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How Mao's Last Dancer Li Cunxin is putting Brisbane on the world stage

Presented by Brisbane Marketing. A wholly-owned subsidiary of Brisbane City Council, Brisbane Marketing takes a leadership role in shaping the city’s future prosperity. They facilitate economic growth and promote the city nationally and internationally as Australia’s new world city.
Image: Eduardo Vieira/Queensland Ballet

Li Cunxin has been known as Mao’s Last Dancer, ever since his autobiography, which then became a movie, was published in 2003.

He grew up as one of seven brothers, living in poverty in China, before he was chosen, aged just 11, to attend the prestigious Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. Eventually he made international headlines by defecting to the West after attending summer school in the US at the Houston Ballet. It was the first time China allowed a student to study in the US and it took the intervention of President George Bush Sr for Cuxin to stay there.

He spent the next 16 years dancing in Houston under his mentor, choreographer Ben Stevenson, before a chance meeting with an Australian ballerina, Mary McKendry, in London. They fell in love and married, then moved to Melbourne in 1995. The father of three would go on to become a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet before forging a career as a stockbroker following his retirement from dancing.

In 2012, Cunxin was appointed the Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet. During his tenure he has taken the company to new heights that has helped transform Brisbane into an emerging cultural powerhouse. Last year the company had its biggest grossing season on record and he even had a new spider species, Maratus licunxin, named in his honour after it was discovered by Queensland Museum scientists.

2017 is another landmark year for the Queensland Ballet. The company is performing Swan Lake for the first time under Cunxin and in a tribute to the mentor who changed his life, he is using Ben Stevenson’s version.

Cunxin played Prince Siegfried several times under Stevenson. The season is currently underway at QPAC.

When Stevenson, now 82, recently visited Brisbane and Cunxin, he couldn’t help noticing how much things had changed since his last visit. His protege feels similarly about Brisbane in the five years since he moved there, telling Business Insider that he’s seen a lot of changes.

“The artistic and cultural scene has become a lot more vibrant. And the more companies and individuals who take up this leadership, the more vibrance, inspiration and camaraderie it will provide for the city,” Cunxin said.

The former dancer and his family have settled into life in the river city and says it gives them plenty to do.

“Brisbane is a beautiful city with consistently favourable weather. The people just want to get out and do things outdoors — walk around and participate in activities,” he said.

“We also have the South Bank Cultural Precinct. You have the galleries, museum, performing arts and music all very close together. Plus you have the beautiful river as a fantastic setting to really enhance that appeal. It’s a huge advantage.”

As a key player in the Brisbane arts scene, Cunxin is keen to put the city on the global map. He spent five years getting Queensland Ballet to a standard high enough to tackle Swan Lake and continues to aim higher.

“My aim and my vision is to do international-standard productions and [for us] to become a powerhouse of dance in the Asia Pacific region. You have to do things that are out of the ordinary, shatter the glass ceiling and change people’s views,” he says.

“It takes a long time to change, but I’m very impatient. I don’t want to wait 10 years before people say that QLD Ballet is a different company now. I didn’t want to wait that long.”

Image: Ali Noble/Queensland Ballet

Part of that change is also creating a new mindset, both in the locals and visitors to the city. Queensland can still be sun, sand and surf, but it’s also about smarts.

“People’s views are changing. Every program we do now has interstate dance and ballet lovers coming to see us perform. We have really managed to draw people, even internationally — they are getting very curious and interested in what we do,” Cunxin says.

“I think that kind of exposure and people’s experience of what we do or what GOMA [Gallery of Modern Art] or QSO [Queensland Symphony Orchestra] do, I think will all help change people’s views and change the image and the traction for the arts scene in Brisbane.”

A turning point in that journey was the Queensland Ballet’s production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. While it’s one of the world’s most beloved ballets, it is also notoriously challenging to stage, especially for a state company that’s lean when it comes to both space and numbers.

Since Sir Kenneth’s death in 1992, his wife Lady Deborah has been the ballet’s gatekeeper, giving the nod on who can stage the production. At first she wasn’t convinced, despite Cunxin working with her late husband at the Houston Ballet.

“She was very sceptical about whether my rather small company could pull it off. But I was well prepared when I went to see her — for every question she asked me I had two readily prepared answers. So at the end she said she believed in me because she trusted my integrity. And we didn’t let her down,” he says.

Among the many feats Cunxin achieved to pull it off was bringing three international stars to the production — Carlos a Costa, Tamara Rojo and Australian-born dancer Steven McCrae.

“I asked them something highly unusual. I didn’t want them dancing with each other… I asked them to each dance with one of my top dancers and surprisingly they all agreed,” he recalls.

“It was truly and amazing experience and has gone a long way to help mature and increase my own dancer’s standards, by dancing with the superstars.”

Cunxin describes the ballet as “a glass-shattering moment for the company” because it’s a production normally reserved for the likes of the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

“But I always believe that if you have a vision and the courage, you will find a way,” he says.

It was also something of a return-to-roots for Lady Deborah, who originally hails from Boonah — a small town outside of Brisbane. Dreaming big is something she has in common with Cunxin.

“I came with a huge, daring vision that probably scared a lot of people and made them doubt if I would ever be able to follow through and pull it off. But not only did this show come to Brisbane, but our company performed to incredible standard,” he says.

“Lady Deborah MacMillan was so pleased. Actually, a few other international companies have wanted to do Romeo and Juliet and she sent them our video tape to learn from.”

Image: Ali Noble/Queensland Ballet

And the ballet world has begun to take notice of the small company punching above its weight with large scale productions such as Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

“It has definitely created international curiosity and interest, and not just about our company, but about Brisbane. People are starting to look at Queesland Ballet in a whole different light. They take us very seriously and internally there is a sense that nothing is impossible,” Cunxin says.

“If we can do this iconic ballet justice with a global standard what is there that we can’t conquer and achieve?”

Cunxin’s field of dreams moment is now attracting a range of talent from around the world vying for places within the Queensland Ballet.

“A massive amount of young and mature dancers want to be part of our journey. Each year we have around a hundred international artists who want to come and audition for us. And 600 to 800 more who are domestic. And it’s not just dance talent — it’s choreographers, designers ad musicians,” he says.

“It’s really opened up a huge number of doors. To attract someone like Liam Scarlett, who is one of the hottest choreographers today and typically calls the Royal Ballet home — this would have been unthinkable five years ago.”

That success has also translated to the box office, with a 99.7% of tickets sold four years in a row. Most performances are sold out before they even open.

Cunxin believes in continued investment into the Brisbane cultural scene and that premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, who is also arts minister, is onside. Discussions are currently underway for a new theatre amid recognition that the city’s arts sector is at full capacity.

“I think that for this city to grow into a cultural destination and if we really want to take Melbourne’s crown as a cultural capital in Australia, then we require more investment into the cultural infrastructure.”

Cunxin has become something of a hometown hero during his five years in the city. In December 2017, he’ll be honoured by the opening of Mao’s Last Dancer The Exhibition: A portrait of Li Cunxin at The Museum of Brisbane.

Despite the book and film, Cunxin says “there will be a lot of stuff that people don’t know about me”, which is revealed in the exhibition.

“They want to interview my former teachers at Beijing Dance Academy, Ben Stevenson, my first wife. We are trying to find the old Mao jacket I used to wear, memorabilia my father made for me,” he says.

“This is the stuff I have kept very private but I’m willing to loan to the museum to allow them to give the best possible exhibition of my life. So I’m very pleased and I hope it’s worthwhile.

“For Brisbane to have the first crack at it is a really lovely thing for the city.”

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