MAO'S LAST DANCER LI CUNXIN
Li Cunxin on the set of The Peasant Prince at Monkey Baa Theatre. Photo: Steven Siewert
Mao's Last Dancer Li Cunxin moves from page to screen and now stage with Peasant Prince.
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AHA Awards was lucky enough to have Li judge in 2011 BMC Auckland which opened with his 'Mao's Last Dancer' movie for AHA 20th anniversary. Li is director of Queensland Ballet Company.
Li Cunxin's extraordinary life story – from starving peasant child in communist China to one of the world's greatest classical ballet dancers – has already been documented in his autobiography Mao's Last Dancer, the 2009 Bruce Beresford film of the same name, and a children's picture book.
Now it will be told on stage for the first time in a new Australian play.
Monkey Baa Theatre Company's The Peasant Prince, adapted for the stage from the picture book, tells of Li's childhood in famine-stricken rural China, his selection, at age 11, for training at an elite dance academy in Beijing, and his eventual defection to the United States when he was 19.
Li, now the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, says he wants to inspire children with his story. "I was one of seven sons and we were so poor and we were hungry but we always had our parents' love," he says. "Their love gave us strength and courage to dream big. I always had hope and I had a big imagination."
Made for children 6 and over, The Peasant Prince was adapted and written by Monkey Baa creative directors Eva Di Cesare, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry, who also directs.
"One of our great challenges was casting an actor who could also dance," McGarry says. "We found John Gomez Goodway, an actor with martial arts experience who has had a crash course in ballet for the show. He is sensational."
Though crafted for young audiences, The Peasant Prince doesn't shy away from the difficulty of Li's early life and the drama of his defection.
"It's dramatic but stylised into an acceptable form for children," McGarry says. "Children will want to know why he wanted to stay in America and about the dangers he faced in going back to China. It is a powerful story."
For Li, the opening night of The Peasant Prince will be poignant. His 87-year-old mother recently died. .
"Seeing my mother portrayed on stage, and hearing her words live again will be very emotional for me," Li says. "She was a big dreamer. She wanted a better life for her children. She gave us a reason to live with her humour, her love and her big personality. Now I want to inspire children to follow their dreams and to treasure every opportunity they get."
The Peasant Prince is at Darling Quarter Theatre, Tumbalong Park, from April 9-20.