing Across Borders” described a young Cambodian’s struggle to become a soloist with American ballet companies; this week’s release, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” is an even more dramatic story about dancing into freedom, and ensuing complications.
In Bruce Beresford’s film, Li Cunxin’s story is mostly true, except for Joan Chen in the role of his mother.
It begins with the chronicle of a young boy living in rural China as Mao Tse-tung was wreaking havoc on the country in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Mao’s wife ruled the arts, wielding power over artists’ lives. Li Cunxin was one of the few young people (from thousands hoping to escape poverty in rural China) selected to attend Beijing Dance Academy, where students endured 16-hour days of training.
Then, in 1979, at age 18 and just three years after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Cunxin miraculously was allowed to join Ben Stevenson’s Houston Ballet.
Chi Cao, a Chinese-born dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, plays Li Cunxin, excelling not only in ballet scenes but also as an actor. His reactions to amazing aliens on the strange planet of capitalist Texas are priceless.
Born and raised in the Mao-worshipping society, the young dancer is both repulsed and attracted by what he experiences as the American way of life, his path eased by company manager and choreographer Stevenson (nicely portrayed by Bruce Greenwood).
His life and outlook change when he falls in love with an American girl (played by former San Francisco Ballet dancer Amanda Schull), and his decision to defect causes an international incident; it’s both exciting and somewhat ridiculous, particularly Kyle MacLachlan’s caricature of a good ol’ boy lawyer who takes on Beijing.
Interesting history, good acting and spectacular dancing in “Mao’s Last Dancer” prompt dance lovers to anticipate another dance-and-politics film, assuming they arrive three at a time, like Muni buses.
Mao’s Last Dancer (3 stars)
Starring Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Joan Chen, Kyle MacLachlan
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Jan Sardi
Running time 1 hour 57 minutes