Mao's last dancer

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

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.

Photograph: Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Colum McCann's Thirteen Ways of Looking seeks mental depth cameras can't see

This new short story collection approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles.

On 27 June 2014 the New York-based, Dublin-born writer Colum McCann was hospitalised after being punched in the back of the head. He was in Connecticut to attend a conference at Yale University when he came across a man assaulting his wife on the street. McCann yelled at the man, who walked away, only to return the same day while the author was speaking on the phone with his teenage son. “I was knocked unconscious,” McCann recently told the Irish Times. “Knocked out all my teeth; fractured cheekbone; severe contusions.”

In an author’s note at the end of McCann’s new book, a 143-page novella and three short stories, he writes: “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back.” It’s a vague, slightly concussed statement intended to highlight how, uncannily, McCann had already begun to write some of these stories – each of which concerns a character who either fears, or succumbs to, an act of unforeseeable violence – before he was attacked.

McCann is well known (more so in the US than the UK) for his shifting, cinematic narratives, most notably the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, which used Philippe Petit’s heroic tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings as a symbol to connect an ensemble of disparate characters in 1970s New York. By comparison, Thirteen Ways is a messier, more ambiguous work.

This is no bad thing. McCann forgave the man who hit him, though he still struggles with “the punches behind the punch . . . the emotional impact”. That impact can be felt throughout the new collection, in which real life dovetails neatly with its recurrent themes: recollection, perspective, physical frailty and what Peter J Mendelssohn refers to as “the dark dogs of the mind”.

Peter Mendelssohn is a caustic, verbally gifted, 82-year-old former judge, a feisty Jewish relic of the Upper East Side whose Irish wife, Eileen, has recently died. He is both modern (his BlackBerry is “a wondrous machine” that lives in his breast pocket) and playfully unreconstructed (the sound of a juicer reminds him of the word “juicy” that he saw written on the back of a woman’s trousers in the park: “Sorry all,” he thinks, “but it was indeed rather juicy”).

His son, Elliot, “the hedge fund man, political aspirant, well-known philanderer”, is an accomplished disappointment, a man whose lack of charm and consideration for others – there are no “sorry alls” from him – is the opposite of his father’s warmth. When the pair meet for lunch, Elliot is unable to put his phone away long enough to indulge his father’s need to “talk . . . of our gone days” and rushes out without finishing.

Elliot is being sued for wrongful dismissal after an affair with a woman at his firm. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll crush her,” he says as he leaves Peter, who will soon be murdered outside on the street – a fact we learn early on in the novella, as McCann’s artful descriptions of the city are shown to be the static visions of surveillance cameras.

The image of a security camera also closes “Treaty”, the final story in the collection. “Suffering exhaustion”, Beverly Clarke, a 76-year-old nun, has been sent to a tranquil community on Long Island, where she is confronted by the image on late-night TV of the man who kidnapped, raped and abused her 36 years earlier: a former paramilitary commander who has now “taken on the aura of a diplomat”, speaking at a peace conference in London.

Beverly, like Mendelssohn, lives in the past. She smokes late into the night – “to cough, to burn and disappear” – and is undecided whether she has really seen Carlos, now restyled Euclides Largo, or not. “The odd little magpie of the mind”, she thinks, plotting a wearying trip to London to discover the truth. “Nothing is finally finished, then? The past emerges and re-emerges. It builds its nest in random places.”

Thirteen Ways takes its name from a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, which catalogues some of the perspectives that a poet might take on the natural world. Unlike Mendelssohn, Beverly does not succumb but confronts Carlos. She shows him her scars. McCann approaches the subject of trauma from a number of angles. He seeks out the mental depths that cameras, surfaces and screens cannot know. Yet, for all the modes of catharsis and redemption that exist, it is Beverly’s calmly spoken words that feel most vital. “I just want you to know that I’m here,” she says. “I exist, that’s all.” 

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war