Sunday, 30 December 2007

Review: Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin (2003)

Raised amid crushing poverty, Cunxin was, one day, tapped on the shoulder (as it were) when Teacher Song recommended him to a delegation of selectors seeking conscripts for a new dance school sponsored by the wife of Mao Zedong. It was 1973 and the Party was supreme, respected despite the aweful dearth of everything.

Cunxin travelled to Beijing to start training, which was tremendously painful. Diligent and conservative, he was recruited into the Party's youth league and, finally, chosen to participate in a troupe due to visit the United States.

Once there, he was struck by the freedoms available to those he met as well as the opulent lifestyle, which he did not believe was unexceptional. His yearning for fuller artistic expression is married to an aspiration to 'get out of the well'. This idiom is drawn from a story we read early in the book and that recurs over and over again.

In the story, a frog is trying to jump out of the well he is in, but cannot because the sides are too sheer and high.

Cunxin will marry an American, get divorced, defect, be ostracized by his country of birth, travel and dance, remarry (this time to an Australian; he lives in Melbourne), and be welcomed back to China.

It is an emotional story but the style is plain. It is so plain, in fact, that it appears artless. In places it is not very lively, but the tremendous release, when he finally gets what he wants, is invigorating.

One other theme is the link between creativity and freedom. The ease of access to the vice-president (George Bush snr) is effectively compared to the difficulty he had getting to talk to a local government functionary when his return to the United States for a second stint with the Houston Ballet, is threatened. We can feel Cunxin shaking with rage one moment, and shivering with gratitude the next.

Heartfelt and moving.

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