A Film by Bruce Beresford
117min., Australia, 2010
After a true story by Li Cunxin
Li was born into bitter poverty in rural Qingdao, China. Certain years the peasants in his village even ate tree barks to survive. Despite the harsh reality of life, his childhood was full of love. The love of his parents gave him hope and courage.
One day, a delegation from Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy arrived at Li’s commune school to find suitable children to study ballet and serve in Chairman Mao’s revolution. At first they passed Li without taking any notice, but just as they were walking out of his classroom, the class teacher hesitated, and suddenly tapped the last gentleman from Beijing on the shoulder and pointed. `What about that boy?’. And that boy was Li.
And so began Li’s remarkable journey. He was 11 when he left home to begin a seven-year harsh training regime from 5.30 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week at the Beijing Dance Academy. Once he found his passion, he worked hard and gave his all. He would practice his turns at night by candlelight, and hopped, one-legged, up and down stairs with heavy sandbags tied to his ankles to build his leg strength at 5 am in the mornings when others were still asleep.
With incredible determination, resilience, perseverance and vision, Li graduated as one of the best dancers China has produced. He was discovered by Ben Stevenson, one of the world’s most respected teachers, choreographer and the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet as part of the first US cultural delegation to communist China. And became one of the first two cultural exchange students allowed to go to America to study under Mao’s regime.
In a dramatic defection, Li was subsequently locked up in the Chinese Consulate in Houston. This created a standoff between the Chinese and the American governments. Even George Bush senior, then US Vice President intervened. FBI agents surrounded the consulate in Houston, and negotiations between Chinese and US diplomats had begun. His defection was the headline story in America. Twenty-one hours later, Li walked out of the Chinese Consulate as a free man.
He then danced with the Houston Ballet for sixteen years and became one of the best dancers in the world. He guest performed around the world with some of the best ballet companies and won two silver and a bronze medal at three International Ballet Competitions. While dancing in London, he fell in love with an Australian born ballerina with a major ballet company in England, Mary McKendry. They married in 1987, and in 1995 moved to Melbourne with their two children where Li became a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet.
This is the real story of Li Cunxin and while we all loved the movie, the youngest confessed innocently that she didn’t understand. Indeed, it’s hard to understand or believe it really happened…