In 1981, Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin made national news when he defected to the U.S. to join the Houston Ballet. The Chinese and U.S. governments faced off over the issue, and Vice President George Bush ended up intervening -- and prevailing. Cunxin went on to dance with the Houston Ballet for the next 16 years. He also wrote a bestselling autobiography about his trajectory from impoverished child in China to world-renowned ballet dancer, called Mao's Last Dancer.
The dramatic story -- with Houston at the center -- is coming to the big screen. Director Bruce Beresford, of Driving Miss Daisy fame, has made a $25 million movie based on the book, set for release October 1.
Andrew Edmonson, director of marketing and public relations for the Houston Ballet, has been with the company a long time and knows Cunxin.
"I know that at first, like any foreigner who's dropped as a teenager in the middle of a new country in which he doesn't even speak the language, the culture shock was a bit overwhelming," Edmonson tells Hair Balls. "But Li is very resilient, and quickly developed a wide circle of friends both inside and outside the dance world, and built a lovely life for himself in Houston, with his cozy home in the Heights, his wife Mary and their children."
As a dancer, Cunxin was known for "beautiful classical technique, lovely line and cats-paw soft landings coming out of leaps that were almost soundless."
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Asked about Cunxin's career highlights, Edmonson says, "Li had so many leading roles created for him by major choreographers such as Ben Stevenson, Christopher Bruce and Ronald Hynd over the 15 years that he danced with Houston Ballet that it's hard to single out just one." But some standouts Edmonson mentioned are Cunxin's roles as Romeo in Stevenson's production of Romeo and Juliet that opened Wortham Theater Center in 1987 and the prince roles in Stevenson's new staging of Swan Lake in 1985 and The Sleeping Beauty in 1990. He had a famous partnership opposite Houston Ballet prima ballerina Janie Parker.
Stevenson led the Houston Ballet on two major tours to China. "In 1995, Houston Ballet's opening-night performance of Romeo and Juliet, which launched our China tour to Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, was broadcast live on Chinese TV to over 500 million people," recalls Edmonson. "This was obviously a major emotional moment for Li, a triumphant homecoming as a dancer after the rough parting of his defection from China 15 years earlier."
Today, Cunxin lives in Australia with his wife and is a stockbroker, of all things. In the film version of his life, he will be played by ballet dancer Chi Cao. Oh, and fun fact: Kyle McLachlan plays his lawyer.
(Editor's note: Bruce Greenwood, who played a compelling JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis film Thirteen Days, plays Stevenson. Yeah, I said compelling.)