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The amazing biography of a Chinese ballet dancer is Bruce Beresford’s latest film; the story of Li Cunxin is certainly one of rags to riches, from obscurity to fame, from oppression to freedom, “but there are a lot of impediments along the way,” Beresford tells Andrew L. Urban on the set of Mao's Last Dancer.

Shoot day 53, May 27: There is a typical filmmaking incongruence about a crowd of people in the cavernous Miller Theatre at Sydney’s Acer Stadium at Olympic Park out West of the city, pretending to watch and hear a great symphony orchestra – approximately where I am standing, behind the camera unit. It’s like a hangar, with stadium seating. Outside it’s a sunny spring day, inside it’s evening and black tie as the film’s composer, Christopher Gordon, plays the conductor for the extras in the seats, supposedly at the ballet in Houston. Here I am, probably where the bassoon should be … and where not long ago two teams of sportsmen did battle.

"it’s such an extraordinary story"

As the cast and crew break for lunch, I join director Bruce Beresford at one of the trestle tables and we chomp on some tasty chicken as we talk. Beresford had by chance read the book on which Mao’s Last Dancer is based, but it was producer Jane Scott who got him involved in the film, which is adapted by Jan Sardi (who had recommended the book to Scott). Sardi and Scott had a tremendously successful collaboration on Shine, starring Geoffrey Rush in his Oscar winning role as pianist David Helfgott. This time, the biographed subject is a ballet dancer, and Beresford says, chewing quietly, “I know virtually nothing about ballet … but I’m somehow drawn to cross cultural stories. The guy going from China and succeeding in ballet … And it’s such an extraordinary story here is a boy from a very poor background to become a world famous ballet dancer.” (But Bruce knows quite a bit about opera, which he has directed successfully around the world, in between making films.)

Bruce looks up and calls out: “Bruce, meet Andrew Urban ... Andrew this is Bruce Greenwood. Andrew does a lot of film journalism here … he’s very famous.” Greenwood looks unimpressed. “What’s he doing talking to you?” he quips. Beresford quips back: “Notice he’s not talking to YOU!” The badinage is relaxed and we all laugh. Back to the chicken and chat.

“To me the most challenging aspect was the notion of finding someone to play the amazing Chinese dancer Li Cunxin,” says Beresford, on whose memoir the screenplay is based. We had to get a superlative ballet dancer who is fluent in Mandarin and English, photogenic and able to act! I thought, well, how many of these guys can there be around?”

The answer was as simple as it was unexpected: Li Cunxin himself had already seen the young dancer who could play him: Chi Cao, dancing with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England. (Chi Cao plays Li as an adult; Chengwu Guo [of the Australian Ballet] plays Li as a teenager, and Huang Wen Bin plays Li as a boy.) “We flew up to the north of England to see him. He was already famous and he was delighted at the idea. I got him to read for me and he’s pretty good. A very good actor.”

"rags to riches; obscurity to fame; oppression to freedom"

The story of Li Cunxin is certainly one of rags to riches, from obscurity to fame, from oppression to freedom, “but there are a lot of impediments along the way,” adds Beresford.

Li’s story unfolds as China was emerging from Mao’s grand vision. It couldn’t have been a better time for Li Cunxin to discover the west and for the west to discover Li Cunxin. This is about how Li overcame adversity, discovering and exploring his natural abilities and talent as a great classical dancer. This meant not only dealing with his own physical limitations but also eventually the punishment meted out by a highly suspicious Chinese government after Li’s defection to the US.

In America Li found a completely different and captivating new world – but there were other difficulties he could never have imagined. Even with the support of many friends there was still isolation and despite his growing fame there was still uncertainty for his future.

The story in Li Cunxin’s memoir was riveting and the book became a best seller.

Two years before filming began, a friend in the Australian Ballet had told Chi Cao about the book and that he should “see Li Cunxin about it. I said ‘bleah!’ … as if! Then a friend of Li’s came to a rehearsal in Birmingham and half jokingly said he’d put in a word for me… and then Li came to see me. He told me to get some acting lessons, and again I said ‘bleah!’ – too busy. Sometime later I got a call from Li who said it was really happening. A month later I met with Bruce Beresford and Jane Scott when they came to see me dance,” recalls Chi Cao, as he picks at his lunch, all dressed in a grey suit for the scene to be shot after lunch:

"Scene 134 / INT / Day: Ben’s car. Ben promises Li he will be able to return to the US."

It was Ben Stevenson, the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet, who discovered Li Cunxin and that’s why Bruce Greenwood is sitting on the other side of the trestle table at lunch – he plays Stevenson. “I loved the book and the insight into rural China … that was splash of cold water on the face for me,” he says. Greenwood had worked with Beresford on Double Jeopardy “and when he called me last summer – we’re both big kayakers – I immediately said yes.” He took the call on his mobile, which was rattling in Tupperware container at the bottom of his kayak. He and Beresford took to paddling around Sydney Harbour west of the bridge during breaks in filming.

Greenwood, who took some ballet lessons for the film, is keen to continue lessons: “I feel really great.”

Chi Cao, who by contrast had taken acting lessons, is keen to continue acting: “I was always interested in acting but I do want to continue to dance, so I’m keeping my options open. I’m really enjoying working on the film, especially with Bruce Beresford. It’s a God given opportunity to show my ability at the top of my game.”

"a fascination for film"

Famous Australian ballet dancer Stephen Heathcote makes his film debut as Bobby Cordner, principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and one of Stevenson’s creative associates. “Filmmaking is fascinating,” he says beaming. “Watching the two Bruces work is extraordinary … I’ve always had a fascination for film – my eyes and ears are open. Bruce Greenwood is a superb actor but also a superb person. He’s encouraging and supportive.”

Heathcote danced with the Australian Ballet for 25 years, a record 20 of them as a Principal Artist. Accepted into the Australian Ballet in 1983, Steven was promoted to soloist in 1985 and principal in 1987. His guest appearances overseas have been with a variety of companies including the Kirov Ballet in 1989 and American Ballet Theatre in 1991 and 1993, as well as Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, The Royal Danish Ballet, Kiev Ballet and Latvian National Ballet.

Aden Young plays the role of Li’s American friend, Dilworth, who is married to one of the dancers in the Houston Ballet. “Dilworth encouraged Li to try and stay in the US whenever he visited from China. I give him a big Texas welcome in a big Texas hat,” says Young.

"It’s heroic and patriotic"

For Christopher Gordon, working on Mao’s Last Dancer “is a dream job; I’ve been on it since pre-production and wrote some pieces even before we started shooting. The Revolutionary ballet uses the full orchestra and sounds like B grade Hollywood with an Asian feel,” he explains. “It’s heroic and patriotic. I also wrote a modern cue, very beautiful…it uses four instruments, including a Chinese stringed instrument. The third piece I wrote, a sort of West Side Story piece that marries Bernstein and jazz with Bartok. I also do ballet rehearsals for piano, a pas de deux love theme … fantastic variety.”

Grodon was attending the launch of Beresford’s memoir, Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This, when “Bruce grabbed me and with Jane Scott they offered me the film…” Christopher Gordon definitely wanted to do this.

Published October 1, 2009

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Bruce Beresford



Jan Sardi

Christopher Gordon

Li Cunxin, author of Mao’s Last Dancer

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