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Mao's Last Dancer by Christopher Gordon

Mao's Last Dancer

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Mao's Last Dancer (Soundtrack)  by Christopher Gordon
Mao's Last Dancer (Poster and Memorabilia)

 

 

Mao's Last Dancer (Poster and Memorabilia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mao's Last Dancer (Soundtrack) by Christopher Gordon

Mao's Last Dancer
Composed by Christopher Gordon
Lakeshore Records (2010)

Rating: 9/10

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“MAO’S LAST DANCER is the kind of score that stays with you, not only for its strong themes but for the sheer strength of its musicality, which transcends the film and actually stands very favourably on its own. ”

A Dance to Remember
Review by Marius Masalar

The music of CHRISTOPHER GORDON will no doubt already be familiar to readers of Tracksounds since we recently covered the Australian’s dark score for DAYBREAKERS. In that review, I mentioned that GORDON’s most notable score was not DAYBREAKERS or MASTER AND COMMANDER, but MAO’S LAST DANCER, and now that the film has been widely released in theatres since August, it’s finally time to take a closer look at this fine score that earned him a Best Original Score award from the American Film Institute.

Considering the almost documentary-level intimacy of the story, it’s no surprise that the musical score is, for the most part, quite reserved. That being said, when highlighting the movie’s most dramatic moments, GORDON allows himself to unleash the full breadth of his considerable musical abilities. This is immediately evident in the rousing and mystical opening track, “Out of the Well” (1). The film’s primary theme is introduced softly on a Chinese flute before the more active secondary theme takes over. Over the course of just under two and a half minutes, we are presented with an extremely attractive and charismatic blending of Eastern and Western sensibilities with some very idiomatic writing for both hemispheres of instrumentation.

The predominantly Chinese sound is more evident in these opening tracks that take place in the protagonist’s rural town. “Village Life” (2) opens with a light and airy take on the theme that gives way to a crashing percussive middle section and winds its way back where it started in a wonderful montage featuring the Chinese instruments exclusively. This sound is continued through the haunting guzheng solo “Lullaby” (3) and “Story of the Frog” (4), where the flute once again takes up the main theme, this time passing it off to a less rich ensemble for the secondary theme.

“Family” (5) is where the western instruments start entering again, with a solemn string section accompanying the Chinese flute as it cries out a sad lament. As the story begins to develop, “The Archer” (6) offers a noble glance at the main theme as the story moves into a more Western zone. The erhu blends beautifully with the orchestral string section and together they set up the introduction of the score’s other major theme: “Pas de Deux” (7). This solo piano piece is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and the theme itself will come to represent the bittersweet experience of ballet throughout the rest of the score as the love theme. “Turning Points” (8) is a brief but dynamic cue that brings in the last of the score’s major themes. After a brief traditional string solo opening, the orchestra takes over and presents the new theme, a dramatic and showy affair that’s almost heroically graceful in its presentation.

The orchestra continues to dominate in the first of the arranged tracks that appear on the album. In this case, it is “Giselle: Hunt and Peasant’s Dance” (9), GORDON’s arrangement of a classical piece written by Johann Friedrich Franz Burgmüller, a fairly obscure German composer of the 1800s. The piece is unmistakably Classical and very lively — a fitting combination for accompanying ballet. The next track is a bit of a chimaera in that it’s actually a collection of several solo piano exercises used for ballet practice. In this way, “Sirhc Nodrog’s Book of Ballet Exercises for the Pianoforte…” (10) changes the pace of the album since each exercise is only a few seconds long and there are ten of them played end to end that make up the track. Despite this, the effect is not disjointed and the individual pieces are truly charming. Astute readers will note that the mysterious ‘Sirhc Nodrog’ is in fact ‘Chris Gordon’ backwards, which explains why the style is so consistent with the Pas de Deux — and why each of the exercises are just as beautiful.

“Madam’s Model Ballet” (11) is one of the album’s standout tracks. Serving up the recently introduced noble ballet theme introduced in “Turning Points”, this extremely brassy and boisterous arrangement is hopelessly catchy and blends Eastern harmonic progressions and instruments with the Western orchestra masterfully. Truly a spectacular piece of music that you’ll wish was longer. “Becoming a Dancer” (12) tones things down with a peaceful and contemplative montage cue. Several of the film’s themes weave in and out, including the nostalgic solo flute riff and its accompanying erhu dance that mirrors the opening track almost perfectly.

“Free Dance” (13) brings us into the score’s latter portion that consists of several more arranged works. This first track is a study in energetic, piano-led jazz though. It’s an extremely contemporary and bouncy piece of music and the minimalistic percussion accompaniment adds some extra fun. “Dance of Longing” (14) slowly builds into a stirring violin-led elegy that shimmers and whispers and only very patiently builds to the level of stirring emotion that one expects to represent longing. Ludwig Minkus, the Austrian composer, is the next source music cue in “Don Quixote: Pas de Deux” (15). GORDON provides a very authentic arrangement, bristling with orchestral energy. The classic “Sonata in D K576: Andante” (16) by Mozart follows; the peaceful piano standing in sharp contrast to the previous track. And no ballet film would be complete without some reference to Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous Swan Lake, and so “White Swan Lake” (17) and “Black Swan Lake” (18) both present excerpts from the work, one calmer and the latter more dramatic.

The album continues with “The Consulate” (19). The longest track on the disc is also among the finest, with a fantastic build that breaks off into blissful passages of Chinese flute solos before concluding orchestrally. “Pas de Deux (Reprise)” (20) is a short and fading rendition of the love theme and is nearly forgotten as we advance into the album’s final tracks. “Brush Dance ‘Zhang Ban Qiao’” (21) is a minimalistic but evocative atmospheric cue, and its transparency lends weight to the dramatic entrance of the love theme in “Break up and Reunion” (22). MAO’S LAST DANCER finishes strongly with “Village Dance and Finale” (23), an amazing and intensely satisfying recapitulation of the score’s themes that simply shines.

MAO’S LAST DANCER is the kind of score that stays with you, not only for its strong themes but for the sheer strength of its musicality, which transcends the film and actually stands very favourably on its own. It’s a very dynamic listening experience, but not an incoherent one despite the source tracks and clashes of Eastern and Western aesthetics. CHRISTOPHER GORDON shows us his best, and if nothing else, this look back at his strongest work reminds us that he is a talent to watch for.
 

Rating: 9/10

 

 


Track

Track Title Track Time  Rating
1 Out of the Well 2:22  *****
2 Village Life 1:41  ****
3 Lullaby 0:52  ***
4 Story of the Frog 1:04  ****
5 Family 3:05  ****
6 The Archer 2:13  *****
7 Pas de Deux 2:32  *****
8 Turning Points 1:17  ****
9 Giselle: Hunt and Peasant's Dance (Burgm.) 2:23  ***
10 Sirhc Nodrog's Book of Ballet Excercises... 4:52  *****
11 Madam's Model Ballet 2:08  *****
12 Becoming a Dancer 3:05  *****
13 Free Dance 2:40  ****
14 Dance of Longing 4:03  ***
15 Don Quixote: Pas de Deux (Minkus, Arr. Gordon) 2:55  ****
16 Sonoata in D K576: Andante (Mozart) 6:50  ***
17 White Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) 2:16  ***
18 Black Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) 3:09  ***
19 The Consulate 5:28  *****
20 Pas de Deux (Reprise) 1:39  ***
21 Brush Dance 'Zhang Ban Qiao' 3:22  **
22 Break Up and Reunion 2:55  *****
23 Village Dance and Finale 3:21  *****
  Total Running Time (approx) 65 minutes  

 

 
   

 

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