Queensland’s cultural industries have experienced phenomenal growth over the last five years and I’m honoured to be joining the Company at this time. I have so many ideas – I can’t wait to get started*
Chinese born Australian Li Cunxin‘s (1961- ) life story to date is one of such epic proportions that it can sometimes feel surreal. A decade ago in 2003 he published his best selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer. to wide acclaim and it was launched in the courtyard garden of St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane in Queensland. The story of the difficulties encountered when making a movie of the book, as told by renowned Australian director Bruce Beresford, is an epic in itself as he documented the tale of the boy peasant who transformed himself into a prince.
Cunxin went from China to America and eventually Australia, where in 2009 he became the Australian Father of the Year. Now Li Cunxin has again taken centre stage, as he leaps back into the limelight as he begins guiding the helm of the Queensland Ballet as its new Artistic Director. The ABC have recently filmed the preparation going on behind the scenes for his up and coming inaugural 2013 season and Li Cunxin’s Australian Story will be presented on October 1 2012.
This will be a landmark year for both Cunxin and the world of dance as he launches his ‘stellar’ Queensland Ballet 2013 program of thought-provoking and beautiful ballet works. They will appeal to those passionate about combining the art of dance, music and design. Based on the details of the works being presented, and his own history of doing things well, we can be sure that Li Cunxin will bring all of these vital elements together so that the audience will be left stunned and collectively sighing for more.
Li Cunxin is certainly an impressive chap, his discipline during his impressive career in the world of ballet helped him develop the skills necessary to succeed in the world of business and finance as a stockbroker following his retirement as a principal dancer. He has also been speaking on the motivational lecture circuit to great acclaim.
Cunxin understands the complexities of a dancer’s life and how they have to balance the passion for their art form with the rigorous daily schedule required to keep their bodies fit and supple while ensuring they arrive on stage each time, fresh and inspired to perform at the top of their game. He also knows how to ensure that those investing in his company and its future believe they are receiving value for money and inspiration that will enhance their own journey.
His first program for the Queensland Ballet 2013 will contain a group of choices that brings both the classic and contemporary together in a magical mix that will showcase the beauty and art associated with human movement. The works promise to be ravishing, lyrical and entrancing and will be sure to offer proof that what is about to come will not only introduce the Queensland Ballet to a wider audience, but also to prospective philanthropists.
Li Cunxin is inheriting a 25 Dancer strong company that has gradually built a reputation since 1997 under Francois Klaus‘s direction for being vibrant and creative. They are all dedicated and highly accomplished, classically trained and as passionate as he is about a pursuit of excellence. At the moment of writing there are five principal dancers, who have all attained high praise and acclaim for both their technical and interpretive skills.
They include Rachael Walsh, who was named ‘Most Outstanding Dancer’ in the magazine Dance Australia in 2009. Then there is Hao Bin who was ‘Best Male Dancer of the Year in the Prix Benois de La Danse at Moscow in 2011 for the National Ballet of China joining the Queensland Ballet in the same year.
Cunxin’s 2013 program presents the great classics, including full length ballets with intervals, Cinderella, Giselle and The Nutcracker alongside Elegance, four short ballets by modern choreographers. Dance Dialogues will give Li and his creative team, including talented photographer Alexia Sinclair, an opportunity to both discuss and present the work of emerging choreographers and repertoire excerpts.
Watch Li Cunxin talk about his first season with the Queensland Ballet
Li Cunxin was one of only a handful of children out of millions taken from their parents when they were 11 years of age and trained at a ballet school in Beijing under the harsh regime of Mao Tse-Tung. At the age of 18 a miracle occurred. Under a six week scholarship he was invited to go to Texas to dance with the Houston Ballet company. It was a strategic move by the Chinese as the offer had the support of the American president George Bush Sr, whose wife was a trustee of the Houston Ballet.
In America Cunxin was entirely confronted by the freedoms that he experienced in a country where, he had been told ‘death stalked the streets and the sun didn’t shine’. In 1980 he was granted permission to dance with the Houston Ballet for a year, which he managed to have extended because he was in love with an aspiring dancer he had met. However by mid 1981 when he was due to return to China he defected and married Elizabeth MacKey, avoiding deportation. The marriage foundered after 18 months under the weight of cultural differences and he became a principal dancer at the Houston Ballet.
In 1987, he married Queensland born Mary McKendry, a principal of the Royal Ballet School at London at the time. He partnered her when the Houston Ballet was on a visit to England and today they have three children. He also made guest appearances with the Australian Ballet during his sixteen year dance career in the west. In 1995 he accepted the Australian Ballet’s invitation to join it as a principal dancer. When he retired from ballet in 1999 he became a stockbroker in Melbourne and a member of the Australian Ballet board, where he further developed his skills in revenue generation.
Li Cunxin’s first choice for Queensland Ballet 2013 program is ballet master and choreographer Ben Stevenson’s 1970 interpretation of Cinderella, which will be sure to be booked out by families introducing their children to the world of ballet. For those who have never encountered ballet before this is a wonderful introduction to a whole new world of art, which is sure to gain new followers.
It’s also a very poignant choice, one that is sure to be full of memories for Cunxin. It was Ben Stevenson, when he was artistic director of the Houston Ballet who visited China in 1978 and saw the young Li Cunxin dance. He was the one who offered Cunxin that marvellous miracle, the six week scholarship in America. Following Cunxin’s defection from China, which created a huge political storm, Ben Stevenson offered him a position with the Houston Ballet where he became a principal dancer.
Ben Stevenson is in himself a rare event with amazing diplomatic skills. Since meeting Li Cunxin in China and the events that followed he has returned almost every year at the invitation of the Chinese government to teach and the only foreigner to have ever been made an Honorary Faculty Member at both the Beijing Dance Academy and the Shenyang Conservatory of Music.
Both parents and children will roar with laughter at the antics of Cinderella and her ugly stepsisters, who are in many versions played by men. The most famous duo of my living memory was Sir Robert Helpmann and Sir Frederick Ashton, who literally brought the house down with both laughter and comedic brilliance.
Cinderella is a one of the most loved fairy tales of all time and it should kick start the dawning of a new age for the Queensland Ballet in a light hearted, pretty and positive light.
Giselle the second choice on the program, while being a ‘romantic’ and beautiful ballet has a great deal more to offer, at least in terms of dramatic interpretation. Ai-Gui Gaisina’s production is after Marius Petipa (1818-1910) the nineteenth century French ballet master and choreographer, who is considered by many as one the most influential to have ever lived along with George Balanchine (1904-1983), a Russian born choreographer who developed ballet in the USA and was co-founder and ballet master of the New York City Ballet.
Giselle is the ballet that every dance duo in the world wants to perform, the most famous being Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, who certainly made it their own and provided a benchmark for other dancers to strive towards in the world of ballet.
It has both light and dark moments of dramatic intensity and tells a tale that has great moral overtones.
It is about the manipulation of an innocent soul – a nobleman of a pretty peasant’s heart, which is too weak to overcome his ultimate betrayal and broken trust.
It certainly offers the dancers an opportunity to show off their range of skills, because it demands both technical perfection and outstanding grace and lyricism. Some of the most accomplished dancers in history have performed in this ‘luminous masterpiece of Romantic ballet’.
As is traditional, The Nutcracker will be the Christmas offering, a festive fantasy for the whole family to attend and enjoy.
The magnificent music by Tchaikovsky is a brilliant foil for the sumptuous set and costumes as well as the vibrant and expressive dancing. It’s a must see treat for all ages and with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra providing the music it should be booked out for all sessions.
Both Elegance and Dialogues are about giving a platform to shorter works by renowned choreographers. They will be set to marvelous music such as that by the composers Guiseppi Verdi (1813-1901) who wrote some of the greatest operas of all time, Aida, La Traviata and Rigoletto and Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741), who is well known for his masterpiece, The Four Seasons.
Dialogues will be different in that instead of just viewing the works, the audience in a studio setting, will be engaged by having an up-close and personal experience in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere with Li Cunxin and his dancers. All in all the program sounds a positive way to begin and a great leap forward for the Queensland Ballet.
Cunxin is very committed to educating his audience and as he proceeds over the next decade he will be able to introduce a whole range of new works to the Ballet’s repertoire as he builds his dancers range and brings on board new sponsors, supporters and most especially philanthropists, willing to aid its journey.
Queenslander’s are all a very fierce and competitive lot, at least in terms of state pride and to now be seen as group not afraid to grow they step up and support their own arts and cultural development.
Funding for the arts has always been a controversial and critical subject, one open to often-heated debate. The arts are about whom we are; they reflect our attitudes and philosophies and fashions and passions and so investing in the arts is about investing in our own future and ourselves.
Contributing to the society in which we live is an important aspect of both professional and private life today. We need to balance making giant profits with great philanthropy and policy with practice explaining why to company shareholders for whom the greater good also needs to be a concern, as well as profits.
Caring in community by supporting great art forms challenges and produces new ways of thinking about human behaviour and if it is done well will forever change the way we deal with each other.
Like Cinderella, it should be a no brainer for smart executives of any corporation to realize that valuing the arts and their importance in the grand scheme of things is all about business wisdom.
It’s time for them to elevate the ballet on their scale of 1 – 10, to be at least equal to those with renowned sporting prowess. In terms of fitness and athleticism great ballet dancers both equal and rival any sportsman or woman on the planet. It requires great discipline and self-sacrifice to be a great dancer too and human movement in the form of ballet celebrates all that is good about life joyously. Surely that should always be a cause for great celebration.
The Queensland Ballet 2013 program prepared by Li Cunxin should ensure that as this new aspect of his own career progresses his further tales of the ballet will be written and reviewed in a positive and inspirational light. This is just a beginning for his new vision, which offers him an opportunity to give back to both his art and the community.
‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ Li Cunxin once took a giant ‘leap of faith’ and became one of the most acclaimed ballet dancers in the world during his lifetime. With Cunxin at the helm guiding them the Queensland Ballet’s dancers will be all the richer for his mentoring them through his diverse range of experiences. They have been emboldened to make new and lasting impressions with their singularly beautiful art form.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013
*Li Cunxin on his appointment to the Queensland Ballet 2012
Queensland Ballet 2013