Canberra Theatre Centre
By Samara Purnell
“If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up. It’s too beautiful, too extraordinary” Li Cunxin almost whispers.
“People see me as Mao’s Last Dancer, but I remember where I came from. I am a peasant boy.” Li begins to tell his story and almost immediately, the goosebumps set in.
Li Cunxin was born into poverty, in Communist China, the sixth of seven boys. His family house had no water, and practically no food. They spent their childhood basically starving. In a time when 35 million Chinese people died from starvation, some in his village had even resorted to eating the bark off the trees, whilst his mother did all she could to scrape together enough for her children.
“When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found” Li quotes. And he found it in his parents’ love.
Despite the freezing temperatures and miserable conditions he was born into, Li had the ability to cling onto wonder and hope. The story told by his father, of a frog escaping a dark well, stayed in his mind and planted a seed of hope that he might one day have a chance to see or find a better world. A chance he promised he would grab hold of and make the most of.
One day, Chinese cultural advisors turned up to his school to select “ballet” students. Of the roughly 40 students, they selected one girl. Li’s teacher stopped the last advisor from leaving and said “What about this one?” She pointed towards Li.
A confronting and painful selection process followed, stripped down to underwear, from home-made, padded suits - the story of the “underwears” amused the audience greatly, despite highlighting once again the poverty of these children.
Li says both his hamstrings were torn during this selection process, all the while, he denied any pain.
By the end of the country-wide search, likely involving millions of children, 44, including Li, had been chosen to learn ballet in Beijing.
“This might be my chance!” Li thought, if only he knew what “ballet” was!
Li spent the next seven years, training in Beijing, with one visit back home each year. Straight away, 11-year-old Li realised he hated ballet. And the training - from 5am til 9pm, six days a week. The ability to jump high and sustain it and to turn (spin), were the ingredients Li saw as essential to ballet. He had neither. He struggled to get both feet off the ground at once and fought motion sickness every time he tried to turn.
The fear of disgracing his family was all that kept him hanging in there, especially given that he considered himself the worst student in the class.
After two years in Beijing, fate would intervene, with the arrival of an eccentric teacher who changed the trajectory of Li’s training. Teacher Xiao connected with the students on a personal and individual level and would “tease” the students with knowledge.
“If you want to help your family, become the best dancer you can be.” Xiao told Li. From that day onwards, Li said “The days were not long enough.” He began a gruelling self-imposed training regime, training with weight-bags strapped to his legs and practicing turns by candlelight, to overcome his motion sickness. In 1979, he graduated at the top of his class, breaking all the school records.
Years later Li tracked down the school teacher who had stopped the cultural advisor to ask her “Why me?” He had pondered on this for a long time and with the anticipation of a meaningful answer, was told “Li, for all these years, I’ve asked myself the same question. And I still don’t know”
Choreographer Ben Stevenson was on a visit to China, from the United States, to facilitate a cultural exchange program, when he discovered Li. Stevenson wanted to bring Li back to Houston, but the process of getting visas organised for Chinese citizens was not a quick and easy task.
As luck would have it, Stevenson had a few friends in high places and one Barbara Bush, posted to China in 1974, with her husband as head of the U.S. Liaison Office in the PRC, had a hand in arranging a more timely approval of passports for two young Chinese dancers.
Li immediately got hold of an English dictionary (as he spoke not a word of it at this point). A simple removal of the cover and the dictionary fit neatly inside Mao’s Little Red Book. With the impression of a dedicated Communist boy, frantically studying his Chairman’s musings, Li taught himself what he thought would be essential phrases once he reached America: “Oh dear me!” And “Upon my soul!”
“Brainwashed” by Communism, armed with English exclamations and with the weight of China firmly on their shoulders, two 18 year-old boys set off to America for the first cultural exchange. Here, Li says he tasted the best Chinese food he’d ever eaten. English language and Western culture were mind-boggling for Li: Money came out of walls (ATMS) and the waste and extravagance he witnessed both fascinated and shocked him.
When Li saw Stevenson’s “Cinderella”, he fell in love with ballet for the first time. To see a dance that was romantic, and not political was a new experience and he realised how magical dance could be. He was in a heady new world of excitement. And then it became life-threatening. He fell in love with an American girl and defected. Risking his life for love, Li refused to return to China. He was locked up, the FBI shut down the airport and Li overheard that he was to be killed the next day.
Li spent the night trying to answer one question: “How do you value your life?” He had now tasted freedom, love and the beauty of artistic expression. How could he return to the oppression and poverty in Communist China. Would he rather die?
Once again, an intervention from George Bush Sr facilitated his release, although his Chinese citizenship was revoked. Being given a second chance, Li aspired to become an ambassador, a bridge between East and West.
Despite being heartbroken at knowing he could never see his family again, Li’s career exploded - rubbing shoulders with the world’s top dancers. George and Barbara Bush brought the Chinese ambassador to see a production of the Houston Ballet’s “Swan Lake”, with Li in the lead role.
Permission was eventually granted for Li’s parents to visit the United States to see him perform, only to have a delay at the airport that should have seen them miss their son’s performance. A team of people desperate to get Li’s parents to his show colluded to make it happen. Stevenson delayed the performance 20 minutes and the Houston police were deployed to escort Li’s parents to the theatre.
“That night I felt like a bird,” Li reminisces, still with awe and reverence in his voice. “I was so light.” He is sure his mother saw nothing of the ballet, with the tears streaming down her face from the opening scene. And as he anticipated the first words and embrace from his father, after not seeing him for so long, Li was greeted with a perplexed “Son, why didn’t you wear any pants!?”
Li met his current wife, Australian Mary McKendry, also a ballerina, whilst he was performing in London. After 16 years with the Houston Ballet, Li moved to Australia with wife Mary and became a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet Company. They have three children together. “None of them want to dance.” Li says to everyone’s amusement.
Li took Mary back to his village in China where he danced with his wife, in the courtyard, for his family and friends he had so desperately wanted to look after and make proud when he left the village as a boy. The teacher, Xiao, who had inspired him as a child, was in the courtyard that day.
Li later became a stockbroker, to provide for the education of his children, before he was headhunted to join the Queensland Ballet as Artistic Director – the position he currently holds.
|Li Cunxin address before opening night of
Queensland Ballet's "Cinderella" at the CTC.
Photo Samara Purnell
“Live life to its fullest. And unselfishly. Make a positive difference in the lives of others and inspire people.” Are the words Li says he lives by. “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal – seize the opportunity and live a life with no regret.”
Li made an inadvertent “come-back” a couple of years ago, that he says with a laugh, nearly killed him. After 18 years of retirement, Li had planned a cameo in a character role in “The Nutcracker”, but the media got wind of it and talked it up so much Li felt he had to do something more dramatic.
He advised young dancers in the audience to “Train well, focus on the basics.” And warned against getting “comfortable”.
“In ballet there is so much pain, and not much money. You have to have a passion for it.”
Li attributes his success as a ballet dancer to about 15% talent and 85% hard work (tenacity, drive and passion) and says his life-story is due to luck, opportunity and inspirational people who pointed him in the right direction and transformed him beyond his wildest dreams. “If I reflect on the dreams of a child, what would that look like?” Li asks.
In a life burdened with so much political and cultural responsibility, Li came to America as a student and left as a star.
The audience at the Canberra Theatre hung on his every word, moved from tears to laughter and back again.
Not only does Li Cunxin have an incredible story, but he is a wonderful storyteller too.