Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Maos Last Dancer"

I saw this wonderful tear-jerking ballet movie at the Tower Theatre on Sunday evening. In some ways, the story of defection follows predictable lines. Nevertheless, there are surprises. Because defecting ballet star Li Cunxin intended to establish American citizenship through marriage, rather than through another route, like fear of political persecution, suddenly everything personal became political. Politics so close to home is a scary thing!

Also surprising was how Li's new American home base, the Houston Ballet, suddenly discovered, upon Li's defection, that it had more interests in common with the Chinese government than it did with Li. The investment of time, money, and energy by the Houston Ballet was too large. The company director needed, above all, to retain his personal contacts with the Chinese government, in order to retain access to China's ballet world. If that meant sending Li to the depths of hell, so be it.

It must be remembered that ballet companies have always been run as authoritarian fiefdoms, and they always will be run as such. They are not democracies and mushy sentiment does not govern their actions. The Houston Ballet and Red China have more in common than first meets the eye.

If the Chinese government hadn't overreacted by detaining Li in the Chinese Consulate, the story could have ended much differently. The Houston Ballet was reluctantly dragged into Li's defense by Chinese excess.

Don't you just hate politics?

Also interesting was watching Li's instructor in China trying to retain his influence with local authorities, and avoid charges of being a counter-revolutionary, by talking about the Vaganova Method of ballet instruction as almost a talisman - as if it were a secret formula and as if China's effort to rise in the world of ballet was analogous to, say, American's Manhattan Project.

The Vaganova Method is a wonderful, logical, and systematic way to teach ballet, but it is not a secret formula, and by itself guarantees nothing. Other methods of teaching ballet can, have, and will be devised.

Nevertheless, no blame attaches to Li's instructor. He was in a desperate effort to retain control and avoid being sent to prison. Sometimes you are forced to say untrue or silly things when speaking to skeptical political authorities.

Don't you just hate politics?

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