Movie about TBT director Sir Ben Stevenson mixes ballet with cliche

STEVE WARREN  | Contributing Writer

Mao’s Last Dancer
EN POINTE | Bruce Greenwood, left, plays Ben Stevenson, now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, who turns a poor Chinese dancer into a sensation in the schmaltzy ‘Mao’s Last Dancer.’

2.5 out of 5 stars
Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan. Rated PG. 115 mins.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

A great story and some amazing dancing are, unfortunately, sacrificed on the altar of cheesy melodrama in Mao’s Last Dancer. It’s hard to believe the great Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) could have watched this, let alone directed it. And no one who even typed the scripts for Shine and The Notebook could have been responsible for this screenplay, let alone the person who wrote or adapted them (Jan Sardi).

This is the true-ish story of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), who was invited to spend the summer of 1981 with the Houston Ballet and decided to stay in America. In a throwback to movies of several decades ago, Bruce Greenwood plays the ballet’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson — now the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater — as an obviously gay man who lives alone and has absolutely no life outside of his work.

Li, by contrast, is obviously straight, because even as a boy, every time he partners a female on stage there is another female in the audience looking jealous.

Nine years prior Li, one of seven sons of a peasant couple, was plucked from his humble village to be trained at the Beijing Arts Academy, along with 39 other Chinese children. They’re given a standard indoctrination in Communism, including being taught that China has “the highest standard of living in the world,” and capitalist nations the lowest.

When he arrives in oil-rich Texas at the height of the boom, Li is overwhelmed, having never seen such luxury, even in Beijing; he can hardly believe Ben has such a house to himself. But the Chinese consul has counseled him not to trust anyone, “especially women — they’ll lead you astray.”

The early part of the film toggles between Houston and Li’s early years in China, where he is unhappy until an old-school teacher, later prosecuted for his teachings, makes him appreciate dance and his own skills.

When the Houston delegation visits Beijing in 1980, they’re disappointed to see the students, except for Li, are more like athletes than dancers. In Houston Li gets a break but has only three hours to learn the pas de deux from Don Quixote.

Li meets aspiring dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), who, in this screenplay, is more a device than a person. Afraid of what will happen to his family in China if he defects, Li learns he can stay in the U.S. if he marries a citizen. (Ben pitches a hissy fit.)

Unable to contact his parents, Li worries about them constantly. Years later, Ben arranges for them to surprise him by showing up in the audience for a performance. It must have taken months to arrange and could have taken a lot of stress off Li if he’d known it was in the works, but the surprise makes for a more upbeat (and corny) climax.

That may be the stupidest thing in the movie but there are countless smaller things, like people working in a Washington office in what must be the middle of the night. Even original twists are presented in such a way as to look clichéd.

The ballet sequences, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, are the saving grace of Mao’s Last Dancer — if only we got a two-hour recital instead of the story. Not to be shortchanged is the principal dancer, Chi Cao, who is also a decent actor as far as the script allows. He’d be a natural for a new film biography of Bruce Lee — I’d pay to see Chi replicate Lee’s fight choreography.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010