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International Cast Brings 'Mao's Last Dancer' to the Big Screen

Chengwu Guo as Li in the film "Mao's Last Dancer".
Chengwu Guo as Li in the film "Mao's Last Dancer".

Australian film director Bruce Beresford assembled an international cast of actors and dancers to tell the inspiring true story of Chinese-born ballet virtuoso Li Cunxin.

"When they took me from my family, I did not recognize this as an honor. I did not see dancing as an opportunity; nor could I imagine how far I might go."

Li Cunxin was 11 years old in 1972 when an official delegation from Beijing came to his rural classroom. "They've come here to select students," explains the headmaster as the officials scrutinize the youngsters. "If chosen, you'll go to Qingdao for a very special test."

Watch the trailer for "Mao's Last Dancer":

Li Cunxin is chosen, taken from his family and sent to undergo grueling training at the Beijing Dance Academy formed by "Madame Mao," the wife of Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung, during the Cultural Revolution.

Almost a decade later, he is chosen again: this time, it is to study with the Houston Ballet company in one of the first artistic exchanges of the newly opened relationship with America. In Texas, under the guidance of Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson, the 19-year-old discovers a new world:

Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood co-stars as Ben Stevenson. "I had a little bit of film of him teaching in China, I had seen a couple of interviews with him and I had some audio tape; so that was a jumping off place. At the same time I had to put my own body into a world that I had no business being in, which is to say ballet. So I started taking ballet lessons every day. It was fantastic. I learned so much and learned very quickly how much I'll never know. It was exhausting and energizing at the same time. I had to at least know what I was talking about, even if I couldn't actually do it," he said.

Someone who could actually do it plays Li Cunxin: Chinese-born Chi Cao, a principal dancer in the British Birmingham Royal Ballet. "To hear myself speak, to start with, was a big challenge. I don't get nervous dancing in front of 5,000 people; but I do get nervous when a camera follows me. Because it is just so different, it takes a long time to actually get used to it. So everything is a challenge for me," he said.

Joan Chen plays Niang, Li Cunxin's mother, in this scene confronting local officials who arrive to criticize her when the son she has n-o-t seen since he was taken away as a child defects and sparks an international incident. The Shanghai-born American actress and director says portraying events of the "Cultural Revolution" is still controversial.

"Actually, the Cultural Revolution is still taboo in a way, but I imagine that in the next five years there will be a lot more films coming out about the Cultural Revolution because my generation of filmmakers revisit with a new perspective. It is a huge part of our lives - that piece of history. It is important (and) it will not go away," she said.

"Really, it is just a matter of telling the story in a very straightforward sort of way and, I hope, as honestly as possible," said director Bruce Beresford. He says he was determined to keep "Mao's Last Dancer" from becoming political. In fact, he quotes Li Cunxin urging him not to cast his native China as the villain of the piece.

Beresford says the only Chinese government objections he encountered were about the depictions of Madame Mao, whose place in history has officially been erased: objections the director says he ignored. I thought it was a film full of good will and I thought it would be wonderful to make a film that shows the personal achievements of someone and the dedication to his art. Ultimately, I thought it had a kind of message. I didn't want it to be banal, but it had a message showing that there really isn't such a huge difference between the East and West …and that there can be tremendous love, not just between individuals, but also nations; but I didn't want to make it heavy-handed," he said.

"Mao's Last Dancer" also features American ballerina and actress Amanda Schull as Elizabeth Mackey, who falls in love with and marries the Chinese student. Kyle MacLachlan plays the attorney who helps him defect to America. Director Beresford tapped many principal dancers with the Australian ballet for the production that was filmed at locations in Australia, the United States and China.