The return of Mao's last dancer

Look at me: Ballet master Li Cunxin gives a masterclass for dancers in Jakarta.
PHOTO: Australian Embassy

In the ballet world, Li Cunxin is an acclaimed dancer who oozes grace in every movement he makes.

Born in poverty-stricken communist China, his life is a testament to his love for ballet, overcoming adversity by harnessing his talent to the maximum. His life story had been portrayed in the 2003 autobiography entitled Mao's Last Dancer that was made into a feature length film in 2009 of the same name.

The world has been awaiting Li's return to the stage ever since he formally announced his retirement from dancing in 1999. On Dec. 10, he is coming out of retirement to take the stage for the first time in 18 years to perform one of his most favourite pieces, The Nutcracker Suite, in Brisbane, Australia, where he currently resides.

After so many years away from the world of dance, Li admitted that his strength and movements were obviously not as smooth or strong as it had been when he was younger.

Part of his reason he retired from dancing was due to his other job as a successful stockbroker in Australia that he described as "too exhausting" to juggle with the demands of ballet dancing, especially as he ages.

"But mostly it's basically just being burnt out after doing this for about three decades straight," he said during a recent visit to Jakarta.

Through his natural talent, Li was considered one of the lucky ones to have made it out of his poverty-stricken home village, Qingdao.

As the sixth of seven children, his passion drove him to achieve greatness as a ballet dancer, eventually securing a career outside China.

"There was a time when I got sick of ballet and dancing and I wanted to quit during my early years," Li said.

"But when I confided my feelings to my second eldest brother, he scolded me. He said: 'Li, you don't know how lucky you are to get out of this village, to have a career, to not end up like the rest of us.'"

That scolding gave him more faith to hone his craft and his talent. Soon, he was dancing for the Houston Ballet Company in the United States: a decision that, at the time, was at odds with the Chinese government.

Having exposed himself to life in the US, which turned out to be different from the anti-capitalist propaganda espoused by the Chinese Communist Party back home, he began to question his country's stance and his own faith in the country, but played down his doubts whenever he was back in China.

Soon Li realised that life outside China would be ultimately more beneficial to his creativity and to his family.

After making the decision to marry an American woman in 1981, which ended in divorce, China revoked his citizenship. He spent the next few years continuing his career with the Houston Ballet Company.

His final notable performance was a role that Li dubbed as his favourite of all time: Romeo in Romeo and Juliet that he performed with the ballet company in Beijing in 1995.

There he danced an acclaimed and graceful performance in front of his family, his former teacher and classmates and a televised audience of 500 million viewers in China.

That performance made China realise what a treasure he had been to the country and its arts, but in 1999 he announced his retirement and moved to Brisbane with his ballerina wife Mary McKendry and three children.

Keeping his passion alive, Li eventually became the artistic director for Queensland Ballet in 2012.

Li also had a small, but meaningful, connection with Indonesia in the past. He had been to Indonesia before when he performed Swan Lake with the Houston Ballet Company in Jakarta in 1986.

After a visit earlier this year, when he gave master class as part of the Indonesian Ballet Gala event, he described it as having been a more motivational intention for Indonesian ballet dancers. It opened his eyes to the passion and unrecognized talent that many Indonesian dancers possess, be they young or old.

Based on his observations on not just Indonesia, but ballet in general, he found it important that proper training be given to dancers between the ages of 11 and 18, because that period is considered the most formative years of development.

"There's a lot of talent here, that's for sure, and what I've seen was that the enthusiasm for ballet had grown. Maybe what was needed here was more systemic and methodical training, and a more professional environment to really foster that growth," he said.

In order for his craft to not simply waste away, Li credited his appreciation for the arts as a way to maintain his interest in dance and in creativity.

As a dancer, he had dabbled in contemporary dance and modern ballet and said learning different dance forms and appreciating all forms of art in general had made him a better dancer.

"Going to a play or seeing a beautiful painting, for example, you fall in love with them because they are beautiful, and they inspire you. I wouldn't have been a great dancer if I did not appreciate these things," he said.