Mao's Last Dancer (film)

Mao's Last Dancer
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Produced by Jane Scott
Screenplay by Jan Sardi
Based on Mao's Last Dancer
by Li Cunxin
Starring Chi Cao
Bruce Greenwood
Kyle MacLachlan
Joan Chen
Wang Shuangbao
Amanda Schull
Ferdinand Hoang
Penne Hackforth-Jones
Music by Christopher Gordon
Cinematography Peter James
Edited by Mark Warner
Release dates
  • 13 September 2009 (2009-09-13) (TIFF)
Running time
117 minutes
Country Australia
United States
Language English
Mandarin Chinese
Budget A$25 million
Box office USD $22,269,123

Mao's Last Dancer is a 2009 Australian film based on professional dancer Li Cunxin's autobiography of the same name. Li Cunxin is portrayed by Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Chi Cao (simplified Chinese: 曹驰; traditional Chinese: 曹馳; pinyin: Cáo Chí), Australian Ballet dancer Chengwu Guo (Chinese: 郭承武; pinyin: Guō Chéngwǔ) and Huang Wen Bin. The film also stars Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Wang Shuangbao and Amanda Schull.[1]

The film premiered on 13 September 2009, at the Toronto International Film Festival.[2][3] General release in Australia and New Zealand began on 1 October 2009. It began screening in the United States on 33 screens in August 2010.[4]


In the era of Mao's Cultural Revolution (in the 60s), 11-year-old Chinese boy Li Cunxin resides in a rural village commune in Shandong Province, destined to labour in the fields. As often occurred in those times, government officials fanning out across the nation seeking young candidates for centralized training arrive at this school. At first bypassed but selected after a plea by his teacher during the school visit, Li seems bewildered although piqued by the gruff preliminary inspection screening at the provincial capital city of Qingdao. Forwarded to a Beijing audition for a place in Madame Mao's Dance Academy, he is admitted for ballet training based on a series of physique and flexibility examinations.

Years of arduous training follow, Li surpassing his initial lukewarm interest and mediocre performance after inspiration from senior teacher Chan (whose advocacy of classical Russian ballet as opposed to the politically aimed, physically strident form required by Madame Mao leads to the teacher's apparent banishment). Later during the course of a groundbreaking cultural visit to China, American-based English ballet director Ben Stevenson, impressed by Li's standout talent, seeks him as an exchange student at his the Houston Ballet. Li's determined courage garners a formerly disparaging teacher to influence the Academy to allow him the opportunity for a three-month stay in the United States.

Li's encounters with US life cause questioning of the Chinese Communist Party dictates upon which he has been raised, and he begins a relationship with an aspiring American dancer, Elizabeth Mackey. Quickly attracting the attention of the local ballet scene, Li together with Stevenson requests a time extension in America, but the Chinese government refuses. Overwhelmed by the opportunities offered in America and in love with Mackey, Li is determined to stay. With legal advice that the Chinese government would recognize certain residence rights arising from an international marriage, Li and Mackey rush into a marriage. To declare personal responsibility for his decision and hopefully avoid consequences for his family and Stevenson, Li visits the Chinese Consulate in Houston. The Chinese resident diplomat forcibly detains Li in an attempt to coerce his return to China. Unknown to Li, the situation quickly evolves when the media and high level government agents both in the US and China become involved. When Li perseveres in his refusal to repatriate, the Chinese Government agrees to release him but revokes his citizenship and declares he can never return to the land of his birth.

Li and Elizabeth are set to depart for Florida but Li is persuaded to stay by Stevenson for his ballet company, dooming Elizabeth's prospects of dancing success. Burdened by this, plus concerned for and unable to communicate with his family, Cunxin continues to excel as a dancer, but his relationship with Elizabeth disintegrates and their marriage ends. Five years later, as a show of goodwill the Chinese government allows Li's parents to visit him in the US where they finally witness his performance of the The Rite of Spring and even reunite with him on stage. Li is eventually granted permission to visit China. Together with his new wife Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis), an Australian ballerina, and coming back to the village of his youth, he rejoins his family and his former teacher Chan, who expresses regret that he never got to see Li perform. Li and McKendry give an impromptu outdoor ballet performance to the village's uproarious cheer.

Closing credits announce that: Li Cunxin danced in China with the Houston Ballet in 1995, a performance broadcast to an audience of over 500 million people. He and Mary McKendry now live in Australia with their three children. Ben Stevenson left the Houston Ballet after 27 years as Artistic Director. Acclaimed as one of the world’s leading choreographers, he is now Artistic Director of the Texas Ballet Theater. Charles C. Foster still practices law in Houston. He is recognized internationally as an authority on Immigration Law. Elizabeth Mackey (Liz) danced with the Oklahoma Ballet for some years. She is now a speech therapist, working mainly with children.



The soundtrack score was composed by Australian composer Christopher Gordon. The score utilises a standard Western orchestra, with the addition of a number of Chinese instruments. The score won the Best Original Music Score prize at the 2009 AFI Awards (now AACTA) as well as Best Feature Score and Best Soundtrack Album at the Screen Music Awards Australia, Federation Square in Melbourne. An ensemble led by composer and pianist Paul Grabowsky performed excerpts from the nominated scores including Pas de Deux and Madame's Model Ballet from Mao's Last Dancer. The night closed with a performance of Out of the Well and Free Dance conducted by the composer.


The film received mixed reviews, with a score of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 72 reviews. with an average rating of 6.1/10.[5] The film was the highest grossing Australian film in 2009[6] and is the twelfth highest grossing Australian film of all time.[7]

Box office

Mao's Last Dancer grossed $15,440,315 at the box office in Australia.[8]


  1. "Cast - Official website". Archived from the original on 15 September 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2010.
  2. "Mao's Last Dancer". Toronto International Film Festival. Retrieved 10 May 2010.
  3. McCrank, John (18 September 2009). ""Mao's Last Dancer" leaps onto movie screens". Reuters. Retrieved 10 May 2010.
  4. "IMDB". Retrieved 25 September 2010.
  5. "Mao's Last Dancer (2009)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 10 May 2010.
  6. "Australia Yearly Box Office". Box Office Mojo. 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2010.
  7. "Australian Films Domestic Box Office of All Time". Australian Film Institute. 21 February 2010. Retrieved 12 August 2010.
  8. Film Victoria - Australian Films at the Australian Box Office
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