April 9, 2023

Chengwu Guo as Li in MAO'S LAST DANCER. Photo Credit: Simon Cardwell / Samuel Goldwyn Films

From the Academy Award nominated director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies), comes the inspiring true story of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) and his extraordinary journey from poverty to international stardom. Filmed on location in China, Australia and the U.S., Mao’s Last Dancer (Rated PG from IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films and Great Scott Productions) also stars Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan and Joan Chen, and opens this weekend at the Landmark Edina Cinema.

Based on the bestselling autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer weaves a moving tale about the quest for freedom and the courage it takes to live your own life. The film poignantly captures the struggles and triumphs, as well as the intoxicating effects of first love and celebrity amid the pain of exile.

The story begins when a young Li is taken from his peasant home by the Chinese government and chosen to study ballet in Beijing. Separated from his family and enduring countless hours of practice, Li struggles to find his place in the new life he has been given. Gaining confidence from a kind teacher’s encouraging guidance and a chance trip to America, Li finally discovers that his passion has always been dance.

“I had already read Li Cunxin’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer when Jane Scott and Jan Sardi first approached me with the idea of making a feature film,” stated director Bruce Beresford in the production notes. “The story, a rise from rags to riches, is of such epic proportions that it makes all other examples of the genre seem trivial.”

Li grew up in poverty-stricken rural China, under the dictatorial regime of Mao Tse-Tung – perhaps the greatest eccentric in history; a man who thought nothing of killing an estimated 50 million of the population who were not politically acceptable, of passing such bizarre laws as forcing the populace to kill all the sparrows, banning people from gathering in groups of more than four – and so on.

One of a handful, selected from among literally millions of children, young Li was taken from his parents at the age of eleven, and trained at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. At 19, he outwitted a bureaucracy and went to Texas – the Houston Ballet. Once in America and confronted by the freedom of the U.S., a country where, he had been told, death stalked the streets and the sun literally never shone – he defected.

The story began for producer Jane Scott five years ago when she read Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cunxin’s best-selling autobiography.

The book stayed on the Australian Top 10 Bestseller List for more than a year and a half and currently on its 32nd printing. The second great challenge in bringing Mao’s Last Dancer to the screen was in casting the character of Li Cunxin.

In the end, three actors were cast as Li – Chi Cao who plays Li as an adult; Chengwu Guo who plays Li as a teenager, and Huang Wen Bin who plays him as a boy.

Chi Cao, who plays the adult Li Cunxin, auditioned for the film in England, where he is based with the Royal Birmingham Ballet. Cao’s father was the Principal of the Beijing Dance Academy and his mother was a musician there. In fact, both were dorm masters when Li was a student at the school and knew him well.

“There are a lot of similarities between my life and Li’s life, especially in terms of our careers. We both trained at the Beijing Dance Academy, and then I left my family at 15 to go to London to join the Royal Ballet School. We both went to the West at such a young age without knowing the language and basically had to find out, by ourselves, how things worked,” he says.

Film legend Joan Chen was cast as Li’s mother. She too shares a similar history to Li, leaving China as a teenager in order to study in the U.S.  At the time, Chen already had a huge profile in China, as a child star.

“Li and I left for America at the same time,” she said. “I could understand his feelings, the feelings of arriving at some wonderful opportunities, as well as the aching nostalgia for a home where you might not ever return. So, I could relate to his story very, very closely.”

The third great challenge for the production was filming in China.

Scott had already met Chinese producer Geng Ling and invited her to join a as co-producer for China. Jane Scott, Bruce Beresford, Geng Ling, Herbert Pinter and Peter James traveled across China in search of locations including for Li’s home village of Li Cunxin that was now been absorbed by the city of Tsingtao. The little houses had been completely demolished and replaced by apartment blocks.

They found a very picturesque practically abandoned village outside of Beijing in the mountains to substitute. They also found an old dance school outside Beijing to serve as the Dance Academy where Li was sent to study and board as a young boy.

After several weeks in China, the production moved to Houston and Sydney, Australia.

Some of the most challenging sequences to film were those of Li performing with the Houston Ballet.  The dancing in the film – from the class rooms of Beijing to a gala performance before the then U.S. Vice President, George Bush Sr., were choreographed by Australian dance legend Graeme Murphy, formerly Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company and one of the country’s foremost choreographers.

Composer Christopher Gordon began working on the film months prior to the start of filming.  He wrote three original pieces of ballet music as well as the scoring for the repertoire ballets including “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” He also conducted the music during filming.

“Music is absolutely at the core of this film and because of the long, process of my coming in at pre-production and being on set for so much of the filming, the whole movie was in my blood by the time I actually got to write the score,” said Gordon. “To be working with very, very musical people like Bruce Beresford, Jane Scott and Graeme Murphy, is a dream. It just doesn’t get much better than this.”

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