by Suzanne Fagan
In order to fly, you have to be free.
This advice from “Teacher Chan” is the underlying theme of this Australian-made film, which recounts the true story of Li Cunxin, a ballet dancer of world fame. In this work, director Bruce Beresford takes a detailed look at the extraordinary life of a peasant boy growing up during China’s cultural revolution, who by chance is taken from everything he knows, and sent to train at Madame Mao’s dance studio in Beijing.
The film begins in 1981, when a bewildered Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) arrives in Houston as an exchange student under the auspices of the Houston Ballet Company. He is awed by the slick hugeness of Houston, but guided through it by the ballet company’s kindly and sympathetic artistic director, Ben Stevenson (played by Bruce Greenwood). It is Stevenson who spotted Li during a cultural interchange visit to China, and who negotiated to get him a scholarship to come to the U.S. Stevenson, who is actually British, is acculturated in America, and takes Li to live with him in luxury and indoctrinate him into the world of professional dance. Li establishes his ability before very long, and begins working regularly with Stevenson
As the story unfolds, the viewer is treated to several flashbacks to Li’s peasant village outside the city of Qingdao. An unsuspecting eleven-year-old student, Li (played at age 11 by Wen Bin Huang) is sitting at his desk in the rustic schoolhouse, when some cultural emissaries from Beijing come in to assess the class and see if there might be some promising talent among the boys. They are disappointed however, and are about to leave, when the young teacher points Li out to them.
Li is taken to Qingdao with a large group of children from similar backgrounds, and they are put through a rigorous testing process for strength and flexibility. Li does not excel in any of these exercises, but his potential is noted, and he winds up in Beijing at Madame Mao’s ascetic, bare bones dance studio, following a rigorous schedule of ballet training and academic subjects. The harsh attitude of the revolutionary personnel pervades the school. One night when Li is in his bed sobbing, one of the guards demands that he stop, because “crying is a sign of weakness.”
Another flashback: a ballet is performed in front of an important official representing Madame Mao, using the classical Russian form. Madame Official is displeased, demanding to know where in the performance are the guns, the politics, the “face of the revolution.” In other words, she wants to see a revolutionary ballet, which up to now has not really existed in China. There is one special teacher in the school, Teacher Chan (Su Zhang), who is devoted to the Russian classical ballet style and the dancing of Baryshnikov. Later he is to suffer for it, and to be temporarily exiled from the school and the city. Ballet in Beijing undergoes a transformation, and the next staged performance we see is a depiction of the cultural revolution, with dancers in army uniforms, acting out battle scenes and red army victories. Teacher Chan watches in tears, as Madame Official and the rest of the audience applaud enthusiastically..
It is this teacher who finally inspires Li (who in reality has been following along without realizing his potential). The other teachers, particularly Teacher Gao (Gang Jiao), deplore his lack of strength and his lukewarm attitude. Teacher Chan recognizes Li’s ability, and before he is exiled, takes the opportunity to talk to him about developing his strength. He tells him that as he becomes stronger, his body will become lighter. He also smuggles Li a video, which turns out to be a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov (considered a “filthy defector” by the revolutionary teachers). Once he sees the video, Li becomes inspired, and begins an all-out training program to increase his strength. He practices continually, and sneaks out at night to run up and down stairs with heavy weighted bags tied to his feet.
The training pays off. When Ben Stevenson, along with some members of his company, visits China to see if they can recruit some dancers, the harsh Teacher Gao recommends him. “If you want mental strength and courage, you can’t go higher than Li.” Li particularly stands out against the background of the changed approach to ballet in China. As Stevenson observes, the performers are “more like athletes than dancers.” There is no emotion or art in their dancing. Li still adheres to the teachings of Teacher Chan. He is permitted to go to the U.S. as an exchange student for three months, in spite of doubts expressed by some of the teachers about his ability to resist “capitalist influences.”
From this point the story traces Li’s tenuous journey through the customs and language of American culture. He quickly becomes noted as a rising star when he stands in for the injured lead dancer in a performance of Die Fledermaus. Dancing the role of Don Quijote, he delivers a stunning solo which stops the show. Meanwhile, he has been forming a relationship with an American girl who also wants to dance, but does not have the talent to be a major performer. When the time comes for Li to return to China, he finds himself reluctant to leave. His request for an extension of his stay has been denied, and desperate to stay and dance in the U.S., he marries his American girlfriend. He winds up being held hostage with several others, including his attorney, Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan), at the Chinese Consul in Houston. After several days of negotiations, Li is granted permission to stay in the U.S., but is not allowed ever to return to China. He is in exile.
For the next five years, Li dances all over the world, reaching true greatness as a performing artist. He has no contact with his family, but as he tells a reporter in Washington, DC, he carries their picture everywhere he goes, “and when I dance, I dance for them.” His marriage to Elizabeth Mackey has ended..
In 1986, Li’s parents, ably portrayed by Joan Chen and Shuangbao Wang, are brought to Houston, unbeknownst to Li, to see him dance the lead in The Rite of Spring, at Houston’s Wortham Theater . In one of the most emotionally charged moments of the film, Li and his parents are reunited onstage, as the audience applauds wildly and throws streamers.
Three years later, newly married to Australian ballerina and dance partner Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis), Li is finally allowed to return to his village. The whole population turns out to welcome him, and he and Mary perform an impromptu ballet on the village road, while Teacher Chan joins the peasant audience in applause.
There are many supporting factors in the success of this film, including the cutting edge cinematography of Peter James, who provides breathtaking scenes of Li’s mountain village, in sharp contrast to the shimmering enormity of Houston. The actual village had long ago been absorbed by the city of Qingdao, and the film crew found a picturesque location outside Beijing to represent Li’s home. Choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon produce an impressive number of famous ballet performances, working against time with dozens of dancers of all ages. All is cemented together by the haunting musical score of Christopher Gordon.
Li Cunxin himself is said to have been very pleased with this representation of his life story. The film’s impact lies in its ability to both engage and inhabit the heart of the viewer.