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
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser