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Mao's Last Dancer

Interview with Li Cunxin

by Kate Snedeker

October 25, 2006 -- Melbourne, Australia

During a recent visit to Australia, I had the great pleasure of speaking with former Houston and Australian Ballet principal dancer Li Cunxin.  Born in rural China, Li was one of just 44 children selected from across China in 1972 to train at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy.  In 1979 he came to Houston Ballet as one of the first two Chinese dancers to be allowed to train in the United States.  After defecting in 1981, he danced with the Houston Ballet as a principal dancer for nearly 16 years.  Li, his wife, the Australian-born former Houston Ballet principal dancer Mary McKendry, and their young daughter and son moved to Melbourne in 1995, where he joined the Australian Ballet.

Having retired from dancing in 1999, Li is now a successful investment banker in Melbourne.  His autobiography, "Mao's Last Dancer", which tells the poignant story of his childhood, training and professional career, has won a number of awards and is currently being transformed into a feature film.

How did your experiences as a dancer in Houston and Australia differ?

The experience in Houston was far more dramatic for me, because coming from China as an 18-year old boy who didn't speak much English; all I knew was the basic ballet terminology – plie, tendu, arabesque and all of that. So I could get by in a classroom situation, in rehearsals, but not really in daily life.  So that was a bit of a challenge then.

But I had a just a most fantastic experience dancing-wise with the Houston Ballet.  Of course Ben Stevenson was my guiding light; he was almost like a father figure as well as my mentor.  He was that kind of crazy, mad genius, but I really worked so well with him.  As they say in life, you have to be at the right place at the right time, and I think that was truly the case for me.

I was 18, and had a very good technical foundation – I was trained in China with [the] Vaganova method.  After I had gone through this very disciplined, very detailed training for seven years at the Beijing Dance Academy, [it] gave me such technical security, the foundation to go on.  But what I needed then was to allow myself to be free, and Ben Stevenson helped me to do that.

So once I discovered that freedom in my mind…after the defection I felt not just in my dancing, in my mind I was truly a free person.  Only at that moment, [did] I truly start making that breakthrough and then I started really working in a quite different way – not just the technical side approach, but actually the artistic side, the music side of the approach.

So for me, the 'Houston Era' was going through such a massive transformation as a human being.  During that time I had to endure the incredible defection and I was also cut off from my parents, my family, for many years, so emotionally I went through this really difficult period in my life. But strangely that almost gave me that emotional strength in my dancing. So even though emotionally I suffered a great deal, dancewise I really went from strength to strength.

Compared to Australia…  When I left Houston I was 35; I didn't really know how long I was going to dance.  Houston Ballet was the only company I'd worked with, and [I] just felt that urge and need… to experience things outside the Houston Ballet.  That’s when I made that pretty big leap – leaving a great situation behind at the Houston Ballet – and came to the Australian Ballet.

But strangely, the last three and half years I danced with the Australian Ballet, I actually matured even more as an artist and danced with even more freedom.  I guess there was a sense that there may not be that much more time left…that's when you really start thinking 'this may be the last time I do this role or this particular ballet, so how can I make it even more special?'  Every "Nutcracker", I wanted to do differently…to improve on the one I did before.  So there was always that pursuit of excellence, but coming to Australia [it took] on another urgency.

Was there a huge change in repertory between Houston Ballet and the Australian Ballet?

Actually the repertory [has] more variety [at The Australian Ballet], because being the national ballet company they have a very big budget. So we had a lot of fabulous works here… Cranko stuff, Glen Tetley…Twyla Tharp…some beautiful stuff.

Did you get to do any ballets in Australia, which you had not had a chance to dance in Houston?

Well, when I left Houston, I always wanted to do Natalia Makarova's "La Bayadere", and also always Nureyev's "Don Quixote" and Cranko's "Eugene Onegin".  It was amazing when I came over here, I did all three. And, also Kenneth [McMillan]'s "Romeo and Juliet", even though I loved Ben Stevenson's.

In your book, you mention dancing "Etudes".  Was this with the Houston Ballet?

Yes.  It was actually one of the first ballets I saw a western ballet company [London Festival Ballet] perform in China.  That was right before I went to America in 1979 – I believe it was probably 1978.  They danced "Etudes" as one of the triple bill programs, and the role that I really wanted to do was the turning boy – Peter Schaufuss did it.  It is such a beautiful ballet – and so hard to do well. It is for that challenging aspect, for the technical difficulties that it always provided the best challenge for even the best dancers.  It is so bare…if you wobble a little bit it shows immediately.

Do you have a favorite ballet or ballets?

I always loved doing the romantic ballets like "Romeo and Juliet", "Sleeping Beauty", "Swan Lake" and "Giselle". There's just this romantic story in there, the music is romantic and I love the sets, scenery and all that.  And it's the kind of ballets that give you the greatest challenge – not just technically, but really artistically too – because you really have to get into the character – you really have to grow with the character, mature with it.

Are there any particular choreographers that you particularly liked working with?

I loved working with Glen Tetley – I have such tremendous respect for him – and with Jiri Kylian.  I wish I worked with John Cranko, but was lucky enough to work with Kenneth MacMillan, which was wonderful.  And, of course, Ben Stevenson, who created so many ballets on me.

How did you know when it was time to say goodbye…to retire?

I remember, I did an opening night performance here of "Don Q".  Ross Stretton was the AD of Australian Ballet then – he came to me and said, 'Li, I want you to do the opening night'.  I said, 'Ross you must be joking.  I'm 38, this is the last thing I would like to do', but he said, 'No, I want you to do it'. And so, I actually did it.

After the opening night – and it was a very good performance – I thought I probably danced better that night than when I was 18 or 28.  Maybe not leaping as high or turning (as much) as when I was 18 or 28, but with a lot of maturity.  Everything came together so well.  I was so pleased with it.     But the next morning I could hardly walk downstairs – everything was hurting – my knee, my back, just everywhere hurt really.  That's when I realized that it's telling me something – it's pretty much time.  38 is already a fantastic age.  And at the point too, crucially, I had sort of started my department at a large stock broking firm, and I felt quite responsible for that.  So I felt it was the best time to move on.  Sad, always sad…

Have you kept connections with the company?

Yes, I've been teaching and coaching for some of the dancers and teaching classes for the company.  But as I get busier and busier, the coaching thing is starting to go out.  Also, I am on the board of the Australian Ballet.

Do you ever find it difficult to coach?

No, actually, teaching, coaching in a strange way comes quite naturally to me. Everybody's different – some people find it very hard to communicate what you experience and pass on to others, but I find it quite easy.  Maybe if I was teaching and coaching every single day I would think differently!  I don't know if I got through, but I find it quite easy to share my experiences.

Are there any teachers or coaches who have particularly inspired you or had a big impact on your career?

Besides Ben [Stevenson], I think one of my teachers back at the Beijing Dance Academy, Teacher Xiao, who is one of the most highly respected dance teachers in China now. He and Ben were really the two people who I would say made quite an important impact.

What advice would you give to young dancers?

Have an aim. Have an aim in your career, in your daily life and once you have an aim, once you make a commitment to yourself, then go for it. Then it doesn't matter whether you fall down and need to get up.  Even if you crawl, you need to keep going forward and you will eventually get there.

It's just like anything in life - if you want to make it a success, you really have to have that determination, to have that tenacity to work hard.  So I think you have to have vision, you really have to be able commit, and once you commit you have to work hard with determination, with tenacity, with passion, because that is really what is going to set you apart from the rest of the field.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

The best advice I received was from my mother when I left home at age 11.  It is to not look back, to keep going forward

What would you pick at the most significant moments or performances in your career?

Probably the most incredible, memorable experience in my life was being allowed to perform back in China with Ben's "Romeo and Juliet".  That was the only time after my defection that I was allowed to perform back in China.  The first time… That was in 1995 and I left in 1979 – so it's a long time.  It was a live telecast in all of China, so it was quite emotional for me with my former teachers and classmates and lot of people in the art field in China.  It was quite a buzz.

And obviously the other one, [which] was more of an emotional journey, was when my parents came over and saw me dancing "Nutcracker" in Houston.  That was quite an emotional journey for all of us. [Ed. Note – at the time of the performance in 1984, Li had not been allowed to see his parents in approximately five years]

I have some fabulous moments like when I was dancing "Giselle" with my wife Mary.  At that time we were just dance partners; we weren't married or anything.  I remember just the two of us rehearsing one day and I was running on stage with my hand over my heart like I was the prince.  She stopped the tape and said ' why should you be posing, you should really be yourself and be natural' 

And I nearly lost it.  I thought 'how dare you correct me!'  I was a star then, you know.  But it was marvelous the way she did it, and made me stop and think 'Well that's true, because I don't feel comfortable doing that, I really don't'…because it's not natural, it's not me'.  [And] only when I really started discovering me - my inner self - that's when things started happening, clicking, that's when I started maturing.

And that's probably another advice I would give to young dancers: you can learn from good dancers before you, but don't copy, don't take everything they do because the copied things will never stay with you. But if you really discover something of yourself, it will always remain with you.

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