September 18, 2009 / 10:50 PM / 10 years ago

"Mao's Last Dancer" leaps onto movie screens

TORONTO (Reuters) - He gained fame as one of China’s best dancers and was at the center of an international crisis, but the real story of Li Cunxin may never have been told if it had not been for Cunxin, himself, sitting down to write it.

A member of the Beijing Modern Dance Company attends a training session at a gym in Beijing September 2, 2009. REUTERS/Grace Liang

A film about Li, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival to a great deal of fanfare because since he defected from China to the United States, Li has lived quietly away from the limelight.

He told Reuters after the film’s debut at Toronto that he never felt comfortable with anyone else writing his intriguing story, but that his struggle with English as a second language kept him from doing it himself.

“My wife finally convinced me,” said Cunxin. “She said Li, to be honest, I’m sick and tired of you telling and retelling your life’s stories at dinner parties.”

Using the discipline he learned from years of rigorous ballet training, Cunxin said about the laborious task of writing his book and wound up with a best-selling autobiography, released in 2003, called “Mao’s Last Dancer,” on which the film is based.

It follows Cunxin’s transition from a peasant boy in rural China to one of the world’s most acclaimed ballet dancers.

When he was 11 years old, Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao’s cultural advisors to train at the Beijing Dance Academy, and he trained rigorously to become the best of his generation.

By 18, he ended up at the Houston Ballet in Texas on a cultural exchange. That is where he defected to the United States at age 20, causing an international conflict that grabbed headlines worldwide.

Australian director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”), along with producers Jane Scott and writer Jan Sardi (“Shine”) took on the task of bringing the book to movie screens.

“The challenge was to fit all these years into a movie and to find the story within the story,” said Beresford after a screening of the film in Toronto.

The film uses three different actors to play Cunxin at three different points in his life and focuses on relationships with his family and the people who helped him in his journey.

Chi Coa, who dances with the Royal Birmingham Ballet and trained at the Beijing Dance Academy, portrays Cunxin as an adult, which added a particular resonance to the story.

“The incredible thing was, he is actually the son of two of my former teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy,” said Cunxin. “They were our minders at the academy when I got there.”

Cunxin, now 48, travels regularly to China these days and is a stock broker in Australia, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Despite all his acclaim as a dancer and his life at the center of an international crisis, he said it was easy to pick the highlight, which is an award he was given this past August.

“My biggest accomplishment is not all the accolades I got in my dancing career, not all the money I’ve made as a stock broker, not the accolades from my book, it’s actually being recognized with the Australian father of the year award,” he said.

Reporting by John McCrank

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