Ballet Movies: Billy Elliot and Mao’s Last Dancer

This was ballet movie weekend!

A few weeks ago, I received some good suggestions for ballet movies that I hadn’t seen that would be fun to check out.  I’d been keeping an eye out for them, on netflix, whenever I go by my local used book and movie store, hoping to stumble across them. Then week before last, while watching Black Swan (yes, I know… but I like it, even though it’s not considered a good (I guess they mean accurate) ballet movie. Whatever…) a trailer came on for Mao’s Last Dancer. After another focused search in person I gave up and gave in and had Boyfriend order it online.  As a bonus, he got me Billy Elliot  as well. I’d never seen either of these (or even heard of them before last month).

First up, I watched Billy Elliot.  As I watched the movie, I had a lot of questions: Why are the female students wearing tutus during barre (I thought tutus were only for performances)? Why do they go straight from plies to center? In fact, do they alternate back and forth between barre and center (never had a class in which we did that)? How can they breathe with all off the teacher’s second hand cigarrette smoke in their face? (The answer to all these questions may be “Because it’s a movie. Duh, you can’t expect it to be realistic.”  But then why all the dislike towards Black Swan and how unrealistic it is? Or it it because using a real ballet dancer to do many of the dancing scenes and not giving credit is such a shady move?)

But despite the questions, I found the movie very enjoyable. Felt like I could really identify with the scene of Billy practicing his pirouettes over and over and over (and over and over some more) – in fact, that was me earlier today!  Loved it when he would start dancing, kind of awkward at first, and then he would get really into it, showing some feeling.  Really loved it when he described dancing as “electricity”.  I thought the dynamic with his friend Micheal was adorable, as well as with Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter (forgot her name).  I liked the accents, the little humorous comedy moments.

And the ending – I totally teared up! It was so great that Billy’s family and friend came to watch him dance, I loved it, it felt like I could see his father’s pride and acceptance of his son.

So, I head the Swan Lake music, and saw Billy getting ready and thought ‘Oh, he must be playing Rothbart, weird, a Rothbart wearing white.’  But no, he’s actually playing the Swan. So, I looked it up, and apparently it is Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, which features a cast of male swans.  I’d never heard of it, so then of course I had to watch it (youtube, how I love you sometimes… even when you make me sit through stupid unskippable ads that I refuse to watch).  It is amazing – I’d love to catch it live one day!

So after a night of Billy Elliot and Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake how do you top that off? Mao’s Last Dancer.  

Previously to actually watching the movies I hadn’t realized that on the surface the plots have their similarities.  They both feature the rise of a talented male dancer from an unconventional back ground; Billy, an English working class miner’s son, and Li Cunxin, the sixth son of an peasant family in rural communist China. Both boys leave their families to receive dance training and acheive stardom.  However, I think that’s where the similarities end.

(Oh, and of course, Swan Lake is featured in Mao’s Last Dance as well. Seems it’s the most iconic ballet or something.  Makes me feel like a total poser for saying Swan Lake is my favorite of the Tchaikovski ballets.)

Billy Elliot was somewhat lighthearted, despite the tense family scenes involving Billy’s father original disapproval for his son’s new extracurricular activity, or the discussions of his young friend’s philandering alcoholic father. Mao’s Last Dancer was more intense, on the other hand.  It’s like, I understand that there was a lot at stake for Billy to pass his auditions (as in, his dad was willing to cross the picket lines to raise the money), but when Cunxin woke up from his nightmare in which his parent’s were assassinated for his refusal to return to China I was like “Oh no! He gave up everything!” (then I realized he was dreaming… I’m a little slow at movies sometimes…).  The movie had a more serious tone, I guess is what I’m trying to say. There were some ominious undertones (like when the ballet teacher who advocated a more Western style is taken off, presumably to a not-so-nice place), but also had the occasional humorous moment.

And the dancing! After all, that’s why I even found myself watching it, the dancing. Chi Cao played Li Cunxin and he was awesome.  He seems so light, so free.  The sequences when he was being trained since a young age were so fun to watch, and I really like his determination.  It wasn’t one of those being “naturally talented” situations, rather than obsessive amounts of practice (or at least that’s what I got from it, as he was told several times that he was weak). The dancer that played his pas de deux partner was amazing as well. I loved the scene when they first danced together, before he comes to the U.S., my jaw seriously dropped.

As for the character himself, I don’t know, I thought he came across as a bit of a jerk.  So he marries the poor aspiring dancer girl (Liz), gets to not be forced to return to China,  then expects her to do all kinds of chores around the house and serve him? Then, when she won’t he basically leaves her for his pas de deux partner? What the hell?! Where’s your committment, boy? I thought you said you  loved her!

(Seriously though, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe after all the went through he was scarred for life? Maybe he just really didn’t want to go back? Maybe he wasn’t raised to not play around with a girl’s emotions? Maybe there were a lot of theater politics? But seriously, from the trailer I’d gathered that he marries someone and stays in the country, so I’d assumed it was going to be the same girl. Maybe I’m old-fashioned LOL.)

Anyway, I recommend both of these movies. Two pointed feet up!

7 thoughts on “Ballet Movies: Billy Elliot and Mao’s Last Dancer

  1. Ilde

    Actually, I think both these are true stories, if I’m not mistaken. I’ll have to look it up… I know Mao’s Last Dancer is definitely. And Julie Kent (famous for being, well, a famous ballerina, and also for dancing the lead in Romeo and Juliet while being like 100 months pregnant) plays the pas de deux partner. She also played in Centre Stage, actually, with the girl who played Jody, who in turn played Liz in this movie. I’m just full of useless trivia today.

    And Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is electric onstage – I’ve seen it – the swans have this ominous, slightly evil feel about them, much stronger and almost… violent…. or something like that.

    Weird coincidence… I’m reading Mao’s Last Dancer right now. Still deciding whether the book or the movie is better. But I think I’m due a ballet weekend too!

    1. kit Post author

      That is so cool that you’re full of trivia – and it’s definitely not useless, lol! I had no idea that it was the same dancer as Center Stage, but I thought she looked familiar. Seems I didn’t do my research before blogging!
      I read a review on Matthew Bourne’s Swa Lake and I think that was what they were going for, a fiercer look to the swans.

    2. kit Post author

      Also wanted to add (but the reply box freezed up on me…) that I had no idea Billy Elliot was also based on a true story – that’s cool!

      And I should definitely check out the book. In my experience, so much goes unsaid in the movie version of a story vs. a book.

  2. Sarah

    I just rented Black Swan to watch again, the first time I saw it I wasn’t into ballet, so I’m looking forward to watching it this time around now I’m completely obsessed, particularly with Swan Lake! Billy Elliot is on my watch again list too, I haven’t seen this for years and it’s such a feel good film. I like the sound of Mao’s Last Dance, I’ll add this to my rental list, thanks for the recommendation. I’ve recently seen ‘Love Tomorrow’, it has two ex ballet dancers as the stars, Cindy Jourdain and Arionel Vargas. It’s quite a heavy film about about two dancers meeting by chance after one has received some terrible news, might be worth a look if you’re on a ballet film kick at the mo 🙂

    1. kit Post author

      The first time I saw Black Swan I wasn’t into ballet either! I just happened to like director Darron Aronovski’s past work (and in my opinion, Black Swan is not the best example of his work). But it made me curious about ballet a tiny bit – though not enough to take the plunge for classes. I guess it sort of put ballet back on the radar for me since I saw The Nutcracker as a 4 year-old, and that’s a good thing.
      I’ve seen it several times now since I’ve started ballet and most likely will watch it again many more. I mean, the soundtrack is awesome, and I do like the concept (the parallel of the Swan Lake story to the movie’s plot).
      I’ll be keeping an eye out for Love Tomorrow as well. Thanks for the suggestion 🙂

  3. Trippmadam

    I love your reviews and your insights. So far, I have not been able to watch “Mao’s last Dancer”, but now I desperately need to find it somewhere.

    1. kit Post author

      Thanks 🙂 . Yeah, it was a bit hard to find. The lady that worked at the movie store I go to sounded really surprised that there was a title they did not have in stock.
      We ordered it off Amazon, it was about $7.


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