Chi Cao makes a balletic leap to acting in Mao's Last Dancer
Mikhail Baryshnikov did it in The Turning Point. Alexander Godunov did it in Witness. Now another male ballet dancer, Chi Cao, has made the transition from ballet to acting, and from stage to screen.
Watch the trailer for Mao's Last Dancer.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer was cast in Mao's Last Dancer to portray Li Cunxin, the central figure in the inspirational true story of a boy who rises out of rural poverty in Mao's China to become a classical-dance star in America.
Numerous links and parallels between the two men's lives made Cao, whom Li introduced to director Bruce Beresford, a fitting choice for the role. Cao's father was one of Li's teachers at Beijing Dance Academy, where Cao also studied, and both left China at a young age to study ballet abroad—for Li, it was Texas; for Cao, England.
“We went through similar things: facing the western society alone without really knowing what to expect, the language differences and stuff, and basically we don't really know when we'll be seeing our family again,” Cao says by phone from Toronto. “In my case, it was a little bit different. I didn't really know how I could see my family, because I didn't know once I go back when they would allow me to come out.”
Li, however, was never allowed back home. As depicted in the film, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (May 14), he defied Chinese authorities by marrying his American girlfriend and defecting in 1981. Although Li gained his freedom, he was exiled from China, separating him from his family.
Cao notes other differences between himself and Li. “Li is much more patient in everything than I am. I like to get things done as quick as I can”¦where Li, I think, is much more, in a way, generous than me.”
In spite of Cao's penchant for efficiency, he felt the film production schedule was rushed. “For dancers, we train ourselves whole day, every day, for weeks for performance,” he says. “For the film, I have an hour, an hour-and-a-half every day, not even every day sometimes, for what I have to do. So for me, it's not enough time.”¦So I had to do what I could to deliver the best performance at the time under those circumstances, which is not ideal—but it's a film, it's not really about ballet. You gotta get everything else down right as well.”
Although he had previously acted on-stage in some classical-dance pieces, and had taken acting lessons, he learned a great deal from the director and the cast, which includes Joan Chen and Vancouver-raised Bruce Greenwood. The experience permeated his approach to dance. “When I'm on-stage now, dancing, I think more about more of the character rather than the step.”¦I started thinking about more of what I'm doing and what kind of emotion I'm delivering on-stage, rather than what kind of steps and how many turns I do.”
With one feature film under his belt, will he follow Baryshnikov's footsteps and dabble in a television show like Sex and the City, or go Godunov and play a terrorist, í la Die Hard?
“I think this is one-off, and I don't really know whether I will be doing acting again,” he says. “But let's just say I wouldn't say no if the right part comes along.”