Mao's Last Dancer

Li Cunxin

About the Author:
Li Cunxin was born in a village near the city of Qingdao, in northern China. At the age of eleven, he was selected by Madame Mao's cultural advisers to become a student at the Beijing Dance Academy. When he was eighteen, he was chosen to perform with the Houston Ballet, leading to his dramatic defection to the United States. Li performed as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet for 16 years, becoming one of the world's top male ballet dancers. In 1995 he moved to Melbourne Australia, where he became principal artist with the Australian Ballet, He lives in Australia with his wife, ballet dancer Mary McKendry, and their three children. (Adapted from the publisher and Wikipedia.)

From a desperately poor village in northeast China, at age eleven, Li Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao's cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, only to fall in love with America—and with an American woman. Two years later, through a series of events worthy of the most exciting cloak-and-dagger fiction, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is his story, told in his own inimitable voice. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Questions:

  • Discuss Li's decision to defect to the US: his motivations (falling in love, exposure to freedom). What personal price was paid, and what was gained? Also, whoever leads the book discussion might dig up information on another famous ballet defection: Rudolph Nureyev, who defected from the former Soviet Union in 1961—ironically, the same year that Li was born.
  • Did Li marry Elizabeth Mackey out of love...or out of a desire to stay in the US? Why did the marriage end?
  • An interesting discussion might consider the roles of talent vs. discipline and perseverence. What about the role of an inspiring teacher?
  • You might also talk about the vast cultural differences Li had to surmount—language, the fact that ballet is not a Chinese art form, and the values of individuality and self-fulfillment vs. collectivity.
  • In a New York Times interview (9/26/04), Li says that in returning to teach at the Beijing Academy he has found "people have a lot more opportunities. So if it gets too hard they just back off." He also says that had he grown up elsewhere and been presented with the West's "enormous opportunities," he "certainly would not volunteer to do a ballet class." I'm not sure what the question is...but it's an interesting observation.
  • If you've seen the 2009 film version, how does it compare with the book? Is the movie well casted?

(Lit Lovers)