IT IS a sweltering Queensland summer afternoon but in a refurbished 19th-century boot factory, home to the Queensland Ballet, the dancers are oblivious as their new director, Li Cunxin – the Chinese defector better known as Mao’s Last Dancer – and his wife, Mary, take them through their steps.
Ceiling fans go full bore, the studio windows are wide open, sheets of tropical rain come and go, but for principal dancer, Meng Ningning, nothing matters except mastering the intricate choreography of Swan Lake’s third act with its virtuosic Black Swan pas de deux.
The pas de deux requires the dancer to whip and turn her raised leg 32 consecutive times. It is one of the most challenging pieces in ballet and her dancing partner, guest international principal dancer Huang Jun Shuang, has only just arrived from America to begin rehearsals.
Li and Mary, the Australian dancer he met at the Houston Ballet after he sought political asylum there, have just uprooted themselves from their Melbourne home to take on Queensland Ballet.
Here they are sitting side by side in the old factory in inner-city Brisbane, working together for the first time since they met in the 1980s in Texas.
Both are dressed in Melbourne black, their heads whipping back and forth as they follow Ningning’s and Jun Shuang’s every move, as if watching grand slam tennis. But they never sit for long. Li stops the music, grabs Mary’s arm and shows Jun Shuang how to hold Ningning saying, ”Hold her with two hands, there, below her waist, she’s more forward than you think”. Mary adds, ”Darling, you’re lifting her, you should be pulling and dragging her”. The dancers immediately repeat the step.
Li says ”very good”. Mary adds: ”It’s acting and dancing, see?”
They resume their seats and the music begins again until the next interjection, which strangely becomes part of the dance, with Li coaching in English and Chinese (Jun Shuang and Ningning are two of four Chinese dancers in the 27-strong company).
”Ningning, darling, see! The fouettes are exhilarating when you do them well,” Mary says, her Australian accent undulled by decades abroad.
Li is more formal, less effusive and more gently spoken: ”Huang [Jun Shuang], flick, flick, OK, wonderful, getting there. Very very good.”
LI’S incredible story is well-known: raised in poverty in a Chinese village, he was randomly chosen at the age of 11 to join Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. As he so poignantly wrote in his memoir, that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came at a price. Leaving his family as a child was tough, he used to cry himself to sleep from missing his family and enduring 16-hour days of training.
But his teachers were as inspirational as they were harsh. One of his main influences, Teacher Xiao, told him: ”Although I am your teacher, I am also your friend … Not only will I teach you ballet steps, I’ll also try to teach you the appreciation of ballet … the most beautiful art form in the world.”
He fell in love with ballet and the young peasant boy discovered his calling and the inner drive to succeed. As a 16-year-old dissatisfied with his strength, he tied sandbags to his ankles and hopped up and down flights of stairs until he could leap higher.
He became an internationally acclaimed dancer before defecting to the US, later moving to Melbourne and becoming a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. He retired in 1999 and took up stockbroking. Then his 2003 rags-to-riches memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer, became an international best-seller. It has been translated into several languages and published in 20 countries and made into a $25 million film.
His inspirational story also sparked another career transition, this time as a motivational speaker, before his surprise return to the dance world last year, when he was announced as the new director of the Queensland Ballet.
Teacher Xiao set the bar high – ”he wanted me to be the best dancer in the world” – and that has been a motivating source for everything he’s taken on since, Li says. He started his new job in July, with Mary moving with their youngest child late last year to join him in Brisbane full-time. His new ambition is to transform Queensland Ballet.
The intense rehearsals of Swan Lake are only a handful of days before Ningning, 33, and Jun Shuang, 24, fly to the US to perform at the Richmond Ballet in Virginia as part of the special guests international program Li has negotiated. The program, enabling his dancers to be funded by overseas ballet companies to perform in leading roles abroad, is part of Li’s vision to ”put Queensland Ballet on the international map and make it the classical ballet powerhouse of the Asia Pacific region”.
LATER, long after the three-hour rehearsal with Ningning and Jun Shuang, Li is preparing a Chinese feast: spare ribs stewed in garlic, ginger, spring onions and two types of soy sauce, a marinated and steamed fish Northern Chinese style, a dish called Bird in a Nest, a spinach dish with pork and garlic and stir-fried asparagus, with spring onions and light soy sauce and steamed rice.
It’s what he does whenever he’s home and he gets to be home more often now with the new job. ”It is great that Mary is happy to be home near her family. For me, even though I miss my mother and six brothers, I talk to them often and try to see them as often I can,” Li says, deftly juggling ingredients.
”Australia is my home, and my own family – Mary and my children – and my work is where I find my happiness and satisfaction.”
He says he never planned to be a ballet director, but after being involved in a peer review of the company last year, he saw the potential. He ended up being headhunted by the company hired by Queensland Ballet to conduct a global search to find a new director. Li says no one was more surprised than he was when he agreed to apply for the job.
He was chosen to replace Francois Klaus, formerly of the Hamburg Ballet, who had been director for 14 years and specialised in modern ballets.
Li says such opportunities rarely come around. He has brought in 11 new dancers to his stable of 27, including Jun Shuang, formerly from the Houston Ballet, and former principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Matthew Lawrence, as well as five graduates from the Australian Ballet, and plans to invite international choreographers to work with him. ”I want the best creative talent. I don’t want the dancers limited to only my influences. They need a variety of skills and perspectives,” he said.
Letting some dancers go, he says, has been the hardest aspect of the new job. ”I agonised over and over as I knew my decision would have enormous impact on these dancers’ lives and future career paths, the company culture and the company’s future wellbeing,” he says.
”The calibre of the dancers I am working with is world-class.”
Li’s days are long. Most start around 8am planning the classical ballet classes the company’s dancers attend Monday to Friday mornings; then there are rehearsals, before – and after – lunch. In between, he has 30 staff and more than 100 musicians, designers and choreographers to co-ordinate and manage. With an agenda to promote dance education, the company also offers 20 students a pre-professional, full-time, final-year training program, as well as a junior program comprising 40 students aged 11 to 14. But long hours are nothing new. ”Working as a director of this company, which is close-knit like a family, is such a privilege. There is not enough time in the day,” Li says. ”Days are not long enough, so much to learn – and share – and achieve.”
WITH their deaf daughter Sophie fluent in spoken English for many years and now working, their son, Tom, studying at Melbourne University and their daughter, Bridie, 15, settled into school in Brisbane, Mary and Li’s lives have, in a way, come full circle. Before her appointment last month as one of two part-time ballet mistresses for Queensland Ballet – the other being former English National Ballet principal Janette Mulligan – Mary hadn’t worked with Li since Houston.
The move to Brisbane means they are spending much more time together. When Li was on the motivational speech circuit, he was sometimes away three out of every four weeks and it was often lonely in Melbourne, Mary admits.
Her story is a lesser told tale, partly because, although frank and down-to-earth, she usually ducks publicity. One of eight children, Mary left north Queensland in 1975 at the age of 16 and two years later joined the London Festival Ballet, where she became principal dancer in 1981. She joined the Houston Ballet – meeting Li – in 1985. They married two years later (Li was previously married briefly). ”Leaving home was what you did if you wanted to get on. All I wanted to do was dance,” she says.
But Mary’s career, unlike Li’s, came to a halt in 1990 when their first daughter, Sophie, was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. She retired overnight to teach Sophie to talk ”because I wanted to know my daughter”.
When Li’s editor wanted to cut out thousands of words from Mao’s Last Dancer that Li had written about Mary’s efforts to teach their daughter to speak, Mary backed his editor over Li. Now she says: “It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to contribute to Li’s vision for the company”.
And apart from being woken by the cacophony of birds at 4.30 each morning, she’s enjoying living around the corner from her mother and near her many siblings.
“I haven’t been home [in Queensland] since I was 17. Now I’m 54. It feels right,” she says.
She loves the heat, the architecture, too, and despite missing her friends and the arts and culture in Melbourne, she’s settled in her breezy Queenslander and is looking forward to hosting her mother’s 80th birthday in their new home.
This Thursday, Li’s first season opens with the Dance Dialogues – Summer, a series of performances of short works by emerging Australian choreographers that will be introduced by Li, with dancers discussing the process of the ballets with the audience. Running until February 22, it’s already sold out.
With ticket sales for 2013 breaking all records in the company’s five-decade history and subscriptions doubling from last year, Queensland Ballet’s CEO, Anna Marsden, is effusive about Li’s ”high wattage” impact and the drawing power of his inspirational story.
Li wants to increase the company’s annual performances from 100 to 120 and to set up more cultural exchanges, like the one that will see Ningning and Jun Shuang performing Swan Lake on stage in the US this week while Li and the rest of the company present the Dance Dialogue series.
The company’s first classic ballet, Cinderella, by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, will follow in April. The French ballet Giselle will open in June before touring.
In August there will be contemporary works, including Elegance choreographed by US-based Chinese-born dancer Ma Cong and performed to music from the Jewish World War II ghettos. Tchaikovsky’s traditional Christmas tale, The Nutcracker, will end the year.
As a boy, Li’s father told him the story of a frog trapped in a deep, dark well, which could see the sky but never reach it. Back then Li sometimes walked for hours after school to find clams, oysters and dead fish to take back to his mother to help feed his six brothers.
He recalls sending messages to the gods on pieces of paper attached to his kite – wishing for his mother’s happiness, his father’s good health and, thirdly, ”to get out of the well because I felt like that frog”.
Those days are long past, but facing new challenges, like he first did at the age of 11, continues to be at the core of Li’s being. ”Mary and I have been travelling all our lives. Life is about being open-minded, adaptable and resourceful. It should be an adventure, it keeps you alive and now we are reliving a dream,” he said.
”Once we danced together, now we dance through our dancers. If they perform to their best because of us it’s equally satisfying. It’s like doing the dance ourselves.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.