Best selling author. Queensland’s 2014 Australian of the Year. Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet. These are just some of the titles Li Cunxin has held over the years, but none more noteworthy than that of Mao’s Last Dancer.
Since his defection from the People’s Republic of China in 1981, Li danced as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and the Australian Ballet, at times performing alongside his wife Mary Li (nee McKendry), a professional ballet dancer from Rockhampton. Following his retirement from performing in 1999 and while working as a stockbroker, Li published his critically-acclaimed autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, in 2003, detailing his life in poverty in the Shandong province of the People’s Republic of China, his life under Mao Zedong’s communist rule, 16-hour-a-day ballet training, and his eventual career as an international performer. It was in July 2012 when Li, who had maintained strong ties with the ballet community throughout his retirement, was announced as the Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet, taking over the reins of the artistic control and vision of the theatre company.
“I wanted to lead Queensland Ballet to become a world-class ballet company, a powerhouse in dance in the Asia Pacific region, and make a positive difference in the arts and the communities we serve.”
In a bold move, and arguably one of the most exciting announcements of the greater ballet community this year, Li will be returning to the stage for a very special one-night-only performance of The Nutcracker. Performing the role of Drosselmeyer, Li has adopted a strict training regimen to ensure he is physically and technically capable of performing the routine. “Currently, I have 2.5 months to get myself back to a decent condition where I won’t make a fool of myself on stage.” This training involves morning laps in the pool, weight and Pilates training, and, of course, four ballet training sessions each week. “I feel both excited and nervous. I know very well that it won’t be easy for me to get back to my peak condition to perform after 18-years of retirement, so I have to go through quite a bit of pain and agony before I will be able to enjoy it. I hope that my performance will add a little bit of spark to an already magical production of The Nutcracker.”
Adopting the iconic role of Drosselmeyer has been its own challenge, says Li, “Drosselmeyer has been in my mind constantly. It’s become an all-consuming living thing in my mind ever since I decided to perform the role! I have been thinking about his character and personality, his narrative, his magic tricks, and of course, his dancing.”
To showcase Ben Stevenson’s production, Li will be joined by a world-class troupe of performers of exceptional skill. Li comments, “Their standard is high, their artistry is incredible, their passion is absolute, their commitment and dedication to the art form is total, and I feel privileged to be performing amongst them!” As part of the incredible performers Li will be sharing the stage with is none other than his wife and once-ballet partner Mary. Li and Mary, who retired from the stage in the early 1990’s, have not performed on stage together for 36 years, since a 1991 production, also of The Nutcracker.
“Mary and I found each other through dancing as partners. She was an exceptional artist and I was so heart-broken when she had to retire due to our daughter Sophie’s deafness. To be able to share the stage with her again after all these years will be truly special!”
This now-traditional performance of The Nutcracker, produced by Ben Stevenson, will be particularly magical. His masterful storytelling brings out the essence of the classic Christmas tale, showcasing the magical journey through the Land Of Snow and the royal treatment in The Kingdom of Sweets. With vivid and colourful costumes and scenery and Tchaikovsky’s classic music, the production is sure to be an enchanting experience.
During the five years Li has been Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet, he has help bring to life X productions, such as the box office hit Swan Lake and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The 2018 season, which was launched in September, will begin with an exotic performance of La Bayadere, before being followed up with Carmen & Firebird, and Cinderella, and Bespoke.
While this unprecedented and highly anticipated performance is sure to be a highlight of the ballet season, it is still unsure whether or not we can expect to see Li on stage again.
“Right now, all I am focused on is this one performance on December 10th. Beyond that? We’ll see…”