BERESFORD, BRUCE – MAO'S LAST DANCER
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
"rags to riches; obscurity to fame; oppression to
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
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.
"Scene 134 / INT / Day: Ben’s car. Ben promises Li he will be able to return to the US."
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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DOUBLE JEOPARDY INTERVIEW (2000)
PARADISE ROAD INTERVIEW (1997)
Li Cunxin, author of Mao’s Last Dancer