Flutes pipe bright notes as a dancer, clad in a gray military uniform donning a red armband, grand jetés to center stage. Thunderous horns signal the entrance of a group of dancers in military garb, their steps amplified by ritualistic drum beats. The lead dancer is given a gun, which she grips firmly with both hands and raises above her head as she spins.
Their movements are sharp and controlled; the stage fills with gray figures, contrasted by the Mao-red backdrop. A teenage Li Xuncin (played by The Australian Ballet’s Chengwu Guo) leaps onto the stage––his loose white-button-up separates him from the visual monotony. He moves expansively, his jumps float with lightness, or ballon, as we would say in ballet.
After a series of barrel leaps, his athleticism and grace emphasized by slow-motion, he fires a shot at a defector creeping up in the back. Large Chinese flags are waved in the air by the other dancers as Li joins the army. They move in unison, marching forward to triumphant orchestral music. Claps erupt and the curtain closes.
Though the choreography in Mao’s Last Dancer (dir. Bruce Beresford, 2009) is clearly designed for the camera––made brief and minimal––the dancing is beautiful (Chi Cao, who plays adult Li, is phenomenal). Xuncin’s technique is evident, and the combination of ballet and classical Chinese dance is (though stilted at times by rough transitions) quite beautiful. But the Party propaganda recital, as described above, is coded as tragedy. According to Madame Mao (Xiuqing Yue) Li’s preceding performance with the Beijing Dance Academy––a rendition of Coppelia––did not embody the spirit of the Revolution. This new military-inspired choreography exhibits its politics, to Madame’s delight.
But Teacher Chan (Su Zhang) looks on tearfully; his earlier protests against changes to the recital–– “Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Vasiliev. The Vaganova method has produced the world’s finest dancers… Ballet needs fluidity, softness…”––condemned as treasonous. Soon after the show, Chang is escorted away by Party members. The performance remains a portraiture of China’s cruel totalitarianism, and its disregard for (artistic) expression.
Mao’s Last Dancer is obsessed with freedom, in its uniquely American, capitalist incarnation. While Li Cunxin’s real life story is one of “rags-to-riches” (and the movie may be truthful to Li’s experience), his upward mobility is portrayed in the film as a model-minority narrative, in which his success is part and parcel with his Americanization. Teacher Chan is the audience’s point of identification, and so his sadness becomes ours, and we too must believe that European dance signals true artistry while Chinese dance is cold and unfeeling. Not to romanticize Maoist China––certainly Mao’s regime was oppressive, and violently so. In some regards, the film’s portrayal is excessively kind, as its version of the totalitarian regime is more brainwashed than murderous. The recital’s choreography is clearly ridiculous propaganda, and its coldness could be rooted in this non–confrontational front. However Teacher Chan’s argument is not just derived from his “counter-revolutionary” beliefs––he insists that the “Western” way is better on the basis of movement quality; its Chinese-ness degrades it.
Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), Houston Ballet’s artistic director, has not seen Li’s previous propaganda performance, in fact he only meets Li as an adult and in a post-Mao China. But he too verbalizes the notion that the Chinese dancers’ movements are rigid (with the exception of Li): “…there’s no emotion. They are not connected, I’m not engaged…they remind me more of athletes than dancers.” The two-fold understandings of China are: 1) the cruel space of a Maoist regime which inseminates propaganda in its subjects, and 2) home to Li’s loving family. Chinese culture has no relevance (only its Americanized versions––Chinatown, kung-fu movies) because it doesn’t exist outside of these two abstract spaces. Li’s Chineseness is commodified, made relevant only to delineate his American assimilation and eventual aspirations, which are conditional on this very assimilation.
Peter James’ (the film’s DOP) decision to shoot scenes in China to appear old, grainy, and dull––but not those in America and/or Australia––strengthens the film’s understanding of China as an unproductive space. It is in America that he sheds his totalitarian brainwashing, and assimilates to American individualism––or as the film would call it “freedom”––which enables him to finally express himself in his dancing and his desire. Mao’s Last Dancer attempts to rectify its cold portrayal of China; the film ends with Li and his wife (Camilla Vergotis) dancing for a crowd of relatives in China, finishing with their chins held high, the Chinese flag rippling in the wind behind them. Though this image of (Americanized) hybrid nationalism was likely to signify China’s modern (capitalist) openness, it doesn’t quite work. Li’s assimilation––his “development into a liberated artist and capitalist”––is precisely what enables him to go back to China and still perform his realized American-Dream.
Fundamentally, the film’s message regarding freedom lies in its universalization of dance: “ [viewers] seemed to accept the trope of dance as a universal communicator of the values of desire, hard work and success… Artistic and political freedom are implicitly linked in the tagline of the movie – ‘Before you can fly, you need to be free’(110).” Li’s struggles are almost always framed as ideological––China’s backwardness v.s. America’s liberation––all other elements (race, class, gender and sexuality) have no importance. Li is only explicitly racialized twice, each only for brief white-savior commentary (his experience of racism in America is invalidated: “chink” means that he has a light inside of him, as Ben explains to Li).
All other moments of his Chineseness––like the film’s reminder of his language abilities, in often unwatchable scenes (Li asks his girlfriend what “sex” is)––are just narrative strategies to prove the validity of the American Dream. As a member of the Chinese diaspora, Li needs only to assimilate––which he does quickly despite his initial disgust at American materialism. With his newly equipped subjectivity, he becomes socially mobile: moving up the ranks in his career and “[translating] and [transferring] that [American] dream outside the U.S. and, indeed, anywhere in the world that his cultural capital can take him (115).”
Mao’s Last Dancer is ever the melodrama, and so emotion eclipses all––Li Xuncin’s story is reduced to a “liberal humanist fantasy- expressed through the globalization of American neoliberalism – that underneath radically different political systems, cultures and histories, we all think, feel and want the same thing, namely, professional and personal success.” Dance focuses viewers on Li’s inspirational rags-to-riches story; all that they are made to care about is his story’s emotional impact. Movement becomes a symbol for freedom, and America becomes a symbol for liberation.
All other dimensions to Li’s story––race, gender, sexuality, class––are rendered obsolete. In Li’s new, shiny American worldview, dance is a universal language of desire, hard work, and success. But it is not, nor should it be. Dance is inextricably political––as are all avenues of expression. Mao’s Last Dancer is no exception.