It is a sweltering summer afternoon, but in the refurbished 19th-century boot factory that is home to the Queensland Ballet, the dancers are oblivious as their new artistic director, Li Cunxin – the Chinese defector who became 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 subtropical rain come and go, but for the 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 manoeuvre requires the dancer to whip and turn her raised leg 32 times consecutively. 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 the US to begin rehearsals.
Li and Mary – the Australian dancer he met at the Houston Ballet and later married – have just uprooted themselves from their cherished Melbourne home, leaving two of their three children behind, to start their new adventure in Brisbane.
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, her Australian accent undulled by decades overseas, 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 his native language (Jun Huang and Ningning are two of four Chinese dancers in the 27-strong company) and Mary, in English, prefacing almost every suggestion with ”darling”.
”Ningning, darling, see! The fouettes are exhilarating when you do them well.”
”Of course, thank you, of course,” Ningning replies respectfully, wiping the sweat from her face and arms.
Li is more formal, less effusive and more gently spoken: ”Huang, flick, flick, OK, wonderful, getting there. Very, very good.”
Li’s incredible story is well known. Raised in poverty in a northern Chinese village, he was randomly chosen at the age of 11 to join Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. After much hardship and hard work he became an internationally acclaimed dancer before defecting to the US. He later moved to Melbourne, becoming a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, before writing his international best-selling biography, Mao’s Last Dancer. The book would go on to become an acclaimed film, directed by Bruce Beresford.
But as he so poignantly wrote in his memoir, Li’s early opportunities came at a price. Leaving his family as a child was tough; he used to cry himself to sleep and endure 16-hour days. His harsh but inspirational teachers quickly discovered the country boy’s inner drive. To improve his strength and his jumps he tied sandbags to his ankles and hopped up and down flights of stairs.
One of his main influences, 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.
Now, as the Queensland Ballet’s artistic director, his new ambition is to transform the Queensland Ballet.
The intense rehearsals of Swan Lake come 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 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”.
Li and Mary’s decision to leave Melbourne marks a new chapter that in some ways returns them full circle.
Before Mary’s appointment last month as one of two part-time ballet mistresses, she hadn’t worked with Li since Houston, in the 1980s.
Of course, Li has reinvented himself many times since seeking political asylum in the US with the support of Houston Ballet’s then artistic director, Ben Stevenson, who had arranged the cultural exchange that brought Li to Texas.
After many happy years in the US, in 1995 Li and Mary settled in Melbourne, where he joined the Australian Ballet. He retired in 1999 to take up stockbroking. Then came the unexpected success of his memoir, which later led him to yet another successful career as a motivational speaker, before his dramatic return to the dance world last year with the Queensland Ballet.
After the three-hour rehearsal has finished, 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, pork, light soy 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,” he says, deftly juggling ingredients.
”For me, even though I miss my mother and six brothers, I talk to them often and try to see them as often as I can.
”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 head-hunted by the recruitment company hired by Queensland Ballet to conduct a global search for a new director. Li says no one was more surprised than he 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 only come every eight to 15 years. He has brought in 11 new dancers to his stable of 27 – including Huang Jun Shuang, formerly from the Houston Ballet, and Matthew Lawrence, a former principal at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, as well as five graduates from the Australian Ballet. He also 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.”
Letting some dancers go, he says, has been the hardest aspect of the new job. ”I agonised it 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 about 8am, planning the classical ballet classes that the company’s full-time 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 offers 20 students a pre-professional, full-time, final-year training program, alongside its 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 daughter Sophie now working, their son, Tom, studying at Melbourne University and their youngest daughter, Bridie, 15, settled into school in Brisbane, Mary and Li now spend much more time together, professionally and personally. 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.
Mary’s story is a lesser-told tale, partly because, though frank and down-to-earth, she usually tends to duck publicity.
One of eight children, she left north Queensland in 1975 at the age of 16 and joined the London Festival Ballet two years later, becoming the principal dancer in 1981. She joined the Houston Ballet – where she met Li and where they both became principal dancers – in 1985. They married two years later. (Li was previously married to American dancer Elizabeth Mackey.)
”Leaving home was what you did if you wanted to get on. All I wanted to do was dance,” Mary says.
But her career, unlike Li’s, came to a halt in 1990 when their first daughter, Sophie, was diagnosed as profoundly deaf and Mary retired overnight to teach her to talk ”because I wanted to know my daughter”.
When Li’s editor wanted to cut the 80,000 words from Mao’s Last Dancer that Li had written about Mary’s efforts to teach Sophie to speak, Mary backed the editor. Now she is embracing her work with Li.
”It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to contribute to Li’s vision for the company,” she says.
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 Brisbane] since I was 17. Now I’m 54. It feels right,” she says.
She loves the Queensland heat, the architecture, too, and despite missing her friends in Melbourne and the footy (she’s a St Kilda diehard), she’s settled in her breezy Queenslander and is looking forward to her mother’s 80th birthday in their new home.
But for now, Li’s first season with the Queensland Ballet begins this Thursday 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.
All the performances – until February 22 – have 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 chief executive, 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 such as the one under which Ningning and Jun Shuang perform in Richmond this week while Li and the rest of the company present the Dance Dialogue series. The company’s first classical ballet, Cinderella, by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, will follow in April. The French ballet Giselle will open in June before a regional Queensland tour.
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 ghettos of World War II – and a world premiere of a new ballet by former Queensland Ballet dancer Gareth Belling, danced to Vivaldi.
Tchaikovsky’s traditional Christmas tale, The Nutcracker, will end the year.
When Li was a boy, his father told him the story of a frog trapped in a deep, dark well that 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 third, ”to get out of the well because I felt like that frog”.
Those days are long past, but facing new challenges – such as he first did at age 11 – leaving his family to train at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy, continues to be at the core of Li’s being.
”Mary and I have been travelling all our lives,” he says.
”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.
”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.