Based on the 2003 autobiography by Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin, whose defection to the West in 1981 made international headlines, “Mao’s Last Dancer” is at its best when Chi Cao, a world-class dancer in his own right, is spinning in the air as the adult Li.
Too often, though, the film plods along on the ground. Li’s transformation from teenage graduate of Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy to cultural exchange student and, finally, star of the Houston Ballet is conventionally dramatized – i.e., predictable.
The direction by the normally excellent Bruce Beresford is surprisingly perfunctory but at least he doesn’t make the usual mistake of chopping the dance sequences into shards of leaping limbs. He presents the dancers’ bodies in full.
That’s always been the best way to film ballet.
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