Helene

Mao's Last Dancer

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I read Joy Goodwin's The Second Mark, in which the author describes the lives of the top three pairs in the 2002 Olympics, including Shen and Zhao, and Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin's memoir, back to back. Common to the experience of all three people from China were the brutal poverty under which they were raised and the extreme training conditions under which they worked. In one way Li was the luckiest of the three in that he trained indoors and found sympathetic and wise teachers who showed interest in him as a person, but he was also born early enough to have experienced the Cultural Revolution, and political studies took up a lot of time during his early training.

I was already strange for me as a child in the early sixties witnessing the sexual, political, and drug revolutions of the late sixties and early seventies; even if I was a little too young to experience them at the time, they had drastic ramifications for the society in which I became an adult. What is nearly impossible for me to imagine is what it must have been like for Li to have been isolated from all things Western pursuing a single-minded discipline, and then to have been thrown into a new culture in which personal and political freedom were equally extreme from all that he knew.

Has anyone else read this book?

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I've almost finished Mao's Last Dancer, and have rather mixed reactions to it. I enjoyed some of his recollections... particularly the one where on his first airplane flight, embarrassed to be served, he offered to help the stewardess wash the dishes. On the other hand, so much of it reads like he was trying carefully to be politically correct to a wealthy right-wing audience, just as he had learned to be for a different audience when writing his Communist "self-criticisms"... He claims to be interested in freedom, but almost all he writes about during his first visit to the United States was about how impressed by all the wealth he was... It seems very much that he was seeking economic asylum rather than political asylum when he defected. Can you recall anything he said about artistic freedom, other than that Red Detachment of Women was rather limiting? I think he's a flatterer and as a result comes across as insincere... Or perhaps it's just that this is the only time I've ever heard that George HW Bush referred to as a "serious balletomane". I do believe Li was a very hard worker, very committed, but there's so very very little said about physical training after leaving China... I can't imagine that there weren't big differences and interesting adjustments to be made. Perhaps all that was edited out. Once he's defected to America, it becomes rather dull. Please tell me what I'm forgetting.

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On the other hand, so much of it reads like he was trying carefully to be politically correct to a wealthy right-wing audience, just as he had learned to be for a different audience when writing his Communist "self-criticisms"...  He claims to be interested in freedom, but almost all he writes about during his first visit to the United States was about how impressed by all the wealth he was... It seems very much that he was seeking economic asylum rather than political asylum when he defected.  Can you recall anything he said about artistic freedom, other than that Red Detachment of Women was rather limiting?  I think he's a flatterer and as a result comes across as insincere...  Or perhaps it's just that this is the only time I've ever heard that George HW Bush referred to as a "serious balletomane".

I don't think Li ever claimed to want to stay in the US for political reasons, either in the book or in about half dozen articles/interviews with/about him I've read. I think he was pretty clear he wanted to stay in the US to be married to the young dancer with whom he was in love at the time.

It isn't surprising that he would be deeply grateful to the Bush family for making it possible for him to survive the stand-off with the Chinese government. After all, a much older and worldlier Fonteyn didn't have many issues hobnobbing with the Marcos' or any number of Latin American dictators and henchmen in their armed fortresses. Li didn't strike me as insincere as much as having embraced Capitalism with the same single-mindedness that he once did Communism.

Once he's defected to America, it becomes rather dull.  Please tell me what I'm forgetting.

I agree that the book fades post defection: it doesn't show much insight about dance or creating roles, and it isn't remotely as interesting as the description of his upbringing and training in China. The only part where the story picks up is his description of his trip back to China with his second wife, Mary. I don't think you're forgetting anything :P

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After all, a much older and worldlier Fonteyn didn't have many issues hobnobbing with the Marcos' or any number of Latin American dictators and henchmen in their armed fortresses.

That Dame Margot was the wife of a diplomat must have affected such dealings.

While there's no question that many artists use their art as a vehicle for their politics, I think most use their art to transcend whatever politics they may or may not have. I have not read the book, so I can't speak to Li's situation. And who knows what advice he might have gotten from any number of well-intended advisers about how directly to speak on political issues?

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It isn't surprising that he would be deeply grateful to the Bush family for making it possible for him to survive the stand-off with the Chinese government.

No, it makes perfect sense... as does that the Bush family would want to help a Communist defect... But charactering Bush Sr. as a serious balletomane seems untruthful and unnecessary flattery. Why not just stick to the truth? It's honorable enough.

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Surely it's possible he had a conversation with Bush Sr. in which the latter (a reasonably cultured man) knew the names of the top dancers and choreographers and, having been a diplomat for many years himself, was very much able to enter into a brief conversation about dance in a way that gave Li Cunxin the impression he was a balletomane or, at the very least, knew a heck of a lot more about ballet than most politicians. (Bush Sr. must have attended a few galas in his day.) I have no idea if that's what happened but it seems at least as likely as that Li Cunxin was lying for the sake of a compliment. Now, if he had made the remark about Bush Jr., I might be more skeptical...

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Thanks, Drew, that sounds very plausible. From what I gather from the book, it's plausible that Bush Sr. would know the names of more dancers, choreographers and ballets than Li Cunxin would have been exposed to.

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That Dame Margot was the wife of a diplomat must have affected such dealings.

I'm sure it did. But there's a difference between describing the life she led with them as fact, and describing how much she liked them without any sense of their actions, when as the wife of a diplomat, she would have been more privy to this than most.

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After having misplaced the book for several days, I finally uncovered it and read the remaining quarter(?)... I have to say that it does pick up again after his 2nd marriage and return to China.... perhaps he was just going through an adjustment period after coming to this country and the book reflected the culture shock.

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Couldn't agree more, Amy, with your original post. Li's flattery of Bush Sr. (whom I am astounded to hear characterized as "reasonably cultured"-- in what kindergarten would that be?) is at best appallingly obvious and naive.

It is precisely the fact that Fonteyn does NOT discuss politics or political actions in her Autobiography (she limits her observations to the personal) which makes her coterie of right-wing dictators and their hangers-on slightly less objectionable. in any case, Fonteyn's art is judged on its own merits, not on her taste in associates, as Li's should be as well; Fonteyn, however, was infinitely more graceful in her obligatory bows to the rich and powerful who support ballet.

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Li's flattery of Bush Sr. (whom I am astounded to hear characterized as "reasonably cultured"-- in what kindergarten would that be?) is at best appallingly obvious and naive.
I'm not sure why there all this derision towards Bush Sr., who was from a prestigious East Coast family for whom classical culture was a birthright and a generation for whom this was important, who actually studied his way through Yale, and who was a diplomat and statesman before he became President. It sounds like he is being confused with his son, to whom this birthright is meaningless. I may not agree with Bush Sr.'s politics or arts policy, but to call him "reasonably cultured" may even underestimate him.

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I agree. In fact, as a product of the New England elite seeking a political career in Texas, he must have decided that he would do best to hide any visible traces of his privileged, sophisticated background. But you can never completely erase such things. Pork rinds? Yeah, right!

The anti-intellectualism (whether real or perceived) in this country is a great shame.

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The purpose of this thread, and this board in fact, is not political wrangling, so I shall refrain from the volumes which could be written on Bush Sr. and the infinite derision he so richly deserves. However, I shall add that Bush Sr. was neither scholar, diplomat, statesman, NOR bluestocking, nor member of any other worthwhile category save through the machinations of money, power, and influence. "Prestigious East Coast families" are well known for ensuring that their scions are not required to study their way through Yale, or any other Ivy League school; a new building or at least a new wing is the usual safeguard. Bush Sr.'s yahoo poses and Texan schtick may not fit him as flawlessly as they do his son; however, he is anything but a cultured balletomane.

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[board Host Beanie on]

I recognize that tensions have been running high about the elections and I sympathize as well. Everyone's been incredibly good about leaving that at the door when we discuss ballet. Thanks! It's important that this be a place where anyone who likes ballet feels welcome. It's nice to have some comity in a very fractious time.

Maybe we should give the discussion of all Bush-y things a rest for a few days. I'm sure there are plenty of other aspects of the book to discuss.

[board Host Beanie off]

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[board Host Beanie on]

I recognize that tensions have been running high about the elections and I sympathize as well.  Everyone's been incredibly good about leaving that at the door when we discuss ballet.  Thanks! It's important that this be a place where anyone who likes ballet feels welcome.  It's nice to have some comity in a very fractious time.

Maybe we should give the discussion of all Bush-y things a rest for a few days.  I'm sure there are plenty of other aspects of the book to discuss.

[board Host Beanie off]

I'd just like to say that you wear the beanie very well.

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I found this book and the history associated with it very interesting. I have read many ballet autobiographies. After reading about so many American dancers experiences it was a breath of fresh air to read about the Chinese ballet system and history. I also enjoyed reading about his and his parents' first experiences with American culture. At times the book was a little bit slow but I did learn a lot from it.

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“Mao’s Last Dancer” movie is in production! Can’t wait to see the movie! :dry:

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That's great news about the moie, tra-ta. The rights were sold last year, and it's good to know that the project is in production.

No word on imdb on casting or director yet, but the adaptation is being done by Jan Sardi, who has done a number of screenplays and adaptations for Australian TV and movies, including Shine.

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The director of the upcoming movie will be Bruce Beresford. Beresford's other films include Breaker Morant (1980), Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Black Robe (1991).

Li Cunxin has just published in Australia a children's book. The illustrated picture book is called The Peasant Prince. Perhaps in a few months it will be available in a U.S. edition?

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The director of the upcoming movie will be Bruce Beresford. Beresford's other films include Breaker Morant (1980), Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Black Robe (1991).

Li Cunxin has just published in Australia a children's book. The illustrated picture book is called The Peasant Prince. Perhaps in a few months it will be available in a U.S. edition?

There are some location finding pictures on Bruce Beresford's website, bringing the start of filming that much closer. Is there any news on the actors?

I read the book when it was first published and found it an inspirational read. Having read the earlier posts I would like to add that I can remember reading an interview with Li where he said he had written so many words that about half of them were edited out. Perhaps he may do a second volume with more detail of his life in America and beyond.

I saw Li dancing with Houston Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival in around 1989 and have always remembered him. His wife Mary was the first Giselle I ever saw when she was dancing with London Festival Ballet (now ENB).

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"Best piece of Lyric Theatre foyer gossip: the movie version of Li Cunxin's Mao's Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford, will be choreographed by Graeme Murphy, former artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, with the SDC's Hickson Road studios being transformed into the studios of the Houston Ballet, where Li danced as a principal artist. Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Chi Cao will star as Li in the movie." quote from

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This is off topic but it broke my heart....

Beresford talking about his childhood:

"Well, I think I first fell in love with movies when I was only four or five. I got an 8mm camera when I was about 11 or 12 and I started making little films - comedies and little dramatic films with school friends. And I made literally dozens of these and I had a little editor and I used to make up all of these films. And one of the things that really split me up with the family was that I got home one day from school and I went into my room and all the film stuff was gone and my parents had thrown it out. They said, "You're spending too much time with that stuff, we got rid of it." I was devastated." quote from an
on ABC TV

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The director of the upcoming Li Cunxin has just published in Australia a children's book. The illustrated picture book is called The Peasant Prince. Perhaps in a few months it will be available in a U.S. edition?

I have just seen this book on my last visit to the bookshop - very well illustrated, I thought, and one of the few ballet books for young children around that will appeal to boys!

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