Li Cunxin, artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, joins us for episode five of Talking Pointes. Most of you will know Li from his early life: he is Mao’s Last Dancer. Li was born into complete poverty in rural China, where he was plucked from obscurity to join the Beijing Dance Academy. He was put through years of brutal training, up to 16 hours a day, to become a dancer.
However, his life was meant to be one of twists and turns. He was chosen to undergo an exchange to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet and while he was there he fell in love and married an American dancer. The resulting standoff between the USA and China made Li a global name, and with it, a ballet superstar. But with that success also came pain. In this wonderfully personal and at times emotional interview, Li shares stories from his early life, and the trauma of being banned from China, but he also shares the highs, reuniting with his parents, finding enduring love and to learning Auslan for his eldest daughter, Sophie.
Claudia Lawson: You have a very incredible personal journey to where you are today. Could you briefly take us back to the beginning because I don’t think you were perhaps destined to become an artistic director.
Li Cunxin: No, not a dancer either because I was born into such poverty in Mao’s communist China. We were struggling for food, we had no running water, we didn’t have warm clothes to wear in the bitterly cold winter weather where temperature could get down to 20 or 25 degrees below zero at winter time. It was truly to fight for survival on a daily basis.
CL: How did ballet find you?
LC: When I was just turning 11, there were teachers from the Beijing Dance Academy were sent looking for young talents across China because Madam Mao who loved ballet and she was the honorary director of the Beijing Dance Academy, and so they were looking for little talents. I was in a normal little school in the north eastern part of China and then suddenly four people from the Beijing Dance Academy walked into the room. And then I was basically missed at the beginning when they asked to stand up to sing, We Love You Chairman Mao’s songs. As we’re singing these four people look at people’s faces and get some vague idea of the people’s physical body shape through our thick cotton quilted coat and pants.
LC: My class teacher stopped the last gentleman from leaving said, “Excuse me, sir. What about that one?” And she was pointing at me. For years I never really thought to ask her why only when I was writing my autobiography in year 2000 that’s when I was reflecting upon that life changing moment. I kept up with her throughout the years and I called her up and I said to her, “Teacher, please tell me why did you single me out that day? And she said, “Well, you were just always physically active and you couldn’t keep still in the classroom and you were very good on the sports field running and jumping.” She said, “You were always drive me crazy with your physicality and so I thought Ballet is a physical art form, maybe you’ll be good at it.”
LC: That’s just really bizarre how that one moment in time, for very little reason, or for virtually no reason somebody did that for me and I subsequently was discovered. Then we went through this amazing, really cruel audition process where they virtually injured a lot of little bodies by stretching them to the extreme to see how flexible you are. They measured every inch of our bodies to try to get the best proportion and then they have to check three generations back of your family, make sure that none of your grandparents or uncles are wealthy landlords or factory owners because the Mao’s Communist revolution was all based on the peasants. And luckily my family was poor peasants.
CL: And so you were chosen.
LC: I was chosen among millions of kids across China and that year they selected 44 only, all between the age of eight to 12. I just turned 11 and left my family behind, went to Beijing to study ballet for seven years.
CL: I’ve heard you describe in many interviews that you hated ballet with a passion.
CL: Why did you hate it?
LC: Look, for me as a child, my biggest dream was to save my family to help them to survive, so for me ballet was far removed, too far removed from my childhood dreams.
CL: Did it just seem frivolous? Why am I doing this when my family needs food and needs clothing?
LC: Oh, absolutely. I saw no connection how I could help my family with ballet. I felt guilty too, because I had food to eat, I wasn’t freezing at winter time like my family was. I spent a lot of my time wishing that I could really swap places with my father, with my mother, with my six brothers.
CL: You in Beijing by yourself, what changed?
LC: I was so bad. By the end of the second year, I was so worried I was going to be fired. Not worried for myself, I’ll be so happy to be fired to go home, but I was worried my parents would be very disappointed in me. You know, because I was the only hope.
CL: So you mean that you were not a good dancer, is that how you saw it?
LC: I was absolutely the laziest, I had no motivation and a lot of the teachers thought I was absolutely stupid and hopeless.
CL: Really? It’s hard to imagine.
LC: Oh no, I was slow to pick up exercises. Teachers want to put your leg in front of you on the bar with both legs straight and pull your body forward so your chest has to flatten on the knee, and you can’t get up until the teachers tell you so, and it was so painful.
CL: But were hamstrings just breaking?
LC: They actually tore my hamstrings during the audition process, so I hated it, I absolutely hated ballet. And I found it so boring.
CL: For a lot of children, at least in Australia growing up, much of their love comes from being on stage and doing the little performances for parents and friends and so was that not part of the experience? Was it all just at the barre or centre work, was there any performance?
LC: Not the first few years. No. It was what we called at the Beijing Dance Academy the foundation years, which is absolutely laying the foundation. We would do, for example, a tendu these days either in one count or two counts at the most for professional dancers. In my time, it took eight counts to go out, eight counts to come back to a tendu.
LC: It was just so slow, it was tedious. It was boring. I was convinced I was going to be fired at the end of the second year. Then something happened, a new ballet teacher came into my life, he was going to take over from another teacher and he was absolutely amazing. We called him Teacher Xiao and he spent a part of his time in Russia because his father was quite an important Communist Party official during the civil war in China.
LC: He was absolutely passionate about ballet. His love for the art form had truly inspired me and he was the one who turned me around from that moment onwards. Once I found a passion in ballet, [I went] from thinking it’s the ugliest art form to thinking it’s the most beautiful art form and I was then becoming the most dedicated, the most hardworking, the most passionate person for ballet. My life then filled with colour, with enjoyment, with ambition, with aims. He actually helped me to find that connection from what I cared about, which was to help my family, to, if I became a better dancer or the best dancer possible, then I could really help to save my family. That was the driving force for me initially, until I find truly the beauty in ballet.
CL: And so this new ballet master, is he the one who then orchestrated that exchange to the Houston Ballet?
LC: No, it was actually Ben Stevenson. Ben Stevenson was the director of the Houston Ballet at the time. He was a former principal dancer from the Royal Ballet.
CL: Oh, I see.
LC: Yes, he went to China among the first cultural delegation from America when China was just started to opening up.
CL: Oh, I see.
LC: Yes, so he taught two master classes at the Beijing Dance Academy where I was just about to graduate and then he singled me out along with another student to offer us two scholarships.
CL: You’re known in your career for having that elevation, you’re known for your jumps.
LC: Yeah. Well what I did was we didn’t have the Pilates machines or go to the gym. The only thing I could think of was to strap heavy sandbags on both of my ankles. I would jump, hop endlessly in the mornings before 5:30 when others were still deep asleep. We had four levels of our practice building so I would hop on one leg up and down, up and down with this heavy weight on my ankles. Sometimes I would hop half an hour, an hour every morning just to be able to really gain this muscle strength. And so when I get rid of these weights on my legs, then I feel so light, then that’s how my jumps started to improving. Eventually I gain the strength to be able to really leap pretty high with these sandbags on my legs. I used the sandbags on my legs when I was doing à la seconde pirouettes or in any positions. When I took them off, I really feel this incredible lightness on my legs and so I have a tremendous strength.
CL: And so would you want a message to students be if you have that sense that you’re not naturally talented in one area, whether that’s turning, jumping, turnout, that if you persevere it can actually become your biggest strength?
LC: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that work ethic, that practice to make you perfect, they are so true. If you are willing to work hard, if you can practice relentlessly, nothing, nothing is impossible. You really be able to discover the technique and the strength that’s required to allow you to be that consistent dancer that you aspire to be. Now, when I started turning at the beginning I often threw up in the studio.
LC: Yeah. And so what I did was I would sneak away into a dark studio at nighttime when all the students went to sleep, I would sneak away and I would light this little candle. In front of the candle I keep on spinning and turning. And you can imagine just how difficult that is. I would do chaînés from the end of the studio, go towards that little blinkering candle light and I would continue spotting endlessly spinning, spinning, spinning. And eventually I conquered my motion sickness because of that so I became one of the best turners, one of the best jumpers when I graduated.
CL: Amazing. And so Ben Stevenson turns up, and this is probably the most well-known part of your story: You do an exchange to Houston Ballet, you not only become a superstar in the United States, but you get held in the Chinese Embassy. How did you make it to Australia?
LC: Well, I met the love of my life, which is Mary McKendry, and she was a former principal dancer at the London Festival Ballet—now it’s called the English National Ballet—and she was born in Rockhampton, and she grew up there and she trained with Valeria Hansen. She had a little ballet school there, and then she subsequently got accepted into the Royal Ballet School. When my partner at the Houston Ballet got injured, Ben Stevenson invited Mary to replace her as a principal dancer at the Houston Ballet so we were paired together as dance partners and that just absolutely changed my life, meeting Mary. Not only we find such incredible chemistry on stage, in the studios, but also we fell in love with each other. She is the reason that I eventually danced the final three and a half years as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. But she is, again, the reason I came to Australia to settle down and to become Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet today.
CL: And so during your time in the U.S. you obviously were separated from your family and you’re unable to visit them. I’ve actually been wondering during Covid, we’re now restricted from flying again, and I assume much of your family remain in China. Has that brought up those feelings from that time where you can’t just get on a plane and go and see them?
LC: Yeah, it was probably nine years, the darkest period of my life. And when I got out of the Chinese Consulate my connection with China was completely cut off with my family. And I couldn’t really write a letter home for quite a few years.
CL: I’m so sorry.
LC: Thank you. And I really think that whole emotional turmoil, because I loved my parents, my brothers, my family, and my relatives so dearly. And I loved my teachers and my classmates at the Beijing Dance Academy, so to not be able to communicate with them, the thought of never be able to see them again, never be able to return back to China again, it just tortured me truly.
And I think that was the reason my first marriage broke down, and she was the reason I stayed in America, so even at times I would eat a piece of meat or fish or receive a prestigious award or be performing in front of presidents and royalty I just wished my parents were there witnessing those beautiful moments in my life. But often as the say, even though those kinds of things is difficult to live through in your life at that time, but looking back now, this emotional turmoil, this sufferance actually made me a more mature person, a better artist as a result. It’s unfortunate that I had to go through it, but it actually probably made me a better human being, made me a lot more grateful and have a lot more gratitude about the opportunities that I have in life even today.
CL: Mental health is in the media so much at the moment and perhaps I’m guessing what the answer will be here, but during that time, did you seek support or were you able to talk with people about your suffering or is that something that you just did within yourself?
LC: I was a very inward person, more internal really, but at that time what saved me was Ben Stevenson and also my fellow dancers in the company. They effectively become my family and they really helped me, held my hand, and comforted me and they understood my suffering and they did everything they could to support me. And also people on the board of the Houston Ballet too, I made so many friends over the years. And they were absolutely the people who got me through that period of very difficult time in my life.
And for that reason, I think throughout the Covid period, particularly during the lockdown period, I reach out to every one of our dancers. I had phone calls, some of them at least twice and we communicated with them constantly as a company, made sure that they feel they are still cared for by us and that we are thinking of them and that we want help them, whatever way possible. We did everything we can to try to help our dancers. And on a daily basis we saw them through Zoom classes, private coaching in those small groups so it was incredible when we came out of the lockdown, some of our dancers actually improved through that period of classes and a small group of coaching.
CL: Really your separation during your time in Houston then went on to inform how you were then as artistic director, in terms of supporting your own dancers in a time when they couldn’t see others?
CL: It’s quite incredible that full circle.
LC: Yes. I do understand just how difficult any isolation it is for a human being. And even though I was not physically locked down in a room, I was really being isolated from the people I loved so dearly. And so that friendship, that caring, that supporter group, it is so important in times like that.
CL: Can you describe for us the first time you re-saw your parents after those nine years?
LC: It was the moment most magical, I would never forget as long as I live. From time-to-time I give up hope of ever seeing my parents or my six brothers again. I just never could see the light at the end of the tunnel until I was performing with the Houston Ballet. I was about to perform the Prince in “Swan Lake” on the Kennedy Center stage. Barbara Bush was the vice-president lady, whatever.
CL: The wife of the…
LC: The wife of the vice-president.
CL: The Second Lady.
LC: Yes, she was still on the board of the Houston Ballet. She and her husband, George Bush Senior had helped me and my colleague to go to Houston through that connection, they helped us get the visa to go to America.
CL: Oh, I see.
LC: I got to know Barbara Bush relatively well through the years and she was really caring about me and because she and her husband had spent the early years of their political careers in China, when China first opened up. And so she then invited my director, Ben Stevenson and I to the White House for coffee. It was during that meeting she learned about my continuing difficulties with China, and she was rather surprised that I had not being allowed to go back to China.
CL: And had you had any news from your parents during these years or your brothers—
CL: … did you know of them at all?
LC: No. She was really surprised, in her mind China had really opened up under Deng Xiaoping. What I didn’t realize was at the opening night of “Swan Lake,” a couple of nights later, she was there with George Bush Senior and they invited the Chinese Ambassador and Cultural Attaché to see me dance as their guests. And then the end of the show they invited the Chinese guests to come back on stage with them to meet the dancers and there they introduced me to them. And I was really, really surprised because the Cultural Attaché then was somebody who was in charge of the educational sector at the Arts Ministry in China and so he was the one actually briefed me before I left China to go to America. It was incredible coincidence.
And then the next morning, they invited me and my director to the embassy for coffee. And there they told me that the Bush’s had intervened on my behalf, that they had asked them if they could help me with my situation with China. And they told me then that for me to go back to China was out of the question, but they want to see what they can do.
CL: Oh, I see.
LC: Then a few months later I received a letter from them saying that my parents have permission to leave China to visit me in America.
CL: I bet you didn’t even believe that it was possible.
LC: No. No, I was absolutely feel like I was dreaming. And then what I didn’t know was when they were going to arrive and that was all handled by Ben Stevenson and a couple of the board members who really cared deeply for me. And then they kept it all a secret until virtually just a few minutes before the show to start in Houston, we were doing the opening night of the “Nutcracker,” I was dancing the Prince that night and that there was a delay, which I had no idea what was that for. And we were told that there were some dignitaries and there were some important people were running late. And our immediate thought was maybe a Barbara Bush or George Bush Senior because they often came to see our performances.
LC: But it was my parents and the airplane was delayed that day so they had a police escort and all that to get through the heavy traffic in Houston. Then Ben Stevenson decided to delay the performance by up to 20 minutes, waited for them. So during the waiting period words of my parents’ arrival had started to spreading throughout the audience and then when my parents were finally led into the theater, the whole audience started to applaud for them.
CL: It’s emotional hearing it because they became the stars of the show that night.
LC: Yeah. And you can just imagine just how emotional my parents got. When they came back on stage during the intermission and my mother’s handkerchief was just soaking wet with her tears. We were just all so emotional. And then when I got back to my dressing room to change for act two, when I look at myself in the mirror, my mother had wiped off not only my tears, but all of my whole face and makeup were all gone. It was the most incredible moment. I felt like a bird flying so light and I always know about my high jumps, but that night I felt like I didn’t want to come down. All of my turns felt effortless so it was just one of those magical moments. Even though I was emotional I knew my parents were in the audience, but everything was just, I can’t do anything wrong. It was just one of those performances. I can’t explain it. You just feel there’s a sense of magic.
CL: Had your mum ever seen you dance?
LC: No. They had never seen me doing any dance steps up to that stage.
LC: Nothing. No.
CL: They’d never seen you—
LC: They’d never walked into a theater, never watched anything in the theater, never went in a car, on an airplane, on a train, nothing.
CL: What a story. Lee, I want to touch on another thing if you’re happy to chat about it, but you have been in the media recently for another really emotional story with your daughter and her hearing.
CL: Did you want to talk a little bit about that?
LC: Yes. Mary and I got married and that was in America, it was so beautiful in 1987. And then two years later, our first daughter Sophie was born. She just brought such happiness to our lives, she was our perfect princess. My parents then came back to America again, to help us look after Sophie so Mary could have go back on stage, which she did. And she was just dancing better after that.
CL: Because she was also a principal for Houston, is that right?
LC: That’s right. Yes. She was a principal dancer at London Festival Ballet, and work with people like Rudolf Nureyev and some legendary dancers—
LC: … and then danced with people like Peter and all that and so she just had really a beautiful career of her own. And then she was a principal dancer at the Houston Ballet. And then we were actually dancing in Canada, in Toronto, we were touring there and then Mary decided to give up her dancing career altogether because not long before then we discovered Sophie was born totally deaf. And so the perfect world we have imagined for her was instantly shattered and I was hoping she could speak Chinese and she can love music and ballet, like theater like we do, but we just felt none of that is going to be possible.
CL: And so I imagine there’s a real grief as a parent, learning that news?
LC: It was an absolute shock, it was total devastation for us. And then that’s when Mary decided to give up her dancing career to be able to just help Sophie to better cope in the world, to be able to perhaps be able to say hello to us, or to say, I love you, mum and dad and to be able to maybe read a book one day and all of these things. And she obviously can’t hear music and that’s something we just could not comprehend, how beautiful music is.
CL: And the grief that comes with that. All those, I suppose, dreams that parents have for their children may not have come to fruition.
LC: Yeah. And I lost a wonderful partner. She really was my soulmate in life, as well as on stage and suddenly she was gone.
CL: What I took from watching Australian Story and the documentary on Sophie is that perhaps all those fears have been allayed. She seems a really incredible adult and human and I just wondered if that’s been a relief to put that story out into the public forum?
LC: Yeah. People, obviously, Mary, my wife finally agreed to write up her autobiography, Mary’s Last Dance which has become a national bestseller. I was so happy for her because I’ve encouraged her for years to write her story, because I really think she just got a beautiful story of her own and since the success of my book published by Penguin, my publisher has been encouraging her to write it because a lot of readers who loved my book would like to know her side of the story. And so she resisted because she really felt probably the highlight of her life was Sophie, helping Sophie to become the human being she is today. And we are so proud of Sophie, but Mary sacrificed her life and career. It was really the reason that Sophie is where she is today. She really did not want to share her story unless Sophie feel comfortable and in this case, Sophie was the person who encouraged her to share her story with her book. And again, Sophie was the reason, encouraged Mary to say yes to the Australia Story when they approached Mary.
CL: And I hear you’re learning Auslan now.
LC: Yes, both my wife and I, and our two other children are learning Auslan, so we just really felt we can speak and she can also sign, but she gets really tired sometimes trying to listen so hard and the exhaustion level, we just couldn’t comprehend really. Anyway, so we are really enjoying it. Auslan is a beautiful language and we’re sorry that we didn’t start it earlier.
CL: What it has led to is what is currently on the stage in Queensland, “Sleeping Beauty,” and Mary, your wife has been involved. And so can you tell me how that’s been to have her back in the studio?
LC: Yes. Well she is our principal repetiteur and teacher for the last nine years since I’ve been here, so she’s mainly responsible to get our principals and the solos dancers up to the standard in all the roles they are being performing, the blue birds and all this principal lead couples. But she had reluctantly agreed to appear as the Queen in the production and so—
LC: … it’s amazing to obviously to see people like Mary bring such a world of experiences back on stage again.
CL: Do you think she’s got a new spark from being on the stage?
LC: No, she made me promise her that I won’t ask her again, even though she’s enjoying it, but she feels that really she wants to spend her energy on the dancers, not on herself.
CL: Li, you have the most incredible life and now we’ve been exposed to your beautiful family, probably more than we ever have recently with Mary’s book and the Australian Story. It’s a real honour and we can’t wait to see what you do next, and we wish you luck with Auslan.
LC: Well, thank you very much. My next is to continue to make Queensland Ballet the greatest company possible.
The Queensland Ballet has just completed their season of “Sleeping Beauty” to rave reviews and packed theatres. For dates and venues, and to buy tickets for their next tour head to queenslandballet.com.au. And to continue to follow Li on his adventures, you can follow him on Instagram, he’s @licunxin. Li and I recorded remotely with Li dialing in from Brisbane. This episode was produced in Sydney on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, to whom we pay our greatest respects.
On the next episode, you’ll hear from Emma Watkins, better known as Emma Wiggle.
Your host and producer is me, Claudia Lawson, additional production by Penelope Ford with editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.
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