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Mao's last dancer

A muscle-bulging, tendon-stretching leap across the borders.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Rehearsals in the vast studio of the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane are providing a lesson in history. Chinese male principal Hao Bin launches a leap, thwacks his ankles together mid-air, throws out his legs and hangs for a moment, air-borne. He lands, pirouettes repeatedly in a tight coil, and leaps again, legs ruler straight to the front and behind, arms like wings. The control and the abandon of ballet. The expression of escape combined with the tight discipline of the dance.

Li Cunxin, branded “Mao's Last Dancer” due to the book he authored and the subsequent movie, looks on, occasionally grunting and nodding. Now the Creative Director of the Queensland Ballet, he watches as his first production, Prokofiev's “Cinderella”, which premiered on April 5th, edges nearer. Perhaps China's most famous defector, he well understands the complex dance between two states, both political and physical.

Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev died in Vienna in 1929 as modern ballet's first exile. His revolutionary, free-wheeling Ballet Russes, based in Paris but conceived among the nobility in Csarist Russia, re-invented the largely forgotten Renaissance dance form. Part of the Westernising trend in late 19th century Russia, the Ballet Russes drew ex-pats and escapees, creative defectors all. Yet, Lenin and his cultural hit-men ensured Diaghilev could never return.

The artistic limitations of subsequent communist regimes took their cue from Lenin and the strictures of socialist realism saw Russian stars of the ilk of Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Gudunov make the own jete to creative freedom. Recently, two Cuban dancers did the same. All could only spin on the spot for so long.

Sitting with Li over lunch afterwards, he reflects on his own leap of faith. It was, he says, always a question of freedom and inspiration, not material gain “It was definitely an artistic choice.”

“In one year, the new ballets we did, the calibre, the standard and variety of ballets we did (in America) would be probably 10 years in the making in China.”

He may have been famous and wealthy back in China, but he would have been artistically muted. “If I had gone back to China, even for 2 or 3 years, I would not have had the kind of career I've had...One or two years, particularly in a short career like ballet, can mean everything.”

For Li, his dramatic defection in Houston in 1981 meant he may never see his family again. It may have meant they may be severely affected by his decision. As peasants living hand-to-mouth they had no access to power, no protection and with Li gone, no meal ticket. The consequences may have been dire as Li well knew.

His drama-filled defection ranks alongside those of Nureyev and Baryshnikov as examples of ballet's inexplicable ability to focus political tensions into one desperate and iconic personal moment; displaying the power of one individual to embody and to transcend the curdled complexities of history and politics.

Krushchev wanted Nureyev killed after his defection from the Kirov in Paris in 1961. The KGB organised pro-Soviet cadres in Paris to throw fruit and jeer his performances. There were plans to break his legs. He was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison. Friends and colleagues back in Russia were pressured, abused, arrested. Careers were terminated, lives ruined. Defection is not for sissies.

But neither is ballet. Hao Bin and his female principal – and wife – Meng Mingning are well into the morning rehearsal. The brute physicality of the form shows in the sweat that sheens their bodies and drips from their noses. Hollywood smiles of performance mode are dropped and replaced by pained grimaces when the music stops. Choreographer Ben Stevenson throws advice in English and though they are visibly struggling with the language, Li looks on, translation held back. There are no prisoners on the boards.

It is this harsh discipline and incessant urge for utter perfection that has launched many an artistic defection from a repressive regime. The dynamic is similar: the urge to always get better, to take risks, to push and to endure. Selfish it may be, given the risks to those left behind. But the distance between selfishness and a single-minded dedication to one's art is lamina thin and perhaps ultimately impossible to find. The balance is subtle. The wider world benefits from the art of defection.

And, if there is art in the act of defection, there is art in its motivation too. Every attempt to escape from a repressive situation is surely a creative act. Are there any Li Cunxins are among those millions of asylum seekers awaiting “processing”? Defection is just high profile asylum seeking. Surely Li's art is in every one of them.

Li's defection did not see his family persecuted. It was a near thing though. Close friend and collaborator Ben Stevenson led a US ballet delegation to China soon after Li's defection and received death threats. His car was graffitti'd with “We will kill you.”

Fortunately for Li, China was changing. Chinese authorities learned that frustrated Chinese artists were better in exile anyway, lest they poison the domestic well. Increasing openness from the late 1980's ensured that international cultural avenues were opened, though still heavily policed by state apparatchiks. As such, Li may well have another ultimate claim: China's Last Artistic Defector.

Li thinks back to a moment watching rehearsals of “Cinderella” the very ballet he's now directing, soon after arriving in Houston as an exchange dancer from China; “At the crucial moment, when Cinderella's shoe dropped, when the prince was searching for her after the ballroom scene...my tears were streaming down my face. It really moved me. I still hold that image today.”

It's a moment for all creative souls: a life spent in the margins, a moment of acknowledgement, a threshold crossed and a new world beckoning. Cinderella's discarded slipper lays silent in the borderland between two states. It's a place many of those seeking to escape into the creative freedom every human deserves will recognise. Like the kind of muscle-bulging, tendon-stretching leap Li Cunxin was famous for, its a rare and beautiful place, worthy of its art.

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