bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate and Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin is determined to put the company on the global stage.

Brisbane’s arts community was all abuzz last year when word got around that Li Cunxin was the new artistic director of Queensland Ballet. Ticket sales went through the roof and the company now has more season ticket holders than ever in its 53-year history. The two 2013 seasons of Dance Dialogues sold out earlier this year, suggesting that many subscribers are keen to get up-close and personal with Li Cunxin as he demonstrates the technique and rehearsal of new dance pieces by emerging choreographers.

Last month’s production of Cinderella also sold out even before the first performance, leaving little doubt that Brisbane fans of classical dance have given Li’s appointment the big thumbs-up. “The response has been phenomenal,” Li says, adding that Cinderella will tour Queensland regional centres next year. “I don’t think now there will be any doubts to what Queensland Ballet is capable of doing.”

He believes the notoriety of Mao’s Last Dancer, his best-selling autobiography and the subsequent Bruce Beresford film, has played only a small part in the success of Cinderella and the take-up of season tickets. “A bigger part is the whole new energy and image that Queensland Ballet has been able to impart to the wider community. My vision is to have Queensland Ballet stand tall and proud on the international stage – to say we are one of the best in the world and we are not from New York, not from London, but we are here in Brisbane.”

Many are confident Li will deliver on that promise. “His global networking is second to none,” says Australian Ballet board member and long-time friend John Elice-Flint. “He has access to ballets, choreographers and dancers that others don’t have – this makes Queensland Ballet a company to watch.”
Li Cunxin is tall, with the well-toned physique one would expect of a man who has spent most of his life in rigorous dance practice.

He is 52 but his tanned blemish-free skin and boyish face make him appear much younger. His life story is fascinating and inspiring, a remarkable tale of how a young man’s determination, perseverance, hard work and courage lifted him from the depths of despair to become one of the best dancers in the world.

Born into bitter poverty, Li was the sixth of seven peasant sons. His parents were so poor they could barely put food on the table. At age 11 he was plucked from his classroom to endure a seven-year harsh regime of dance training for 16 hours-a-day, six days-a-week at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing.

After being allowed to attend a summer dance school in the United States, Li joined the Houston Ballet as an exchange student. On the eve of his departure home to China in 1981 he defected to the US, causing an international incident when he was detained in the Chinese Consulate in Houston.“I thought I was going to die. Once I got into a stand-off with the Chinese officials, the thought of ever seeing my parents again was so far away. I thought it was going to be the last time I saw a human face.” The Chinese government relented.

Li’s career in his new home skyrocketed and he quickly became an international ballet star. Li arrived in Australia in 1995 with his young family to take up an invitation to be a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. His wife Mary (originally from Rockhampton) had given up her own career as a dancer to care for their eldest daughter Sophie, who was born deaf. Li retired from the stage in 1999 and leapt into a new career as a stockbroker, later travelling the globe as a motivational speaker.

“I wanted to help my family set up some businesses in China – to help them change their lives was my childhood dream. I was the only breadwinner and teaching and dancing alone was never going to allow me to help my family and ensure my children would get a good education.” When approached to lead Queensland Ballet he had to do some soul searching. The family was happily settled in Melbourne with three children at university or school and Li was managing a respected financial business.

“I saw this as chance to do something worthwhile for this art form, to have one of the best ballet companies in the world based in Brisbane…coupled with my fondness for Brisbane, because I married a Queenslander and over the years we’ve been coming back to visit.”

Li’s artistic management of Queensland Ballet will be curatorial, meaning there will be opportunities galore for Australian and overseas choreographers to create works for the company through the Dance Dialogues and Elegance programs. “The temptation to choreograph is always there but there are so many talented choreographers and my job is to give them the opportunities to create fabulous ballets. I have so many other things to do.”

A dogged determination for perfection, to work hard and push through any obstacles that get in the way is part of Li’s psyche. “There will never be a moment where I will say this is perfect. I’ve never felt that moment in my career. I can always do better and that is the way I am going to be in managing this company.”

Queensland Ballet principal dancer Rachael Walsh has no doubts that Li’s appointment has brought international focus to Brisbane as a centre for dance. “It’s a great coup not only for Queensland but for Australia. He is able to communicate his love of dance with people from all backgrounds and he does it with such humility and unbridled joy. A great leader is one who inspires greatness in others – this is definitely Li’s way. Li inspires me every day.”