From a rural village in communist China, to ballet fame and a bestselling autobiography, it’s been an extraordinary journey for Li Cunxin. Caitlin Ganter spoke to the newest Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet.
Born in a rural village at the height of China's Cultural Revolution, Li Cunxin was the sixth of seven sons. Bitterly poor, his family was mainly concerned with putting food on the table, yet when Li left the village at just 11 years old - it was the start of an incredible journey.
The ACU honorary doctorate recipient has achieved phenomenal success as a ballet dancer, author, and stockbroker, and has now been appointed the new Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet.
“I have been following Queensland Ballet with great interest and feel privileged to help lead the Company into the next era,” he said. “This is a chance to be able to develop, nurture and help a new generation of ballet dancers; I am excited to be able to give something back to the art form I am passionate about, the art form I love, and to really be able to make a difference to the dancers and other creative staff.”
After a six-month global search, Li was awarded the job this year, beating 40 other applicants for the prestigious position. In his new role, Li has overall responsibility for training dancers and mounting productions.
“I will be the fifth Artistic Director in the Company's 52-year history and the first curatorial Artistic Director. My goal is to put my all my energy and reputation into Queensland Ballet and make it one of the highest standard ballet companies in the world - and of course, to do beautiful, international-standard ballets.
“To me ballet is more than a performance, more than entertainment. I think a great ballet brings magic to the audience, and this is one of the reasons I love it.”
For Li, dance was a lifesaver. When he was 11 years old, Madame Mao's cultural delegates came in search of young peasants to study ballet at an academy in Beijing. Li was selected.
“As a child I didn’t know what ballet was... I was born into a hopeless, poor life. Even from a really young age I just dreamed of an opportunity that would allow me to get out.
“I didn’t love ballet at first, I didn’t even like it, but I realised this was my only chance to do something different from my forefathers.”
Taken from his family, Li was thrown into a completely unfamiliar world. Showing a natural gift, coupled with extreme dedication and passion, he withstood brutal discipline and strict training to transform into China’s most promising dancer.
“None of it was easy,” he said. “I had to rely on determination, courage and a lot of hard work. I have always been determined and stubborn, even as a child it was very hard to change my mind. There were times things were so hard I wanted to throw in the towel, but I never let myself. I always worked for a positive result – jump a little higher, study a little harder, if I set a target I intended to reach it.”
In 1979, he defected to the west to dance with the Houston Ballet, where he performed some of the greatest roles in the company's repertoire and achieved the top rank of Principal in 1982. He moved to Melbourne in 1995 to join the Australian Ballet as a Principal Artist.
Li retired from ballet in 1999 to pursue a career in the financial sector. Prior to joining Queensland Ballet, Li was working in Melbourne as a senior manager at Bell Potter, one of the largest stockbroking firms in Australia. He is also on the board of The Australian Ballet and the Bionics Institute.
“Leaving ballet wasn't much of a choice, rather a responsibility. I was financially responsible for my family in Australia, and my parents and brothers in China. Ballet is in my bones, in my blood - I like to do nothing more than see a ballet performance or teach students, anything that is related to the art.”
In 2003 Li published his international best-selling autobiography Mao's Last Dancer. The book has received numerous awards and was adapted as a feature film in 2009.
There is no doubt Li has achieved phenomenal success, yet among his many achievements, Li counts his family as the greatest.
“I think my biggest accomplishment is my family… despite my busy career I have a happy family life,” he said. “I was considered one of the top dancers in the world and wrote a best-selling book, but it is my personal life that makes me proudest. I feel that I have been a loving father to my children, a good husband, a good brother, and a good son.”