LEADING THE WAY: Li Cunxin taking the company during rehearsals.
LEADING THE WAY: Li Cunxin taking the company during rehearsals. Christian Tiger

Long way from home for Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet

It's a long way from Shandong in rural China to the cosmopolitan city of Brisbane, geographically and culturally, and Li Cunxin, Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet, never forgets it for a minute.

His story of escape from poverty in rural China to international ballet super stardom is well documented.

His 2003 memoir Mao's Last Dancer followed by the 2009 movie of the same name, brought to life the extraordinary story of Li's journey from hardship and hunger in rural China to stardom on the international ballet stage, and gained him millions of fans world-wide.

"It is quite surreal," he told Brisbane Seniors Newspaper. "I will never forget my childhood, my family in China.

"One of the biggest shocks of my life was when I sat in the cinema watching my own movie.

"Sometimes I reflect, especially if I am reading my children a book, I see my childhood story unfold, I get emotional. I have to tell myself I am not dreaming."

He could be forgiven if he was dreaming.

As a small 11 year old boy in 1972, Li, one of seven sons born to peasant farmers in Shandong, was chosen by the Chinese Communist Party to train at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

He battled heart-breaking loneliness and the constant pain of gruelling exercise and dance regimes, but at the age of 18 he became one of the leading students in Beijing and was invited to America to dance in an exchange-student program with the Houston Ballet Company.

The culture shock of leaving Communist China for the freedom of America, and having to rethink all he'd been taught about the west being a pit of poverty and corruption, slowly grew into a love affair with America, which led to his brave and dangerous decision to defect. It caused an international diplomatic incident.

Li was briefly incarcerated in the Chinese Consulate in Houston and threatened with deportation and punishment, and also punishment to his beloved family at home in Shandong. 

"That situation in the consulate was much more dangerous than the movie showed," he said. "It was a terrible risk. The punishment to my family would have been terrible if I'd been deported back to China."

Li's decision to stay in America meant he was separated from his cherished family, something that caused him sorrow and longing as he gained fame in America for his exquisite dancing.

"My mother passed away in January this year," he said. "She was such a strong woman, the most generous-hearted lady, she had passion, kindness. She went through such a tough life. My parents taught me to always stay humble, especially when I got notoriety for my dancing. They told me to always stay humble and stay true to myself. They shaped me as the person I am today.  My mother and father influenced me with their integrity, the values they instilled in me. They played a major part in my success. They were the most dignified, honest and generous people."

Although his childhood roots remained firm and true, Li went on to make a life brimming with success upon success, eventually moving to Australia after falling in love with Mary McKendry, an Australian ballerina he met in London. 

He embraced the world of finance and became a prosperous stockbroker and motivational speaker after he retired from dancing in 1999 at age 38.

"My life is in three parts," he said. The first in China, the second in America, the third in Australia."

That life in Brisbane with the Queensland Ballet Company since his appointment in 2012, has brought Li more happiness than he thought possible. With his wife Mary and three children, he lives and breathes the Queensland Ballet Company and rejoices in the Queensland lifestyle.

"It was fate to end up in Brisbane," he said. "My wife Mary is a Queenslander born in Brisbane, raised in Rockhampton. She is a beautiful ballerina. We fell in love through our dancing together.  She introduced me to Australia and I fell in love with Australia."

As to this 'third' part of his life, Li has used his prodigious talent and virtuoso to developing and growing the Queensland Ballet with all the determination and dedication he has applied to his past endeavours.

"The ballet company is now the second biggest in Australia," he said.

"The growth and the maturity of the company has been absolutely phenomenal. We have sold out 150 performances each year for the last four years. Our season ticket subscribers have increased from 1700 before I came, to about 7,500. The last three years we have been breaking company box office records.

"Three years ago we broke the company's record with Romeo and Juliet, last year we broke that box office with Sleeping Beauty, and this year, we broke (the) Sleeping Beauty (record) with Strictly Gershwin. We have had record numbers of people come. We are truly international now."

That first step towards international recognition came when Li took the entire Queensland Ballet Company to London, an enormous undertaking and one that put the company in the global limelight.

"The company had never been to London," Li said. "We performed in the prestigious London Coliseum theatre. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, to see our dancers, performing to such a wonderful standard. I am so proud what Queensland Ballet has achieved. Such huge achievement is never easy. It takes hard work from everybody. Not just mine."

The ballet company's new program is shaping up to be exciting, after finishing a season of Strictly Gershwin where 20,000 people attended performances. Preparations are under way now for Lest We Forget.

"It is a tribute to the ANZACs," Li said. "We have three beautiful works, one of them by the famous American choreographer, Paul Taylor, a beautiful ballet called Company B, exploring the turbulent war era through the Andrew Sisters' songs".

This ballet is absolutely one of his best works.

"The second is called In the Best Moments choreographed by Ma Cong using Philip Glass music. It is about exploring human relationships, about longing, separation and coming together".

"The third is Natalie Weir's We Who Are Left, inspired by poetry written during the First World War about separation, loss, fear, pride, bravery and dignity."

When he can, Li travels back to Shandong to visit his five remaining brothers (his eldest has passed away, along with both parents), all now prosperous business owners thanks to the financial aid Li has given them.

"I always wanted to help my family," he said. "It is what I wanted to do when I went to America. My brothers all have businesses now and I have helped their families with education as well."

Li could have continued working as a stockbroker but took the position as Artistic Director with the Queensland Ballet because he loves Brisbane and wants to influence the next generation of dancers.

"I love Brisbane, the city, the climate, the atmosphere. I came back from the world of finance to ballet so young people could realise their potential, through me passing my knowledge and experience to them." 

More information about Queensland Ballet and its program on website: queenslandballet.com.au

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