Mao’s last dancer and me

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A new movie showing at Dorothy Browns in Arrowtown brings back special memories for the cinema’s manager Samantha Relph. 

The heart-warming flick Mao’s Last Dancer features film new­­comer Chi Cao in the role of a poverty-stricken Chinese boy who becomes a world-famous ballet star. 

Relph recalls rookie actor Cao in the days when she worked as an assistant for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England – and he was an aspiring young dancer. 

“I first met Chi when he joined the company back in 1995 and it was clear he wouldn’t be remaining in the corps for too long,” she says. 

“He had incredible technique with real charisma and was promoted to principal dancer in 2002. I look forward to seeing my friend Chi up there on the big screen in Arrowtown.” 

The movie tells the true story of Li Cunxin who was plucked from a poor rural village and taken to Beijing to study classical dance. 

In 1979, during an exchange trip to Texas, he fell in love with an American woman and later defected. 

Cunxin went on to perform as a principal dancer with both Houston Ballet and the Australian Ballet. 

Relph says she’s just finished reading Li Cunxin’s autobiography. 

“I cannot wait to see the film.  It is a fascinating and empowering tale.” 

The similarities between Cunxin and Cao, the man who plays him on-screen, are uncanny. 

Cao also attended the Beijing Dance Academy from aged 11 and moved to London’s Royal Ballet School when just 15, before joining Birming-ham Royal Ballet. 

Cao: “I knew all about Li’s life and career as we had both trained at the same academy in China.” 

Acclaimed Australian director Bruce Beresford launched a worldwide search for the right man to play Cunxin – adamant the role could only be filled by a great dancer. 

“You can’t cheat this and cut to someone else’s legs,” Beresford says. 

Cao is now back performing ballet in the United Kingdom but relishes the prospect of more movie roles. 

“I really enjoyed the transition from dancing to acting and I quickly adapted to the different method of working.
“I’d love to have the opportunity to do more film acting and explore further experience in front of the camera.”