Today I’m speaking with Mary Li, ballet mistress and principal répétiteur at the Queensland Ballet. Mary’s story to the stage is an unlikely one—one of eight children, Mary grew up in a small town in Central Queensland called Rockhampton. She was the first person in her family to try ballet, but by the age of 16—the day after completing her Solo Seal exam—she flew to London after being accepted into Royal Ballet School. Her star continued to rise, on graduation Mary was accepted into London Festival Ballet, now the English National Ballet—and was made principal within four years. But it was a chance move to Houston Ballet in the United States that saw the course of her life change again—when she crossed paths with another principal dancer, Li Cunxin—they would go on to marry, and dance together all over the globe. In this wonderfully brave conversation, Mary opens up about her career, meeting her husband and learning of his life, and their decision to have children. But Mary also talks about the devastating decision to leave her career after her eldest child was found to be hearing impaired, the grief she suffered knowing her child would never hear music, reuniting with the stage at the Queensland Ballet, and now choosing to learn AUSLAN with her eldest daughter Sophie.
Mary continues to train and teach the principal artists of Queensland Ballet, all the while juggling life with Li and their three grown up children, Sophie, Tom and Bridie. Mary continues to learn AUSLAN, and her book Mary’s Last Dance is available on Audible and in all good bookshops. If you’d like to listen to Li’s conversation with me, please scroll down to Episode 5 of Talking Pointes, and we’ll also pop the link in the show notes—and finally, to continue to follow all of Mary’s adventures, you’ll find her on Instagram.
For the transcribed version of this episode, please scroll down.
Mary and I recorded remotely, with Mary dialling 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.
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Photographs courtesy of Mary Li
- Li Cunxin and Mary McKendry rehearse for “Romeo & Juliet” at Houston Ballet, 1990.
- Mary, Li and Sophie.
- Mary McKendry
- Cover of Mary Li’s book, Mary’s Last Dance
Mary Li: Well, I was born in Brisbane, but grew up in Rockhampton. I was there from the time I was three and I’m one of eight children. So, mainly I was sort of growing up wildly playing with the boys football or holding bathing and feeding the next baby. We assumed that my mother just went up the road and collected one each year. <laugh> So it was very boisterous and free and I was always very adventurous. So I was a child with a lot of energy, a friend wanted to take me to ballet class. And so my mother said, great. And from the moment I started, I just loved it. And this woman happened to be an extraordinary teacher. And so I was really fortunate. She ended up having three principal dancers in the world from this little one ballet school, but many other, very, very successful people.
Claudia Lawson: And for those who don’t know where Rockhampton is, if we think about Australia, it’s that very in that very Northern tip of Queensland or not quite up the top, but it’s central Queensland.
ML: Yeah. Two smack bang in the middle, on the Tropic of Capricorn. So it’s very hot that we went to ballet at 6:30 in the morning because it was too hot at nine; and went to school, got dressed out of our leos in the car, into our uniform and dropped off at school at 8:30. And then my mom picked me up at 3:30 when I was older and I used to teach for a couple of hours and then do my senior class. Wow. And then I left Rockhampton when I was 16 to the Royal ballet School.
CL: Incredible. But it’d be safe to say that Rockhampton isn’t known for its multitude of ballet studios.
ML: Actually, it is now; it’s massive.
CL: Is it?
ML: Absolutely massive. Look with the heat, really! There’s only swimming, football and dance, you know, so really that was that’s, that’s what it is. And we just happened to have this extraordinary teacher.
CL: Yeah. You write about her extensively in your book, Ms. Hanson. Yeah. How did she come to be in Rockhampton?
ML: I’m really not sure, actually, because no one really has a lot of history on her. She wasn’t a ballerina or anything, but she was just had a huge thirst for knowledge, a brilliant understanding of music and a great understanding of history. And she didn’t have any children of her own. So we were her children. I mean she was a real classicist and artist and what she introduced us to in classical music and classical dance was incredible. We did Scottish, we did Irish, we did tap, she choreographed things.
CL: And so I guess I wanted to ask, in the era before FaceTime and you know, live video auditions, how did you come to audition for the Royal ballet?
ML: So, well, it was a suggestion by my ballet teacher. So you didn’t just assume go to your mum and go, I wanna go to the Royal Ballet School. So she talked to my parents when I was about 15 and, and she said, look, I was very talented, but sort of quite a rough kind of diamond, but she just sort of thought if I saw what was, was out there, then I would learn. So I was thirsty for knowledge, but because I started when I was eight, you know, I was a little bit behind. Yeah.
CL: That’s quite late for a dancer, really.
ML: Yeah, it is. Most kids were there started at five. But I was physically very strong. I had a great jump. I had great feet, great musicality. So she knew all the ingredients were there and my parents were like, oh, okay. They, my mom, wasn’t a ballet mom—she sort of had no idea. And then you have to give your results, you have to have honors or so, you know, in Advanced and Solo Seal. And then you have to send photographs in a black leotard and pink tights in arabesque, first position and a fifth position. So they choose from your look and your body.
CL: Incredible. So just photos and your exam results.
ML: Yeah. Exam results and recommendation. We used to go to Sydney in the summer because our ballet teacher didn’t like us to have holidays for eight weeks and burn our skin. So we went to summer school, a place called Scully in Sydney. Wow. And Dame Nelly gave me a recommendation.
CL: And so you’re accepted into the Royal Ballet School. Yeah. I assume you receive a letter from them?
ML: A letter. So I went down every day because we had to drive down to the post and yes, it came and it was amazing. Yeah. I mean, yeah. It changed my life.
CL: Ah, absolutely.
ML: Because it was the only thing I wanted to do. And I know that sounds funny because a lot of people say it’s the only thing they wanted to do, but I’d never thought about anything else, even though I didn’t even really know what it was. I just knew the Royal Ballet School was a journey somewhere.
CL: Yeah. Because it’s not like you can, you know, pop over and visit and decide yes or no.
ML: And I was 16 when I kissed all my brothers and sisters goodbye at the airport, they’re all standing in line, all crying. It was really sad day. And I had to go and actually do my Solo Seal in Brisbane before I flew. And my mum and dad came over with me for four or five weeks and sort of set me up in a bed sit where you had to put 50 cents in the meter to get a hot bath and you know, reverse charge phone calls and put your milk on the outside of the window, that kind of thing.
CL: So what was it like to move to London at 16 from Rocky?
ML: Well, I thought it was amazing. ‘Cause all I wanted to do was go to ballet and we lived just around the corner and that’s what we did from nine till five. And then if you were lucky, you’d get a standing room at Covent Garden. And, and if someone wasn’t sitting in the seat, you could sneak into the seat. So, you know, because I hadn’t really seen many performances. So that was incredible. It was just ballet, just full on all day.
CL: Isn’t that incredible that you say that it’s all you wanted to do. And yet you’d only seen a few performances.
ML: I know, but I was really driven by the music and the adventure and once I got to London, you know, I went to see Billy at Drewry lane and so I was captivated by the theatrical experience and the music and all these people that were wanting to do the same thing. And the Royal Ballet company rehearsed upstairs, Antoinette Sibley, Rudolph Nurevey, Margo [Fonteyn], [Kenneth] MacMillan, [Frederick] Ashton, they’re all in the studio.
CL: Gosh, it sounds like a dream.
ML: <laugh> yeah. So it was, incredible people. Because I didn’t even have a ballet book. I don’t think you could even get them in Rockhampton—you could barely get ballet shoes.
CL: And so you train there for two years and then you’re accepted into the London Festival Ballet.
ML: Actually it wasn’t even two years. It was just year and a half, but I really felt, you know, the expense for my parents was, you know, difficult. And I just heard one other girl saying she was going for an addition. And I was like, well where? And she said, oh, to Festival Ballet, I’d never even heard of Festival Ballet. And I said, well, I’m coming too. Wow. So off I went with 200 girls I didn’t actually get in, but the ballet mistress remembered me from the Royal Ballet School’s summer performance where I did one of the leading roles at Covent Garden. And a couple of weeks later, she gave me a call and said, we’d like to see you again, come in.
And there was only a girls’ dressing room and a boys’ dressing room. So everybody got changed. I tried to be inconspicuous and then sort of find a little place in the corner in the studio. And then this man walked past and big furry coat and boots and everything. I went, oh, that’s Rudolph Nureyev <laugh>. And so I did class with him for a week and that’s the reason I got my job because he was creating a new Romeo and Juliet and they needed more girls. And this woman really liked me because she’d worked a bit with the Australian Ballet. So she sort of liked Australians. They weren’t complicated and [they were] hard workers. And that was my job. And she was my ballet mistress for the next seven years. And she was another amazing teacher. So really, if you get those people, it’s amazing.
CL: Oh, incredible. Yeah. And also it sounds like in Ms. Hansen and at the Festival Ballet (which is now the English National Ballet), you had these real leaders in teachers, like almost mentors.
ML: Yes, I was very lucky. Or maybe I was drawn to them in particular and you know, drawn to certain people. And then, you know, I was drawn to Ben Stevenson. That’s why I ended up going to Houston.
CL: And so how did you rise through the ranks at London Festival Ballet to become a principal artist? How does it come to be that you go from London to join the Houston ballet?
ML: Well, I’d worked with Ben Stevenson a lot. He did “Cinderella” for us and it had beautiful songs, famous Strauss music. And so we built up this relationship and I just adored his coaching and his artistry. And I’d been in London for nine years and he was my fourth director in London and he was also my partner, not my romantic partner, but my partner in the studio plus my boss. So I thought that was quite challenging, really. And I thought if I make a move, I have to make it now because you get to a certain age as a ballerina and they won’t look at you. So I was 27 and Ben offered me a principal contract and it was like now or never. And when I got to Houston, Li was my partner and I just thought, oh, well that’s just magic because he was just an incredible partner. So, and as a principal dancer, you know, you can’t do it on your own. You need a great partner. You know, it’s never one it’s two and without the partner you can’t. And Li was just, yeah, well one of the best actually for me, definitely.
CL: And can you tell us about that first moment that you met Li?
ML: Um, well I met him in London first. He had come to see us perform and I had been over to see Houston ballet perform, but I was trying to hide. So that my director didn’t know I was looking at other companies and, um, Li saw me in the audience and came and sat down next to me and tried to sort of chat to me about what he’d seen, you know, on stage the night before, but I was trying to be, you know, inconspicuous. And so I kind of didn’t really answer him. I was very short, so he thought I was quite the snob <laugh> until I actually ended up partnering with him. And we went to New York and did things at the City Center. I did “Swan Lake” in New York and then back in Houston and, you know, traveled all over America and we went to Singapore and you know, it was amazing actually. And then, and I did all of Ben’s choreography, which was wonderful.
CL: And I mean, people talk about how rare that connection is on stage to have that partnership. I imagine once the relationship starts to develop outside of the studio that just intensifies,
ML: Um, no, we had that chemistry already. We tried not to be partners actually outside the studio because we didn’t want to ruin the chemistry in the studio. Yeah.
ML: Yeah, no, it doesn’t necessarily develop like that. And lots of people are partners that don’t actually work well together. Li was the right height, the right age, you know, proportions, musicality, work ethic. They all come into play, you know, those sort of things. And chemistry’s just not explainable. It’s either there, or it’s not, it’s not teachable. It’s unusual to have it in your career. It’s lucky.
CL: Yeah. Did you know Li’s backstory when you met him?
CL: And so what were your thoughts to be becoming romantically involved with him once, you know, I, I assume you started to find out about his history in Houston.
ML: Yes. Oh, you know, it was fascinating. He was a great storyteller, so everything just evolved very easily. And he told me, you know, certain things and stories. Although I’d been to China in 1981, I could kind of get some kind of grip on it. But you know, at that time we didn’t know much about China.
ML: And it wasn’t until 1988, when we went—after we were married—into the commune that I was like, oh my God, how could someone get from there to there? And even at that point, I thought, oh, I wish I could write.
CL: Incredible. And so had you and Li married at this stage when you went to where he grew up?
ML: When we went in 1988. Oh, sorry. Yes. In 1988. Yeah. Because he couldn’t have gone back unless he was married because maybe they would’ve kept him. I don’t know, but it wasn’t safe.
CL: Wow. You then go on to have three beautiful children. This comes up for a lot of dancers when they’re, you know, at the height of their careers and want to go and have a baby and that changes their body. Was that something that you struggled with?
ML: Yeah, it was hard. I got quite anxious and so I stayed in shape, had my baby. And then two months later I started working and then I did Sugar Plum five months after Sophie was born. So I was just terrified not to be able to get my body back. So, it was pretty quick really because I started pushing early and also I was 31 or just 31. So quite young, really. Everybody has a different journey. Like I, I felt I had to get up there sooner than later and other people take a year. I didn’t feel I’d get back if I did that.
CL: And I think that, you know, the programs around maternity leave and body conditioning and you know, pilates, it just didn’t exist.
ML: I didn’t have anyone helping me. You know, I just did it myself and then joined company class and off I went.
CL (18:10): Wow. Really? Yeah. I mean, obviously a chapter of your life that I suppose hadn’t been so well known before you released your book last year and obviously the “Australian Story” that came out at that time: the story of your eldest daughter and her journey with her profound deafness. I guess I just wanted to ask about that time where you realized you couldn’t return to the stage.
ML: Well, the whole thing was completely overwhelming. Something so out of left field, it’s like you’re going on at a 90 degree angle and suddenly it goes completely right angle.
CL: Yeah. There’s an incredible story in your book where I think Sophie was nearly 18-months and a balloon popped in a park. And she was the only one not to react.
ML: Yeah. Then we sort of knew, even though I was a bit in denial, but Li was less. So, but once you know that we’d had the RBA, he sort of got into denial and I was like accepted it.
ML: Yeah. So it was very interesting. I wasn’t prepared for that. And I mean, I think I had the perfect life. I had a beautiful baby, beautiful husband. His parents came from China. They lived with us, they looked after Sophie, I got on stage. That was all amazing. And overnight that changed. So first of all, I wanted to rewind and go back to where I didn’t have that sort of responsibility or had to make that decision. And then I knew I couldn’t rewind. So I just sort of had to ask my myself what I could live with in the future. And my answer was I had to hear my daughter’s voice. And then I, I knew, you know, as, as time passed, I knew that I had to be the teacher: that no one else would do it. And so that’s what I felt I could live with.
And, you know, I was her lifeline. Mm. So I never left her. I spoke all day every day for 15 years. Incredible. But now it’s such a joy. I mean, it’s just, it was hard for me writing the book, cause I didn’t want to go back there, but she made me write, she made me write it. And she helped me, which was incredible. It’s hard for me to go back there and think that little girl again and how I had to push her. Mm. It was very difficult. It wasn’t normal mother-daughter. Yes. Because she couldn’t hear until she had the implant, which we didn’t know. No one knew the success of the implants then. And she was also four. So she was very language delayed.
CL: I mean, life as a mum is obviously extremely busy. Did you ever have time to grieve the life that you had left behind on stage?
ML: Moments, I think, but I couldn’t dwell too much. I think what was wonderful was that Li always let me sort of coach him and teach him. So instead of shutting me out, he really invited me because he missed me in the studio as well.
CL: Yeah. It was a real end for both of you.
ML: Yeah. Exactly. For him as well. And so I sort of became his coach, his sidekick, really. So, and then other people asked me to coach them. I kept my hand in and then when we came to Australia, I started teaching again. And then of course I wanted to teach professionals and then people from the Australian Ballet would ask me to coach them. And then I got a job with the Australian Ballet and became a professional coach and teacher.
CL: Incredible, like, the strength of yours and Li’s relationship. Cause I can imagine just the, the grief, particularly not as just a mum, but as a dancer as well, to think that your child won’t have music in, in their life. Like you’ve had,
ML: I know devastating, absolutely devastating, but we obviously have a very strong relationship and he was marvelous with Sophie, although not particularly great with language, but then Sophie ended up wanting to do Chinese in year 11 and 12. And she did.
ML: And though she would come home and he would come home, you know, late or whatever she would say, dad come and help with the Chinese.
CL: I mean, that must be something that you never would’ve thought would happen.
ML: And we visited China. She went and did like a winter camp there for eight weeks. So she was incredibly independent and came back and she was like, you know, thinking in Chinese. I mean she stopped a little bit now and she just spent a year before Covid, in Shanghai. She absolutely loves it, but she had to come back.
CL: Such a testament to your parenting. Incredible.
ML: Yeah, I dunno about that!
CL: Well, I do imagine there was some, uh, interesting conversations. I, I hear that you are both learning Osland now and that, um, that journey into another world of Sophie’s. Yeah. And so can you tell us, so you decide to leave Houston and return to Australia where, as you mentioned, you started teaching for the Australian ballet. So what was that decision making like to come back from Houston to Australia?
ML: Uh, you know, I personally always sort of thought that I would come back. Look, I was just so happy to be able to educate them in Australia, but it was really up to Li because he, he got the job with the Australian Ballet and he really did it for me. I wanted to be closer to my family and I’m so glad I did.
CL: Yeah. You both come from huge families.
ML: Yeah. And he’s made Australia home, although it was difficult for him at first it was very strange compared to America. Yeah. Very strange. So it took him a good, you know, 12 months, really.
CL: So settling.
ML: Yes. It’s quite a different culture.
CL: Li is appointed, I think several years after you’re back as artistic director for Queensland Ballet and then you move up to Brisbane. Yeah. And now you work as the ballet mistress for the Queensland Ballet.
ML: Yeah. I mean, who would’ve thought. Back in Queensland and we absolutely love it.
CL: I love to hear your thoughts about, you know, how that has sort of healed those wounds that perhaps ending your career on the stage early?
ML: I think so. Like, I love teaching. I love giving back and I did have an extensive career and I’m a classical coach and I work with the principal dancers, which is a special relationship because they’re mature people. And without that sort of background, you can’t do that job.
CL: Yeah. You’re right. They’re adults in their own right.
ML: So, it’s a very special relationship and a privilege really. And there’s just not many of us in Australia, actually people who have had that career and that have the will and the talent to pass it on.
CL: Yeah. Incredible.
ML: It’s not an everyday occurrence really. Because you have to have the knowledge, you have to have done it and then you have to want to communicate it. It’s very specialized actually. So we’re going to the show tonight, it’s “Li’s Choice,” which is in the Playhouse, beautiful program. And Li and I danced in “Elite Syncopations,” the last piece, the McMillan piece.
CL: Well, it’s interesting you say that. Because when I spoke with Li last year, he was saying that you were re-entering the stage, but I thought it was the “Sleeping Beauty.”
ML: No, it’s in “Manon.” End of September-October.
CL: Okay. Later this year. Um, yeah, because I, when I spoke with Li, you know, Covid had just ended and I think QPAC had found out that they could have a hundred percent capacity as an audience.
ML: Yeah. And I did the Queen. Yeah. Yeah.
CL: And so I guess just to finish, I just wanted to ask, you know, as you look back and as a coach of principal artists, is there anything that you would do differently as a dancer or you know, even that journey into motherhood, which I know a lot of dancers struggle with.
ML: I don’t get too set on things. I just feel that I’m learning all the time and I think that’s what’s helped me to be able to get over disappointments and all that. I just go, you know, I’m still learning. Mm. And I think that’s, that’s what keeps it interesting and still there’s nothing else I really want to, you know, work at <laugh> I don’t know. It is my whole being really. And I still get, you know, quite emotional when things are good and, and that’s what the ballet did for me. And, but it still does it really, even though I’m sitting on the other side, I think you can always learn that’s that’s the key, really. I mean, I learned a lot writing the book, my God.
CL: Oh, I can imagine revisiting all those times. Yeah.
ML: That was hard.
CL: Yeah. I can imagine. Look, Mary, thank you so much for speaking to us. Your story is just so incredible and you and Li together is just such strength and resilience. So thank you for your time today.
ML: My pleasure. Thank you.
CL: Mary continues to train and teach the principal artists of the Queensland ballet, all the wild juggling life with Li and their three adult children, Sophie, Tom, and Bridie, Mary continues to learn AUSLAN and her book Mary’s Last Dance is available on audible and in all good bookshops, if you’d like to listen to Lee’s conversation with me, please scroll down to season one, episode five, and we’ll also pop the link in the show notes and finally, to continue to follow all of Mary’s adventures, you’ll find her on Instagram for the transcribed version of this episode, please head to fjordreview.com.
Mary and I recorded remotely with Mary dialing in from Brisbane. This episode was produced in Sydney on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation to whom we play our greatest respects. Talking points is produced by Fjord review. Remember to subscribe, to get the episodes as soon as they’re released. And if you like us, please leave a five star review. On the next episode of Talking Pointes, I speak with Bo Dean Riley Smith.
Your host and producer is me Claudia Lawson with additional production by Penelope Ford and Clint topic sound production and editing by Martin Peralta at output media. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.