The Peasant Prince (Monkey Baa)
Li Cunxin’s journey from a life of poverty in communist China to being a world-renowned classical ballet dancer is well documented through his autobiography, the 2009 film “Mao’s Last Dancer” and, initially, as the children’s book “The Peasant Prince”. And it is this simple picture book source material that forms the basis of Monkey Baa’s perfectly-pleasant stage adaptation of his extraordinary story.
Li (John Gomex Goodway) is a 10-year old peasant boy living a village life in rural China with his poor but proud family when he is recruited for attendance at a Beijing ballet academy, leaving behind everything he knows and everyone he loves. Over years of determined training, he works towards stardom on the international dance scene, beginning with the Houston Ballet. Indeed, his appearance as the Nutcracker Prince in the iconic both opens and anchors the show, which is told in flashback as he awaits his parents’ arrival to see him perform.
It is a whirlwind story, replayed in a simple way, yet its significant milestones all make appearance. And the use of Chinese fables assists younger audience members towards understanding of its key themes, including communist limitations and anti-western propaganda.
Thematic access is enhanced by its simple yet effective set of a large wooden frame which allows for video projection and silhouettes and shadows to delicately accompany the retelling of ancient myths as much as represent Beijing’s crowds and showcase Chinese Maoist propaganda.
Goodway is wonderfully charismatic as the story’s protagonist, capturing childhood exuberance in physicality and facial expressions alike in early sections and showcasing impressive skill in dance scenes. He is supported by a strong ensemble cast (Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong) that transitions between roles with ease, not just through simple costume and prop changes, but posture and vocal variety enough to bring each supporting character to individual life. Chang is particularly memorable, both as Cunxin’s caring, supportive mother and later as a wealthy Texan arts patron, even acting, at one stage, as accomplished dance partner for Cunxin.
“The Peasant Prince” presents a beautiful, modest and intelligent story, realised with visual interest and humour enough to engage its intended audience to reflect upon his inspirational messages about the role of hard work and resolve in realisation of one’s dreams.