Mao’s Last Dancer

DRAMA; 1hr 57min (English; Mandarin with subtitles)

STARRING: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Joan Chen, Wang Shuang Bao

Beastie boy: Bana

Darting back and forth between the rural China of 1972 and the Houston of 1981, director Bruce Beresford launches into the real-life story of dancer Li Cunxin (Cao), chosen as a child by Chairman Mao’s government to study ballet at the Beijing Arts Academy. The academy is draconian, and solemn, spindly Li pines for his loving parents (Chen and Bao) as he strains to make the grand jeté grade. He grows into a sleek marvel of a dancer, strengthened by the struggle to get there. And in 1982, Houston Ballet Company artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) takes him on for three months as an exchange student.


Li’s visit erupts into a political mare’s nest as he fights to stay in the US. His case becomes a cause célèbre, yet Beresford’s telling of it could use more cohesion and heat, falling uncomfortably between the cracks of a so-so bio and a dance-as-salvation drama. Onstage, Li’s grace seems indestructible. But life is not all soaring performance and despite its big themes of family ties and hard-won freedom, this one never quite takes off.