Cinema has long been a platform for stories of triumph over adversity, but not many films feature a protagonist who finds refuge from a tyrannical government through the power of dance.
Such a story is found in Mao’s Last Dancer, a stirring adaptation of the bestselling memoir of former ballet dancer Li Cunxin, and directed by award winning Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford.
In the book as well as the film, the viewer is guided through Li’s life journey from poverty stricken upbringing in Mao’s China, to international recognition as one of the world’s finest ballet dancers.
Crucial to his life journey was his first wife Elizabeth Mackey, with whom his marriage and defection to the United States caused an international incident; and his current wife of over 20 years, Mary McKendry.
Portraying the roles of Li’s women in Mao’s Last Dancer are former San Francisco ballet dancer and Centre Stage actress Amanda Schull; and long time Australian Ballet and current Hong Kong Ballet dancer, Camilla Vergotis.
With both actresses having just begun the whirlwind publicity trail for the upcoming movie, their excitement is palpable.
Only last week the film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, with Schull describing the experience as “a little overwhelming, actually, because I flew in the night before, and the next day I saw everyone for the first time in a year and a half...So it was a little too exciting for me, I think!”
|"(Li) was always been a mentor to me, and gave me advise about my dancing and helped me with my technique." - Camilla Vergotis
For Vergotis, her involvement in Mao’s Last Dancer is more personal: “I danced with Li before, when I was with the Australian Ballet Company for 9 years, and I also danced with him in my final year of the Australian Ballet School. So he was always been a mentor to me, and gave me advise about my dancing and helped me with my technique.”
Mao’s Last Dancer was also Vergotis’ first film role.
“My first day on set was probably my most memorable day with the movie. It was below 7 degrees, we’re in the country outside of Beijing, there is still ice on the ground....and we danced on the dirt in summer clothes. But the extras were people who lived in the country, and there was no way that they had seen ballet before. So that was an amazing experience for me.”
For Schull, Mao’s Last Dancer marked her return to feature filmmaking since 2007’s Women on Top, and her latest film proved to be a rather serendipitous affair.
“It is interesting, because I had gotten scripts before where you read them and think, ‘I had heard of this’, if it was based on actual events. But when I started reading this script I thought, ‘On my God’... I had actually knew people who knew him directly, who had danced with him directly...so that was really exciting and it was something I really wanted to pursue.”
In her casting as Li’s first wife, Schull portrays a pivotal role since it was their love affair that played a big part in Li’s defection to America, creating an international incident which involved the FBI and the intervention of then US Vice President, George Bush.
When asked if she thought whether Elizabeth knew of the ramifications which her marriage to Li would cause, Shull replied: “I don’t know how you interpret it, and obviously its subject for each person’s interpretation. (But) I think they were young, and they were naive, and they were so in love that they didn’t investigate the ramifications of their actions....or, the ramifications of what they were doing for each other’s countries.”
|"I think they were young, and they were naive, and they were so in love that they didn’t investigate the ramifications of their actions." - Amanda Schull
Starring opposite Shull and Vergotis is Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Chi Cao, who also makes his film debut in the lead role.
“I knew of him, but I hadn’t seen him dance before” states Vergotis. “We are both so new to this. I was performing my final show with the Australian Ballet Company, and I didn’t know this hotshot director was standing in the wings. So I hadn’t been searching it, and the same with Chi.”
Adds Schull: “He takes it all in stride, but you can tell when we get to do something really exciting... we were in Toronto we got to meet Geoffrey Rush, and Chi was very cool on the outside, but you could see the butterflies on the inside.”
The films masterstroke was the casting of dancers in its pivotal roles, with acclaimed choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon taking advantage of their cast of trained professionals.
In turn, Mao’s Last Dancer displays spectacular dance sequences, sure to make an impression on those who do not associate themselves with the ballet.
“I think every opportunity to bring ballet to the cinema, is an opportunity for not only little girls but little boys everywhere to go and see it”, said Schull. “People who wouldn’t ordinarily pay the money to go to the Opera House and see the ballet, will pay the ticket price for the movie and be able to get an experience from it.”
Mao’s Last Dancer will be released on October 1, through Roadshow Pictures.