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Dancing Fool: Bruce Beresford’s “Mao’s Last Dancer”

Dancing Fool: Bruce Beresford's "Mao's Last Dancer"

Watching Mao’s Last Dancer, Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Chinese-Australian ballet star Li Cunxin’s memoir, you might find yourself forgetting that ballet is an art. We meet the young Cunxin as an unremarkable 11-year-old mountain villager in the late Seventies, plucked by the fates to join the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy and undergo years of grueling training to become a ballerino. In these early scenes, dance is introduced as an escape from a life of poverty and obscurity, not as a medium that might provide emotional release in an era of Maoist oppression. From then on, the film maintains a consistently uncurious and coldly practical view of ballet, one in which effort is enough to equal creative achievement. After taking the proverb-laced advice of his wise old master, the young-adult Cunxin (Chi Cao) begins working on strengthening his technical abilities and distinguishing himself from his classmates, a task that pays off when visiting American ballet director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), who enlists him to join his company in Houston, Texas. And so a star is born, though we are never allowed to understand what exactly makes Cunxin such a magnetic performer. Dance, after all, is merely a matter of athletic discipline, a means of international exchange, a set-up for cheap family melodrama—anything but an art form that might have something to communicate to its audience. Read Andrew Chan’s review of Mao’s Last Dancer.

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