'Last Dancer' tells his story in a book and in film

Li: "I had never planned to make a movie."
Li: "I had never planned to make a movie."
Posted: May 10, 2011

The candidates were few when it came to casting someone to portray dancer Li Cunxin in a movie based on his amazing life story. After all, the candidate had to be a brilliant dancer, a talented actor, and Chinese.

"In my mind, I assumed they were going to get Jet Li or Jackie Chan and just bring in a dancer double," Li said in during a recent interview in Philadelphia - his first visit here since 1985.

But amid the hundreds of audition videos and resumes Cunxin reviewed, he was able to find the perfect man for the job: Chi Cao, a principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet whom Cunxin recognized as a young standout dancer from a visit to Chinese ballet school years before.

"I had never planned to make a movie," Li said. "So I had to be - and I am now - confident that we found just the right person to tell my story."

His story is now known across the world as "Mao's Last Dancer," first as an autobiography now in its 52nd printing in Australia, where he now lives, and also as a 2009 film that was just released to DVD.

The film depicts Li's journey from impoverished childhood in China to wowing crowds as a world-class ballet dancer.

After being chosen by chance to join the Beijing Dance Academy when he was just 11, Li showed such promise that at 18 he was selected to study at the Houston Ballet as one of the first two Chinese exchange students permitted to study in the U.S. under Chairman Mao Zedong's communist regime.

In Houston, he fell in love with an American ballerina, which eventually led to his decision to defect and a rushed marriage that ended in divorce.

"I truly knew the taste of starvation," Li said. "I never wanted to go back to . That has been my driving force throughout my dance career and beyond."

After years of traveling the world, Li settled as the principal artist in the Australia Ballet and a second marriage to Australian dancer Mary McKendry. The couple has three children.

Because Li knew his body would not endure dancing forever, he enrolled in accounting courses to get a jumpstart on a new career. In his final two years with the Australian Ballet, Li would wake at 5 a.m. to train in the dance studio, then race to the stock exchange in Melbourne by 8 a.m. for a full day of work.

"It was so easy for me to think I could have retired to teach or to coach," Li said. "But the realities of that, financially, would not comfortably support my family. What really motivates me is always to try and help my family, make a difference in their lives."

But Li said he "couldn't be more happy" with his life now. Though he said the fame that comes along with a motion picture is incomparable to that of a dancer, he hopes to use it as leverage to give back to society.

"If people can see the movie and take hope, courage, inspiration from what I've done, it's well worth it," Li said. "On a personal basis, it truly doesn't matter if you are the president of the country or an office worker. As human beings, we all go through similar mistake-making processes and trials. It's about how you bounce back from those things in life."

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