Mao’s Last Dancer is the inspiring true story (and runner up for the Audience Choice Award at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival) about the first dancer from Mao’s Communist China permitted to study ballet in the U.S.

Li Cunxin quickly fell in love with America and found himself marrying into U.S. citizenship rather than returning to China. This caused a political firestorm when the Chinese embassy tried to force Li back to China and he ended up being briefly banned from his native land.

The film sticks closely to the facts and stars another Chinese ballet dancer, Chi Cao, who spoke to Metro during a visit to Toronto.


Cao had never acted before and admits he found the transition from dancing on stage to acting on film a bit tricky at first.

“It was quite hard to start with,” said Cao. “I’ve been on stage for 20 years, so that’s nothing. You can put 50,000 people in front of me and it doesn’t bother me. But when we started shooting, I was too aware of the camera and tried to play to it like an audience. It took about six to eight weeks to adjust.”

Though it might not have come easily, the first-time actor soon came to terms with his new medium and delivered a rather impressive performance that captures the confusion, frustration, culture shock, and learning curve of Li Cunxin’s trip to America effortlessly. Cao attributes his ability to capture the essence of Li to the fact that the dancer was part of his life from an early age.

“Li was also a graduate from my school and my father was actually one of his teachers,” said Cao. “He always paid close attention to my career development and he was the one who suggested me when they decided to make the film.”

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