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End of an Era

Love and Legacy”—a fitting title to honour the end of Li Cunxin’s tenure as artistic director at Queensland Ballet. Under Cunxin's decade-long tenure, the Queensland Ballet has become the second largest ballet company in the country. Since the announcement of his departure, staff and dancers alike quickly began preparations for a celebratory gala; a night to showcase repertoire from the past decade. Staging three shows around an already demanding “Nutcracker” season must have been a task. But for the effort and overtime it took, I’m so very glad they did. On Tuesday night, there was laughter, tears, love, and joy, but above all, and most importantly, there was indisputable evidence of a legacy.

 

Performance

Queensland Ballet: “Love and Legacy”

Place

Queensland Performing Arts Center, Brisbane, Queensland, December 2023

Words

Madelyn Coupe

Li Cunxin steps down as artistic director of the Queensland Ballet. Photograph by David Kelly

The performance was packed with company and audience favourites, with nineteen excerpts split over three acts. The repertoire certainly delivered: it featured an excerpt from “Études,” pas de deux from Ben Stevenson’s “Cinderella,” “Swan Lake,” and “Don Quixote,” Jack Lister’s “Still Like,” the balcony scene from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the Character Rag from Frederick Ashton’s “Elite Syncopations,” among others. 

The gala highlighted the scope of talent that Cunxin has brought to the Brisbane stage. And with it, Cunxin offered one final challenge to his dancers—many were given the opportunity to dance roles they may not have been cast in before; for instance, Libby-Rose Niederer danced the brief but title role of the White Lady in “Études.” Chiara Gonzales joined Alexander Idaszak in the technical but stunning “Three Preludes.” Georgia Swan and Vito Bernasconi held the limelight in “Ershter Vals” and “Still Life.” And Laura Tosar presented her take on Kitri with Patricio Revé in “Don Quixote.” 

Queensland Ballet in “Elite Syncopations” by Kenneth MacMillan. Photograph by David Kelly

Doubling down on farewells, two of Queensland Ballet’s foremost principals, Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez, also leave at the end of the season to take up positions at the Australian Ballet. Together, they bid adieu to their loyal fans, and the repertoire that has shaped their last ten years. Their “Cinderella” duet was closely watched by the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David Hallberg, from his seat in the stalls.  

Scattered throughout the night were messages of well-wishes from colleagues worldwide: Kevin O’Hare, Ben Stevenson, Deborah MacMillan. During “Summertime” by Derek Deane, a more personal message was given. A choir made up of close friends and family members took to the stage to vocalise the piece. The impact that Cunxin has had—both internationally and also closer to home—is undeniable. 

Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez in an excerpt from “Cinderella” by Ben Stevenson. Photograph by David Kelly

The gala also said thank you and farewell to Cunxin’s partner, Mary Li. A remarkable woman whose passion and investment in her dancers contributed directly to Queensland Ballet’s success. I will admit that my reflection on the pair’s artistic practice is more intimate than most; I spent the past three years watching and researching their rehearsal process. What this has shown me is how central a role Mary played in the everyday life of the company. She is tough but not unnecessarily. She is giving in a way that is not commonly seen. Mary holds a personal stake in the development of her dancers and wears both their wins and losses like badges of honour on her sleeve. She leaves perhaps a less visible, but equally vital legacy, as that of her husband. 

Act Three also featured archival footage of Cunxin and Li dancing the pas de deux from “Esmerelda.” Filmed in 1990 for Houston Ballet’s 30th Anniversary, it was a fitting end to a night that paid homage to the careers they have crafted together. 

Li Cunxin and Mary Li in “Romeo and Juliet” with the Houston Ballet, 1990. Photograph courtesy of Mary Li

To say that Cunxin and Mary have left big shoes to fill is a little cliché, but what they have left is an artistic integrity that sets the standard for their successors. At the time of writing this review, Queensland Ballet has just announced its newest artistic director, and I’m sure the trajectory of the company’s institutional dramaturgy will feature in many reviews to come. But for now, this is about Cunxin and Li, and to them, I say thank you. 

Madelyn Coupe


Madelyn is a dramaturg and former ballerina based in Brisbane. She holds a BA (Honours) in Drama and is currently undertaking postgraduate study specialising in Classical Ballet Dramaturgy.

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