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Mao's Last Dancer
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Li Cunxin was born in a small village near the city of Qingdao, in northern China. At eighteen, he was selected to perform at the Houston Ballet, which led to a dramatic defection to the United States. He has performed as a soloist with the Houston Ballet and as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet.

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The life of a poverty-stricken 11-year-old Chinese boy was changed forever when he was selected to attend the dance academy of Madame Mao in Beijing. One of a few youngsters chosen, based upon a suitable physique, he did not even know the meaning of the word ballet. Yet a decade later, Li Cunxin (as former principal dancer of the Houston Ballet and now a stockbroker in Melbourne) would begin his rise to international fame as a ballet star. Li endured seven years of often harsh training as well as academics grounded in Chairman Mao's Communist philosophy, gradually adapting to the regimen and setting the goal of becoming the best dancer possible. He is an expert storyteller, and his memoir-which includes his struggles to perfect his art in the tense political framework, the complex events surrounding his defection, and the heartbreaks and joys of his professional and personal lives-makes for fascinating reading. The portions dealing with his childhood and loving family in Quingdao are especially poignant, and the work as a whole unfolds with honesty, humor, and a quiet dignity. This book has wide appeal, for it concerns not only a dancer's coming of age in a turbulent time but also individual strength, self-discovery, and the triumph of the human spirit. For circulating libraries.-Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Gr 6-9-In 1961, just three years after Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, Li Cunxin was born, the sixth son in a family of Chinese peasants who eked out a meager existence on a rural commune. During his childhood he endured unimaginable poverty and hardships and witnessed the shooting of 15 "counter-revolutionaries" by Mao's Red Guards. When chosen to audition for Madame Mao's Beijing Ballet Academy at age 11, ballet became his chance for a good job and enough food for life. Many years of training, two U.S. trips, one premature marriage, and a defection later, Li joined the Houston Ballet as a principal dancer, paving his way to international fame. Although told in a rather bland style-mostly in basic declarative sentences-the information about the country at this time and the danger and angst that accompanied the dancer's decision to defect will be of interest to teens. This Young Reader's Edition of the adult book (Putnam, 2004) gives a much fuller portrait than the author's picture-book version, Dancing to Freedom (Walker, 2008). The black-and-white photos, the abbreviated history, and time line will help students place Li's life story into historical context. With the current interest in all things Chinese, and with the immigration debate in full swing, this is a good choice, both to promote an understanding of Chinese culture and to provoke a discussion about the issues facing today's immigrants.-Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, LaSalle Academy, Providence, RI Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

This is the heartening rags-to-riches story of Li, who achieved prominence on the international ballet stage. Born in 1961, just before the Cultural Revolution, Li was raised in extreme rural poverty and witnessed Communist brutality, yet he imbibed a reverence for Mao and his programs. In a twist of fate worthy of a fairy tale (or a ballet), Li, at age 11, was selected by delegates from Madame Mao's arts programs to join the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1979, through the largesse of choreographer and artistic director Ben Stevenson, he was selected to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet-the first official exchange of artists between China and America since 1949. Li's visit, with its taste of freedom, made an enormous impression on his perceptions of both ballet and of politics, and once back in China, Li lobbied persistently and shrewdly to be allowed to return to America. Miraculously, he prevailed in getting permission for a one-year return. In an April 1981 spectacle that received national media attention, Li defected in a showdown at the Chinese consulate in Houston. He married fellow dancer Mary McKendry and gained international renown as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet; eventually, he retired from dance to work in finance. Despite Li's tendency toward the cloying and sentimental, his story will appeal to an audience beyond Sinophiles and ballet aficionados-it provides a fascinating glimpse of the history of Chinese-U.S. relations and the dissolution of the Communist ideal in the life of one fortunate individual. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 5) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

"[A] fascinating memoir...told simply but passionately, with subtle humor and unguarded emotion."--The Houston Chronicle

"Mix Billy Elliot with Torn Curtain and you'll have some of the tale in very broad outline...well-paced...full of adventures."--Kirkus Reviews

"Fascinating reading...unfolds with honesty, humor, and a quiet dignity. This book has wide appeal, for it concerns not only a dancer's coming of age in a turbulent time but also individual strength, self-discovery, and the triumph of the human spirit."--Library Journal "The facts of his life are astonishing on their own, but what makes Li Cunxin's engrossing autobiography so captivating is his enthusiastic retelling of every twist and turn."--Vogue (Australia)

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