Production has begun on the movie Mao’s Last Dancer, an adaptation of the best selling novel of the same name. The incredible rags-to-riches story is one that is very near and dear to Houston Ballet.
Li Cunxin was born into abject poverty in a small village in rural China, but through an incredible accident found himself under the direction of Emperor Mao’s wife, studying ballet for the communist government. Ben Stevenson, then the artistic director of Houston Ballet, was invited to go to China to teach master classes and became very impressed with the male dancers of the Beijing Dance Academy, Li Cunxin in particular. He would later invite Li, along with another pupil, to attend Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy for one summer on a full scholarship.
No one could have expected the sequence of events that would unfold, including a 21-hour standoff at the Chinese Embassy when the young Li Cunxin decided to marry and remain in the United States against the will of the Chinese government. When Li first set foot in Houston, Texas, his experience was flooded with cultural misunderstanding and a great deal of confusion. He became a true embodiment of the American dream and danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years.
Former artistic director Ben Stevenson with Li Cunxin in the 1980s
It is a daunting task to tell a story as varied as Li’s on the big screen, but the wonderful production crew is doing a fantastic job. Filming has already begun in China and will soon begin in Australia and Houston. Research has been ongoing and Houston Ballet has collaborated closely with the production and art departments to ensure that the story the world sees is as close to reality as possible.
The journey into the era of Li has been an incredible one involving digging through picture archives, studying old posters, reading old newspaper clippings and even looking through dancewear catalogs of the time. The clothes dancers wore, the pieces they were dancing to, and the places they were traveling to can’t simply be invented and are integral to the story. The contrasts are particularly stark when compared to the academy in China, where Li remembers a much different experience.
It has been a very nostalgic journey to remember the Houston Ballet of twenty years ago, a Houston Ballet without a Wortham Theater Center and one in which Ben Stevenson still had not created his ballets Romeo and Juliet or Coppélia. This collaboration has helped us to recover our history in a wonderful way.
The production and art departments are committed to the integrity of their project and determined to be as historically accurate as possible, which makes our communication extremely important. Of course, when the people you are communicating with live in a country separated from yours by a time difference of 17 hours, the job can sometimes be easier said than done!
For more information about the casting for Mao’s Last Dancer, visit this website.