In Mao’s Last Dancer, the film version of Chinese ballet dancer Cunxin Li’s autobiography, composer Christopher Gordon’s taps the spirit of Chinese music and incorporates it into the classical music of the ballet. To achieve this delicate balance he had to adapt the normal composing workflow and even join the crew on location. The film was shot primarily in an area about four hours outside of Beijing, during the time that China was hosting the Olympics. The production benefited “censorship-wise” from the authorities being occupied elsewhere, which gave the filmmakers a lot of freedom they might not have had at any other time.
Almost as unusual as the exotic locations on the film was the workflow for composing the score. Most composers come onto a project in the last few weeks of postproduction when the picture edit is almost complete, and have about six weeks to compose. That was not the case on this film. “A lot of the music – in particular the revolutionary ballet, the brush dance, the jazzy piece, and the exercise music – had to be composed beforehand from just the script, because it had to be choreographed, shot listed and so on,” Gordon shares. “On top of all that, we had to pre-record most of the repertoire pieces. There was a huge amount of material to be done before we even started. I had roughly five weeks to do all that, including the recording sessions. At that same time, I was finishing some other projects. The actual score took another month after principal photography was completed.”
At the request of the film’s director, Academy-Award-winner Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), Gordon was also present on-set at the studio in Sydney and on location in China, so he could keep an eye on the musicians and make sure everything looked authentic. Gordon reveals, “At one point I had to get right in there, in front of the camera. My one cameo, and it’s not in the movie!”
To get the flavor of a foreign country, many composers do research on indigenous music, but not Gordon. “A lot of people ask me how much research I did. It was almost none. I’m from Australia, and somehow or other, you hear a lot of Chinese music in concerts or on TV, so over a lifetime, you get the sound of it,” Gordon explains. “The real tough part was getting the right instruments. With other cultures I might have to do more research, but in this case, I just had to check the arrangements and amount of strings, that type of thing. Really, it’s sort of irrelevant, because if you write a fairly straight forward tune, you know they can play it.”
Another atypical challenge in the scoring was the necessity for the music to follow the dancers. “For the ballets the music had to be done at the speed that the dancers perform in. In other words, the dancers dictated the tempo, not the conductor.” Gordon elaborates, “We actually took the dancers into the recording studios with us. The pianist would play with the dancers. We used that as our guide track. One piece was so rough, we had to take the piano part, put a click to it, clean it up a little bit, then have another pianist re-record it. That went with us to China. Then after it was shot and cut, we cleaned it up again, and that was our final.”
Ultimately Gordon’s score provides more than just a background for the dancing. The music accentuates the stunning Chinese locales and punctuates the drama of a time period of transitioning Chinese-American relations, while it beautifully incorporates classic ballets into a seamless musical experience.