Mao’s Last Dancer Exhibition – Immigration Museum, Melbourne

Li Cunxin
Li Cunxin 2

Li Cunxin Rite of Spring 1988 Photograph Jim Caldwell, courtesy of Houston Ballet

The life of Chinese born Australian based ballet dancer Li Cunxin stands today as a ringing endorsement of the endearing qualities and social values we would all wish to see future generations acquire; courage, passion, resilience, commitment, self-discipline and determination.

Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin will be on show June 16 – October 17, 2018 at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne.

Ballet dancer and businessman Li Cunxin has set goals for himself and achieved them against all odds by embracing change. Museums Victoria CEO, Lynley Marshall, a great admirer of Li Cunxin and his work, feels a particular connection to the project.


Li Cunxin, Artistic Director, Queensland Ballet

“We are so very… honoured to be presenting Li’s story within the fitting walls of Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. It has been our delight to work with the Museum of Brisbane on the touring debut of this world-class exhibition” said Mr Marshall.

A truly moving experience celebrating the life and work of one truly remarkable man, the exhibition will fascinate and delight not only fans of ballet, but all those intrigued by the strength of the human spirit and the power of artistic will.

It also aims to celebrate the vibrant and vital contributions international citizens like Li Cunxin have made to contemporary cultural Australia.

Presenting an ‘intimate and personal story’ transporting visitors through costume, photography, audio visual content, awards and other personal items, many items have been shared by from his own archives. They include costumes from the Houston Ballet’s 1990 production of Romeo and Juliet, and a series of kites, handmade by Li Cunxin for the exhibition.

Li Cunxin and Mary McKendry in Esmeralda pas de deux, Sydney Opera House 1990, Photo Branco Gaica, courtesy Australian Ballet and Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin and Mary McKendry in Esmeralda pas de deux, Sydney Opera House 1990, Photo Branco Gaica, courtesy Australian Ballet and Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin noted “I have enjoyed contacting old friends and searching through my own keepsakes and files to find the artifacts and papers” to ensure a unique experience for all. “Many extraordinary people in China, the United States and Australia made my story possible. I continue to be inspired by their generosity and friendship and am delighted this exhibition introduces them to Australian audiences,” Li Cunxin said.

Cunxin literally leaped into the limelight when he published his best-selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer in 2003. His giant ‘leap of faith’ after being plucked from an impoverished family in rural China, defecting to the west to become one of the most acclaimed dancers in the world.

Detail Li Cunxin 11

Detail Li Cunxin, 1977, courtesy artist

Growing up in a very poor village in Qingdao in north-east China during the reign of the leader of China at that time, Chairman Mao, Li’s family struggled every day to keep starvation at bay until one day uniformed officials visited his school.

They were searching the country to select those students out of millions across the country, who who may be able to rise to excellence in the rarefied world of ballet and eventually become cultural delegates. Li said, “The best advice I received was from my mother when I left home at age 11 was ‘to not look back, to keep going forward”.

Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin, The Sleeping Beauty 1984. Photo: Jim Caldwell, courtesy Houston Ballet and Li Cunxin

The extraordinary story of his loyalty to family, his painful exile and pursuit of artistic freedom dancing in both America for the Houston Ballet and for the Australian Ballet for many years, helped to propel his autobiography to the international bestseller list.

His book stayed on the Australian Top 10 Bestseller List for over one and a half years and has been re-published countless times. Sold in over twenty countries, it won the Book of the Year Award in Australia, the Christopher Award in America and was short-listed for the National Biography Award.

The children’s version won the Australian Publishers Association’s Book of the Year for Younger Children and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards Children’s Book Award.


Li Cunxin and Dancers, courtesy The Queensland Ballet

Li Cunxin could not know within a decade he would become artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, where today he continues to bring classic and contemporary together in a magical mix that showcases the beauty and art associated with human movement.

Directed by acclaimed Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford a film of Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) brought the captivating and inspirational story to the screen, presenting a powerful account of Li’s courage and integrity to a whole new audience.

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Li Cunxin and Mary 1994, photo Jann Whaley

Like many of his contemporaries Li Cunxin embraces the powerful idea we are all united by basic human concerns for family, love and freedom, regardless of race or politics.

His powerful and compelling story promises life can take unexpected turns when we are least expecting them to happen, helping us to retain hope, often amidst a very difficult struggle. It has the power and compelling simplicity of a fairy tale. This is sure to be an outstanding exhibition.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018

Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin

June 16 – October 17, 2018 

Tickets included in Museum Entry

Immigration Museum

400 Flinders Street, Melbourne, Victoria

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