Li Cunxin was no different from any other child living in northeast China under the reign of Chairman Mao: Impoverished, frail and unkempt, he went to school in a tattered building and sat at a rickety desk. Then one day, in walked several of Madame Mao's cultural delegates, looking for potential ballet dancers for Chairman Mao's grand vision of China. As they were preparing to leave, the teacher pointed to Cunxin and asked, "What about that one?"
"If she had blinked, the opportunity would have slipped away," says Cunxin. "And that's what is quite amazing. It all started from that moment." What started was one boy's journey from peasant to ballet dancer, from devout communist to venture capitalist, from rags to well, you know where we're going with this.
Cunxin's new memoir, Mao's Last Dancer, chronicles his life's journey. "It's really not about ballet," he says. "The last thing I wanted to do was write a ballet autobiography. That'd be extremely boring, I think."
And Cunxin's book is anything but boring. He writes about how his life in China prepared him for his 15 years with Houston Ballet, as well as his reasons for eventually defecting from his homeland. "Houston is the city where the story unfolded," he says. "If it wasn't for the special people in Houston, I don't think I would have defected."
Cunxin now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where his book has been a best-seller. It was there that the decision to write his memoir happened by chance. While staying at a seaside resort with his family, he met children's author Graeme Base at a dinner party. Cunxin told Base his tale, to which Base replied, "This is one of the most captivating stories I've heard in a long time. You just have to write it down."
Cunxin asked his wife what she thought of the idea. "To be perfectly honest," she said, "I'm sick and tired of hearing you tell and retell your story at dinner parties." Hopefully they've found other topics of conversation now that it's off his chest and on the page.