Mao’s Last Dancer and Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin is Queensland’s finalist for Australian of the Year.
Li Cunxin’s relentless pursuit of perfection freed him from extreme poverty in China, and 40 years later his passion is fuelling a cultural revolution in Queensland.
Queensland’s finalist for Australian of the Year was born during the great Chinese famine, with more than 15 million Chinese dying between 1959 and 1961.
Life was bleak for Li and his six brothers. To survive, Li’s family ate bark when they failed in their daily struggle to find food.
At 11 years old, Li was one of 44 children chosen out of millions to train with the Beijing Dance Academy.
He had no interest in ballet, even hated it, but realised the enormity of the opportunity and left home to take the chance to pull his family out of their peasant life.
He embarked on a lifelong and at times lonely journey to not only reach the pinnacle of dance, but pen an award-winning autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer.
“As a child I was always full of dreams, full of hope,” he told AAP.
“My aspiration was to help my family one day, to be able to provide a table full of food for my mother, to see her smile, because that was an incredible dream for me.
“I realised that it was my chance to do better than the life I was born into.”
Li defected to the West in 1981, sparking a public diplomatic row between China and the US.
After falling in love with Australian-born ballerina Mary McKendry in 1995, Li moved to Australia and became principal artist at The Australian Ballet.
Spurred by his unwavering determination to succeed and his sacred family values, he worked as a stockbroker between rehearsals.
Queensland Ballet secured Li as artistic director and his first season in 2013, a sell-out, set a record for the number of season-ticket holders.
Li’s new dream is to help Queensland Ballet rise to an international standard.
“Can we do better? Can we go to the next level? And the answer is yes,” he said.
“That’s how I’ve driven myself as a dancer, that’s how I’ve driven myself with everything I do.
“The pursuit of perfection, of excellence, is ongoing.”