The Unlikely Journey of 'Mao's Last Dancer'

Former Houston Ballet star Li Cunxin discusses his journey from an impoverished childhood in China to the pinnacle of his artistic profession in Houston on Aug. 1, 2010. Li was in his former hometown to promote a new movie based on his bestselling memoir Mao’s Last Dancer. (Jeff Fantich Photography)

Dance fans know Li Cunxin for his celebrated 16-year career as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet. What they might not be familiar with is the amazing journey he took to get there. A small boy born to a peasant family in China, Li Cunxin was hardly a likely candidate for international stardom. His adventures began when a schoolteacher encouraged Beijing Dance Academy officials to consider the skinny 10-year-old for their school. Li's journey almost ended in 1981, at the age of 20, when the Chinese government ordered that he return to China and give up his dance career in the US.

"It was the darkest moment in my life," Li told a Houston audience at a film screening at Asia Society in Houston. "It truly made me dig down deep to think: What do I want for my life?"

Thankfully, Li stood up to his government and his boldness paid off. Twenty-one hours after being forcibly detained, the dancer was released. Twenty years later, he would write his bestselling autobiography detailing his amazing journey, Mao's Last Dancer.

Based on his 2003 autobiography, a new film by the same name chronicles Li's exceptional life story. The inspirational plot of Mao's Last Dancer is enough to grab the attention of any audience member—but dance enthusiasts will be especially enchanted by acclaimed choreographer Graeme Murphy's ballet equences as well as the talented cast.

Asia Society Northern California will host a special advance screening of Mao's Last Dancer on August 18 in San Francisco.