Li Cunxin

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Published: 2nd October, 2018

Much as Classic Melbourne celebrates the achievements of our home-grown performers, we are also proud of Melbourne’s reputation as a city that appreciates the Arts  and practitioners in many fields:  classical music of course, but also  theatre, dance, publishing  and more …. And we welcome the chance to find out more about our visitors. So when our writer  Vanessa Taylor (whose interview with the singer Thomas Hampson earned her a congratulatory tweet from the great  man himself) suggested we have an interview with Li Cunxin, who is well known in many of the areas above, how could we resist?

To help with the comprehensive interview, Ms Taylor invited Jacqueline Doyle to co-write the results, and Classic Melbourne thanks both of them for their thorough work and interesting results!  Here’s what they found:


In the Western world he is called by his surname Li, in preference to his more tricky to pronounce given name. As he says, “even my wife calls me Li”. 

By anyone’s account, Li Cunxin is a remarkable success story. As a dancer, he was one of the finest in America and successfully transported his career to Australia.

His autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer was first published in 2003, and subsequently in over 20 countries. A film adaptation was released in 2009 and accompanied by an updated edition of the book, with three new chapters. The book has also been published in a junior edition for the teenage market and a younger children’s version called The Peasant Prince. An exhibition of Mao’s Last Dancer has travelled from the Museum of Brisbane to Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, where it closes on 7 October.

While chance has played a part in Li’s success, such as his selection for ballet training by Madame Mao’s delegates at the age of 11, his strength is meticulous planning. He even worked as a stockbroker in his later years as a principal with The Australian Ballet to prepare for his retirement from dancing in 1999.

It was probably inevitable though, that ballet beckoned him back. He spent several years on the board of The Australian Ballet before taking over the artistic directorship of Queensland Ballet. 

Like the best artistic directors, Li is both a gambler and an astute businessman. In the six years of his leadership, Queensland Ballet has prospered greatly. Sponsorship and philanthropy have increased ten-fold and the Company has staged new and classic productions by leading choreographers, resulting in box office income doubling and growing artistic repute.

Having previously presented Queensland Ballet in London with Peter Schaufusss La Sylphide, next month he takes the Company on a tour of his homeland China, performing Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Shanghai, Suzhou, Beijing and Xi’an.

But first, A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to Melbourne for a season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, commencing on 3 October. 

JD: How did the Melbourne season of A Midsummer Night’s Dream come about, as it’s been a while since Queensland Ballet was last here?

LC: Yes, it’s been 30 years since the Company was last here. Obviously, Melbourne is widely considered the cultural and arts capital of Australia, and of my years in Australia, the biggest chunk has been in Melbourne. So I really wanted to take my company here to perform.

And I thought the most unique and beautiful production that Melburnians have never seen, because it’s relatively new, is Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I really think it’s one of the best Midsummer Night’s Dreams in the world, if not the best. Liam has that knack to bring out the essence and humour of Shakespeare and to make a complicated story easily understandable. 

It takes audiences on an enchanted journey. The minute the curtain goes up you feel like you’re in a magical forest. As soon as the fairies appear with the most delightful, colourful costumes, you get drawn into the story.

I think audiences who see it in Melbourne will come out feeling so uplifted. I think they can be very happy with this stunning production.

VT: Mia Heathcote is performing the role of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you talk about her rise to soloist in the Company? 

LC: Oh, she’s been a delight from the first time I set eyes on her as a little girl. [Her father] Steven and I are very close friends. We shared dressing rooms together when we were dancing at the Australian Ballet. Our children grew up together so they are good friends. I still remember as a little girl Mia was jumping, turning, dancing in their living room when we went over to their place for dinner. She was just that little fairy from a very young age. And she’s still a beautiful fairy today, so she’s dancing the fairy queen Titania.

She’s worked hard; she did not just rely on her natural talent. She really has become a beautiful dancer. I think Australia is lucky to have a talent like Mia’s. 

JD: You and Mary have three children. Are any of them interested in pursuing performing or artistic careers?

LC: The two girls learnt ballet while they were growing up. Unfortunately, none of them wanted to pursue a professional ballet career, which is sad for Mary and I, but it’s their journey and as long as they have passion for what they do in life, we’re happy for them.

In my family we all share a strong interest in the arts and theatre. Our children all love coming to performances. Our son sings and plays piano. He’s very into helping younger kids to stage theatrical productions and asks us for advice on dancing movements et cetera. [Laughs] I think he quietly wishes he had done more ballet dancing to give him that grounding and knowledge to help them.

He is a teacher and has a Master’s Degree in Education. One of our daughters is interested in IT and the other one is probably going to pursue a business or finance career. So they’re all doing different things.

JD: How did the exhibition Mao’s Last Dancer at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum eventuate?

LC: Well, I was approached by the Brisbane museum. I’d been to some of the exhibitions there and it’s such a beautiful space. The director Renai Grace has a very high standard but when she approached me I thought, “Oh, my life has been captured in an autobiography and then the movie and do I really want my personal artefacts and collections displayed in an exhibition?” 

But she thought that there was a lot of interest from the public in my life in general and the exhibition could tell my story from a different angle. So I reluctantly agreed, and I have to say, she did a wonderful job. I’m excited it’s now on in Melbourne. 

JD: As a dancer, you’ve been back to China with Houston Ballet and The Australian Ballet. But how will it feel to take the Company you lead to the country of your birth?

LC: I’m absolutely thrilled. Obviously China holds such a special place in my heart. I love the Chinese people and I owe a lot to China for what I have done in my life; the training and career I’ve had, and some of my former teachers, their love and care for me. 

So taking my company there to showcase the talent we have, to bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to perform in front of the Chinese audiences, my ballet teacher Xiao Shuhua and my old classmates; it is going to be such an emotional journey back home for me. 

VT:  Three of your five principals in Queensland Ballet are Cuban. What’s the story there?  

LC: I think it’s just because I love talent when I see it. When I first came on board, the company I inherited had more of a contemporary bent. I wanted to take our company back to the classical foundation. Obviously that’s not all we do, but I want to build on the classical tradition. So we brought back Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, Cinderella, The Nutcracker. I quickly realised I needed some different skill sets because I needed strong classically based dancers with classical technique and artistry. I had to do something quickly. So I went around the world doing international auditions and, of course, Cuba is one of the top countries in producing ballet talents. 

In that world trip, I also auditioned in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney and we have trained up some Australian talent that is coming through our Company ranks, such as Mia Heathcote. And quite a few of them are students from our own training system, as well as students from the Australian Ballet School and all around Australia. It’s thrilling to see Australian talent coming up through the ranks. 

VT: It’s interesting that Queensland Ballet has trainee artists and a Young Artist Program. How does that work? 

LC: Well, I believe in providing that training pathway for young talents to really help them realise their potential. So we receive aspirational funding from a Geneva-based foundation called Oak Foundation. They have given the Royal Opera House a Young Artists Programme for opera singers and, generously, they agreed to fund our Young Artist Program here. So, initially, six young artists every year got a decent salary and the opportunity to have new works created for them in their own programs and to perform with the main company. Now we expanded to 12 young artists. We are getting international as well as national talent into that program. It’s one of the most comprehensive Young Artist Programs in the world. In fact, most of our new Company positions are promoted from this program.

As well, just this year we started trainee artists to help them be able to fast track and develop strong technique and artistry and who also get a chance to work with the Company. So this serves them well to get professional jobs, not only with our Company but with other companies nationally and internationally.

VT: You also provide classes for seniors and will be teaching a class as part of the Mao’s Last Dancer exhibition.

LC: It’s a program we started at Queensland Ballet to recognise that there are so many in the general public who want to get to live their dreams feeling what it’s like as a dancer. Because, let’s face it, a lot of people have had ballet or dance training when they grew up. But it became dormant due to their business careers. Now they are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, even in their 80s. 

Some people have never done ballet. So it’s up to the teacher to find that common ground for people to be able to enjoy it on different levels.

Ballet would have to be one of the most wonderful exercises you can do for your body and soul. So we started the seniors’ dance classes and it just took off. The public can’t get enough of it. We wish we had more studio space to accommodate the demand of people wanting to do classes. 

On International Seniors’ Day, I taught a class of 250 people. The waiting list was even longer than that. It was just so inspiring to have that many people in the studio. It made me feel they really are happy and made them feel good by moving their body to the music and everybody moving together. People go to gym, go walking and running and cycling, Pilates. All these are wonderful to keep yourself fit, but I think ballet moves your body in such a way with the music that’s quite special.

I think they end up feeling younger, lighter and happier. From the classes, they build friendships, they build a network, they form a community and I find that quite fascinating. So that is why I will be teaching a master class in Melbourne. 

VT: So how did you pull up after your return to the stage last year for The Nutcracker after 18 years of retirement?

LC: I spent nearly three months training myself but grossly underestimated how my body has aged in that 18 year period! [Laughs]. I realised that those old injuries I’d sustained over my dancing career, I thought they would have all healed, but no such luck. It all came back with a vengeance when I started to push myself. But I have to say I enjoyed it very much, even though it tore my body apart a bit.

The famous Australian actor David Wenham introduced that particular performance of The Nutcracker. The energy and anticipation from the audience, I felt that so much that night, which I’d really forgotten after 18 years of retirement. It was incredibly special. I felt that night I could do anything. But of course, I suffered afterwards. [Laughs].

VT: So will you be doing any other roles in the future?

LC: No, I don’t think so. I think one comeback is probably enough. And as a director, I have more than a full-time job. During the three months of preparation for Nutcracker, trying to get my body back to a certain condition, I still had to function in my directorship job. So my days were prolonged and my weekends suddenly disappeared because I had added another major task into my daily life.

JD: Liam Scarlett has produced a new full-length ballet for your 2019 season.

LC: Yes, we have just announced that for next year’s season, Liam will be creating a brand new full-length ballet, Dangerous Liaisons. That will be our opening program in Brisbane. The whole ballet world will be watching because Liam is one of the hottest choreographers in the world today. It comes on the back of his success with the world premiere of his Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House [where he is resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet]. He’s also the choreographer for Disney’s film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. So he’s highly sought after around the world. We’re lucky to have him as our Artistic Associate.

VT: As well as Dangerous Liaisons, you have a return season of Romeo and Juliet next year. Can you tell us how you initially convinced Lady MacMillan that she should permit Queensland Ballet to perform the work?

LC: As you know, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet would have to be one of the most incredible ballets of our time and it’s mostly done by the great national ballet companies such as The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theater. For Queensland Ballet to get permission to do it was such a privilege. 

I flew down to Sydney to talk to Lady Deborah MacMillan. I was not going to take no for an answer. [Laughs]. She had so many questions but I had the answers waiting. So I think eventually I wore her down. [Laughs]

We did it back in 2014. I knew that if we didn’t do this ballet up to a certain standard then we would never have a hope of doing a Kenneth MacMillan ballet again. I have to say, it was a most profound experience for our dancers. The Company rose up to the challenge and grew in stature in front of our eyes. It was such a breakthrough moment for the Company to do a ballet like this. It was really a big ask. The Company was not at the standard that it is today. 

Lady MacMillan came to see the Company and we talked about what we needed to get the standard up. That first time around we had some international guest artists. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae came to dance with our own Company artists and helped them develop as artists. We also had Steven Heathcote come to play Lord Capulet, which is a crucial role in the ballet. 

This time around, next year, I really feel confident, and so does Lady MacMillan, that our Company can tackle this ballet on our own because we have that depth of talent now.