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August 23, 2010

Dancing for Mao

                                                                                                            Simon Cardwell/Samuel Goldwyn Films
Chengwu Guo, portraying the teen Li, in a big leap at the dance academy in
"Mao's Last Dancer."

We are in the midst of a good long run of movie releases in which dance is a central focus, and there are no signs of it letting up. 

These films abide by a popular formula, making them perfect movie fodder: handsome man or woman putting forth superhuman effort to become an artist; Faustian sacrifices for the rewards of fame and stardom; "exotic" lifestyle; et cetera. 

The Red Shoes, the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger classic from 1948, is the example par excellence, though it's certainly in a class by itself and of a loftier ilk. It boasts an astonishingly distinguished cast, including ballerina Moira Shearer, choreographer Léonide Massine, and danseur Robert Helpmann. 

Herbert Ross's The Turning Point (1977) had the advantage of introducing the U.S. to the newly arrived Russian sensation Mikhail Baryshnikov. There's been nearly a dance film a year since then, from hip-hop to ballroom. Many -- certainly more than I realized -- take on the world of classical ballet.

The latest one opened Friday in limited release: Mao's Last Dancer, Australian director Bruce Beresford's (Tender Mercies) adaptation of Li Cunxin's real-life story.

In 1973 at age 9, Li, the Sixth Son (as his family calls him) of poor Chinese peasants, was selected for ballet study at the Beijing Dance Academy. He rose to the top of his class, though he didn't understand classical dance or really even like it. After Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson visited the school and spotted Li, he was allowed to go study in Houston (in 1981) for three months. Li was equal parts curious and suspicious of his host country, but when the Chinese government told him it was time to return, Li balked. He married an American student (portrayed by actress-dancer Amanda Schull) and declared his intention to remain in the U.S. Chinese officials held him hostage in the consulate overnight, a scene that the film handles particularly well. A swarm of media were camped outside the consulate, and then-Vice President George Bush intervened in the mini-crisis; Barbara Bush was a patron of the ballet. Li was allowed to remain in the U.S. and became a star at the Houston Ballet, though that was not the end of the sacrifices he had to make.


But what of the film's dancing, the choreography, the dancers? It's hard for movie directors not steeped in the art form to get it right. (That's why Turning Point is still a model; director Ross' first wife was acclaimed ballerina Nora Kaye, who had input.) Directors and directors of photography want to zoom in on dancers' feet or sweaty faces; filming a whole stage seems to reduce everyone to ants. 

At least, Beresford was extraordinarily lucky in casting Li. He has a child Li (Huang Wen Bin, who studied gymnastics), a teenager for the school scenes (Chengwu Guo, trained at the Beijing Dance Academy and now with the Australian Ballet) and, most important, an exemplary principal dancer for the scenes in Houson (Chi Cao also trained at Bejing Dance Academy and is now with Birmingham Royal Ballet). Each one is perfect.

The frustration with the dance scenes -- and there is a goodly selection of excerpts from "Swan Lake," "Giselle," "Don Quixote," "Rite of Spring" and an adaptation of Ben Stevenson's "Three Preludes" -- is that the film keeps cutting away from the dancing, to reaction shots of other characters. It's annoying throughout, but downright baffling during a climactic moment when Li (Chi Cao) has stepped in to replace the injured American principal. With three hours' notice, he must make his American debut in the "Don Quixote" grand pas de deux. Earlier in the film, Li watched a pirated videotape of Baryshnikov doing the "Don Q" solo variation. Li shook his head in wonder, agog at the Russian's gigantic leaps, so high that he has time to beat his legs together twice. Now Chi Cao performed essentially the same dance, including the double beat, and the camera kept zipping to something else, or shifted to slow motion. I wanted to watch Chi Cao only, but it was near impossible. 

Then there's that instinct to use slow-motion photography, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is a dancer's enemy. It robs him of his natural rhythm and timing in relation to the music. The ebb and flow of a dancer's movement style, his individual stamp, is what separates the athleticism of dance from mere gymnastics. Take it away, and it's not nearly as impressive as real-time dancing.

The former artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, Graeme Murphy, choreographed all the pieces, including a revolutionary ballet, which, one supposes, was based on that rifle-waving wonder, "The Red Detachment of Women" (1964). It was hard to get a full measure of Murphy's work, which ranged from traditional ("Giselle") to the trashy (a "Rite of Spring," in which a mother figure gave birth to Li and then mated with him). It would have been interesting to have used Stevenson's own ballets.

Even with its drawbacks, Mao's Last Dancer was entertaining, and it's not a bad dance movie. An engrossing true story will carry even an ordinary movie far indeed.

ABOVE LEFT: Chi Cao, as the grown-up Li, with Hong Kong Ballet soloist Camilla Vergotis as Li's partner, Mary McKendry. (Photo by Simon Cardwell/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

August 23, 2010 6:05 PM | | Comments (0)

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