Li Cunxin, Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s best dancer of all times, Li Cunxin, in 2010

Li Cunxin, widely considered the best dancer China has ever produced, was born on January 26th, 1961 in a village near Tsingtao, the Chinese city in Shantung province most famous for the beer of the same name, a legacy of German colonial rule from 1898 to 1914.

In 1972, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) instigated by Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), Li was selected by cultural advisors sent by the Communist dictator´s fourth wife Chiang Ching (1914-1991) to attend the Beijing Dance School, founded in 1954 as the first professional institution for dancers, choreographers and researchers since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

The last one of 44 children to be chosen, Li passed tough auditions to begin seven years of intense training that included exhausting 18-hour days, six times a week.

Although struggling at the beginning, through the right teacher he became focused on ballet, a totally foreign concept, and realized that it could be his ticket out of poverty and the beginning of a new life. The rigorous program instilled in him a lifelong sense of discipline and perseverance.

In 1978, the Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet, British dancer Ben Stevenson (born 1936), spend two semesters teaching at what by then had been transformed into an academy.

Seeing the young man’s great potential, Stevenson offered Li a six-week scholarship for Texas, which turned into an 18-month apprenticeship. So after the United States and the PRC established diplomatic relations on January 1st, 1979, Li took part in one of the first exchanges between the two nations.

At the same time, Li had not only developed a strong taste for American individualism, but also fell in love with Elizabeth Mackey (born 1963), whom he married in 1981 in Houston.

On arriving at the city’s Chinese Consulate, closed in 2020 by US President Donald Trump, to share the supposedly good news, Li was immediately detained and interrogated for over 21 hours. He later admitted fearing for his life.

Then US Vice President George Bush (1924-2018) and his wife Barbara (1925-2018), who was on the board of the Houston Ballet, successfully lobbied for Li’s release. With his Chinese citizenship revoked, Li stayed with the local ballet for sixteen years and in just three years was able to achieve the top rank of principal there.

While dancing in London, he met Australian ballerina Mary McKendry (born 1958) from Rockhampton, in the State of Queensland. Shortly after his divorce from Mackey in 1987, they married and had three children: Sophie, Thomas and Bridie.

The family moved to Melbourne, where Li first joined The Australian Ballet as a principal artist in 1995 and in 2005 took a seat on the board. Suddenly sidelined by a sprained ankle, Li started a three-year diploma course with the Australian Securities Institute while combining dance and finances.

He retired from performance in 1999 to develop the Asian desk work at Bell Potter, one of the largest stockbroking firms on the Fifth Continent, but kept in touch with the local ballet crowd.

Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director since season 2013, Li has been credited with revitalizing the company, which has grown from having 24 members with an annual budget of four million US dollars to 60 dancers with seventeen million US dollars to spend each year.

Described as a “philanthropic rainmaker extraordinaire”, Li leveraged his notoriety and finance experience to dramatically increase donations and attendance at the previously obscure cultural outpost. His success has sparked a ripple effect not only in the region, but also boosted interest in ballet throughout his adopted country.

Despite being banned from returning for many years, Li nevertheless still feels very close to China and takes every opportunity to build bridges between Chinese and Western people.

Even as Li assiduously avoids politics, currently he’s facing a giant task: following Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which massively affect his own work, relations between his current and former homes reached new lows.

Peking imposed massive tariffs on Australian barley and wine in May and November 2020, which created a massive anti-Chinese backlash in Canberra, also worried about a possible ban on coal and iron ore, both key export products.

In 2003 Li published his international best-selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, adapted as a feature film in 2009 by Bruce Beresford (born 1940) with British dancer Chi Cao (born 1978 in Shanghai) playing him.

After the children’s version, Mao’s Last Dancer: The Peasant Prince won the Australian Publishers Association’s Book of the Year in 2008, Li was named Australian Father of the Year in 2009.

While willing to die for a revolutionary cause as a boy, Li in August 2019 received an Order of Australia (AO) for his distinguished service to the performing arts.

At the age of 60, Li can look back at a remarkable, if not unique career, which include winning two silver and a bronze medal at international competitions and succeeding in the tough business world as well. May he serve as an inspiration to all creative minds!


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