From Academy Award® nominees Bruce Beresford (director, TENDER MERCIES, DRIVING MISS DAISY), Jane Scott (producer, SHINE) and Jan Sardi (screenwriter, SHINE, THE NOTEBOOK) comes the remarkable true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin.  MAO’S LAST DANCER stars Chi Cao, a gifted dancer and principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet making his impressive screen debut as Li.  The cast is rounded out by Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen and Amanda Schull.

Based on Li’s best selling autobiography, MAO’S LAST DANCER is the epic story of a young poverty stricken boy from China and his inspirational journey to international stardom as a world-class dancer.

From Academy Award® nominees Bruce Beresford (director, TENDER MERCIES, DRIVING MISS DAISY), Jane Scott (producer, SHINE) and Jan Sardi (screenwriter, SHINE, THE NOTEBOOK) comes the remarkable true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin.  MAO’S LAST DANCER stars Chi Cao, a gifted dancer and principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet making his impressive screen debut as Li.  The cast is rounded out by Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen and Amanda Schull.

Based on Li’s best selling autobiography, MAO’S LAST DANCER is the epic story of a young poverty stricken boy from China and his inspirational journey to international stardom as a world-class dancer.

The story begins when a young Li is taken from his peasant home by the Chinese government and chosen to study ballet in Beijing.  Separated from his family and enduring countless hours of practice, Li struggles to find his place in the new life he has been given.  Gaining confidence from a kind teacher’s encouraging guidance and a chance trip to America, Li finally discovers that his passion has always been dance. 

MAO’S LAST DANCER weaves a moving tale about the quest for freedom and the courage it takes to live your own life.  The film poignantly captures the struggles, triumphs and the intoxicating effects of first love and celebrity amid the pain of exile.

The film showcases ballet sequences from acclaimed choreographer Graeme Murphy.  MAO’S LAST DANCER stars Bruce Greenwood (upcoming DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS, STAR TREK, THIRTEEN DAYS), Kyle Maclachlan (upcoming THE SMELL OF SUCCESS,” “Desperate Housewives”), Joan Chen (LUST, CAUTION, THE LAST EMPEROR,), Amanda Schull (CENTER STAGE, “One Tree Hill”) and newcomer Chi Cao as Li Cunxin. 

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT – MAKING MAO’S LAST DANCER

I had already read Li Cunxin’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer when Jane Scott and Jan Sardi first approached me with the idea of making a feature film. The story, a rise from rags to riches, is of such epic proportions that it makes all other examples of the genre seem trivial.

Li grew up in poverty-stricken rural China, under the dictatorial regime of Mao Tse-Tung – perhaps the greatest eccentric in history; a man who thought nothing of killing an estimated 50 million of the population who were not politically acceptable, of passing such bizarre laws as forcing the populace to kill all the sparrows, banning people from gathering in groups of more than four – and so on.

One of a handful, selected from among literally millions of children, young Li was taken from his parents at the age of eleven, and trained at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. At 19, he outwitted a bureaucracy and went to Texas – the Houston Ballet. Once in America and confronted by the freedom of the U.S., a country where, he had been told, death stalked the streets and the sun literally never shone  –  he defected.

I read Jan Sardi’s skillful and touching adaptation of Li’s book but pointed out there were two major impediments to making the film. First off, would we ever be given permission to film in China?

Secondly, where would we find a gifted young Chinese ballet dancer, fluent in both English and Mandarin and able to act a complicated, demanding leading role? Did such a person exist? If so, where?  Although hardly a ballet aficionado (a situation that changed in the course of filming), I couldn’t think of a single male Chinese ballet dancer anywhere in the world.

Both these factors may have inhibited a producer with less determination than Jane Scott. Luckily for me, it is almost invariably directors who are given the most credit for films. Irving Thalberg, the legendary production head of MGM in the 1930s, considered writers the most important element in any film, although he pointed out he was not anxious for this news to get around or they would demand bigger fees and credits. Few have spoken up on behalf of producers, who are invariably painted as a bunch of ignorant low-lifes intent on destroying – by undermining during the shooting or re-editing the finished film – the creative skills of the gifted directors in their employ. Frankly, I am sure this is often the case, but I’ve also been lucky to have worked with producers of the integrity and caliber of Richard Zanuck, Sue Milliken, Joan Long, Richard Rothschild, Dino De Laurentis – and Jane Scott.

Jane and I started off by flying to Hong Kong, having been told of some young dancers in the ballet company. There were indeed four handsome young Chinese boys, skilled dancers, but all had the drawback of rudimentary English. Next stop was Los Angeles, where we found a beautiful young female dancer, Amanda Schull, who was ideal to play the role of the American ballerina Li wanted to marry – much to the horror of the Chinese apparatchiks. We also signed up the actors Bruce Greenwood and Kyle Maclachlan for key roles as a choreographer and lawyer, respectively.

In San Francisco, we met Joan Chen, the immensely accomplished Chinese-born actress, ideal to play Li’s mother in the film. The San Francisco Ballet company, one of the best in the world, had in fact a young Chinese woman as their principal dancer – but no Chinese men. The situation vis-a-vis a leading man seemed grim.

A call came from Li, now retired from dancing but still with many contacts in the ballet world, to say there was a Chinese born dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. A few rapid phone calls and we were en route to Sunderland (near Newcastle in the north of England) where the ballet company was performing.

Sunderland on a Saturday night was riotous. Thousands of people, mostly young, flooded the streets and clustered by the hundreds around the pubs and wine bars. When I commented on the scene to our taxi driver he misunderstood me and laconically observed that for some reason, yes, the night seemed unusually quiet. Evidently, he expected to see and hear even more chaos.

Once inside, the beautifully restored Edwardian theatre, the atmosphere changed. The more sedate and cultured members of the town were there for the ballet. No drinking, no yelling, an oasis of refinement – an escape from the Saturday night hell of Sunderland.

The ballet was in modern dress, the choreography inventive, the dancers young and attractive. The minute Chi Chao appeared, I knew we had our leading man. Elegant, lithe and handsome – he instantly struck me as a Chinese Errol Flynn.  The next morning we met again and he read some scenes from the script with an assured delivery and an understanding that revealed his total command of English.

The next obstacle – China – seemed to me more formidable. Soon after our arrival, Jane and I met with ministry officials. They courteously told us that criticisms of Mao were not welcome, that any representation of Madame Mao was strictly forbidden as she is now a disgraced non-person, erased from the history of China. Further, could we add a coda to the film explaining that China is now a progressive and dynamic society?

What now? The script would be in shambles with these changes. However, Jane maintained an Easter Island statue – like calm. “We are not going to quit now,” she said, memorably, “just because we’re told it’s impossible.”

Our first week of filming was 100 miles outside Beijing, in a surprisingly remote mountain area near a crumbled section of the Great Wall. Our designer, Herbert Pinter, rebuilt an abandoned village to serve as Li’s home town. On our fourth day of shooting, in a temperature well below zero and with gale force winds, we shot the final scene of the film. The villagers, all local farmers and their families, were dressed in summer clothes and wrapped in blankets between takes. They remained remarkably good humored. The dancers, Chi Chao and the Australian ballerina Camilla Vergotis, had no complaints whatever. They said that compared to the rigors of ballet training, a bit of dancing in sub-zero temperatures was a pushover.

Back in Beijing, where the bulk of the Chinese sequences were shot, the main problem was recreating 1982 (the year in which Li left for America) in a modern city of skyscrapers and freeways. Peter James, the cameraman, had visited during the Mao era and recognized absolutely nothing. In the late 1970s, he said, he never saw a single car. The entire population, all dressed identically, were either walking or on bicycles. Now, everyone seemed to be in the latest western fashions (traditional dress worn only at weddings and funerals) and the traffic was permanently gridlocked.

With the aid of our local art department, we found an abandoned factory for the exterior of the ballet school and an abandoned high school for the interiors. The high school even had a large theatre, which was cleverly restored (with special attention being paid to the electrical wiring that was evidently on the verge of incinerating all of us), along with a number of classrooms, corridors and dormitories.

The Chinese casting director brought in numerous actors for key roles, among them a number of young boys, all with some dance training. One of them had to play Li up to the age of 12. (Another young dancer, Chen Wu, this time with the Australian ballet – played him in his middle teens). Throughout the Chinese sequences, I had to direct complicated scenes in a language I didn’t speak – a trap for directors. Even with considerable knowledge of the language nuances tend to be abandoned, through ignorance. Acutely aware of this, I watched the Chinese actors intently, if comically, through binoculars, knowing their magnified image would alert me to a loss of concentration, an instant of indecision, a lack of involvement in the scene. A couple of times, I surprised them by calling “cut” after being aware a word was mispronounced or omitted. It was not that I understood the language, only that a reaction had told me a mistake had been made.

A key element in the film, perhaps THE key element is the numerous ballet sequences. We were fortunate in having the involvement of the acclaimed choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon. For various reasons, perhaps ministerial pressure, the Beijing ballet schools were strangely uncooperative – although unfailingly polite – in the traditional Chinese manner. Having supplied absolutely none of the young dancers we needed, I began to think we would have to go to Taiwan or Singapore to shoot dance sequences. Graeme and Janet, unfazed, simply brought in young dancers from provincial cities and worked with them rigorously to bring them up to the necessary standard. I went to a few rehearsals and was delighted and thrilled by Graeme’s charm and enthusiasm, always positive and encouraging, he showed the dancers what it was he wanted them to do.

Backstage, in the production office, I had no idea what was happening. I heard rumors that officials were threatening to close us down, to deport us. During one raid, I was advised that the secretaries were told to hide in the lavatories with the computers holding all the production information. Somehow Jane staved off all threats. On the day we filmed a huge scene with Madame Mao arriving at the ballet school among thousands of students waving red banners, I was expecting car loads of police to arrive and to find myself within a few days in some outlying province weeding a potato farm. But, nothing happened. There was no interference at all. Madame Mao is on screen, at last, in MAO’S LAST DANCER – played by a talented lookalike.

Further dance sequences were filmed in the Royal Theatre in Sydney, standing in for various theatres in America. Through the magic of totally undetectable computer imagery, the Sydney footage is blended with footage shot in Houston.

China, Australia, U.S., – actors and crew from all three countries have, I believe, added up to a memorable film – the amazing story of the life, so far, of Li Cunxin, the boy from rural China who rose to become one of the world’s great dancers.

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