Of course it would take a famous memoir to lure me back to the stage.
Mao’s Last Dancer is the story of a young boy plucked out of obscure, grinding poverty to train to become a ballet dancer a.k.a. revolutionary guard during China’s stormy Cultural Revolution era, where one’s weapon was also one’s art. Our protagonist Li Cunxin served both art and country faithfully until the fateful summer he was invited over to the United States to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet. it was during this overseas stay as an 18 year old that Li realised the veil of false propaganda he and all his compatriots had all been living under, and made a dramatic bid for defection. The rest, as they say – is history. Li went on to become a soloist with the Houston Ballet, principal dancer with the Australian Ballet and is today the Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet Company. But his new found freedom and international stardom came at a cost. Li was forbidden to ever return to China, and it would be seven long years before he was able to see his family again.
In 2007, Li Cunxin wrote The Peasant Prince, which was the children’s book version of his autobiography. Distilled to its purest essence, Li’s story is a rags to riches tale of what can be achieved through sheer determination, hard work, self-belief and love. Today, I am bringing his story to life for young audiences across Australia in a tightly woven stage adaptation by Monkey Baa Theatre. The production is a coming together of some of the finest theatrical minds in the business, with a simple yet spectacular set consisting of a giant wooden frame and scrim. The changing landscapes have been handpainted, and are back projected to convey a sparse village home, bustling Beijing train station, Houston Ballet Studio and the magnanimous gaze of Chairman Mao back when he was bigger than God.
It’s been five years since my last play, and this one was one I couldn’t say no to. When I’m standing behind in the wings, waiting for the audience to enter, I think of how different my life may have been had it not been for Mao and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. How my grandparents might never have been forced to flee their homeland, that their isolation might not have been filtered into trauma from one generation to the next. And I think of how important stories from that time and place are because they are part of not just mine – but the world’s- cultural DNA.
So 2016 is shaping up to be the year of returning to Cultural Revolution China – as if I had been there, inhabiting those who are part of one person’s journey to dream, to dance, to risk everything for love and freedom- and who triumphed.
My grandparents would have loved it.