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|About the Change|
'Mao's Last Dancer'
2003; 368 pages, illus
In London for the publication of his autobiography, Li Cunxin talks to ballet.co about the book and about his life as a dancer.
by Jane Simpson
The sixth of seven sons, Li was born into poverty: although he had no idea what life as a dancer would be like, he had to take the chance to escape, both for his own sake and for his family's. So when the girl from his class was dropped from the programme at the next stage of assessment for screaming when they bent her back to test her flexibility, Li bit his tongue, endured the pain and won through to acceptance at Madame Mao's dance school in Beijing. It meant separation from his family and for the first two years he was desperately homesick and hated ballet - but at least his worst fear proved unfounded, when at the first shoe fitting he discovered that, being a boy, he wouldn't have to wear the pointe shoes he'd been told would be so painful. In the end an inspirational teacher and a gradually dawning love for his art saw him through, and by the time he graduated he was seen as the next big star, a potential Chinese Baryshnikov. It does seem extraordinary that such a casual selection procedure could succeed: Li thinks that 'Maybe some generations back there’s an artistic gene in me, and I just needed some guidance, some encouragement, needed to taste the success, needed someone to show me just how beautiful this art form was, then I was on my way'.
Portrait by Branco Gaica ©
courtesy of Australian Ballet
Ben Stevenson, on a visit to China, had offered Li a scholarship to his summer school in Houston, and it was in Houston that he made his career after deciding not to return to China. The culture shock of his first sight of Western life is one of the turning points of the book and of his life - the gradual dawning of the realisation that the propaganda on which he'd been fed from his earliest childhood was a lie. The immediate cause of his decision to stay in the West after his second visit to Houston was love rather than ambition, but he'd glimpsed artistic freedom and knew what his future at home would be like: 'The opportunities in China around that time were virtually non-existent - you’d be limited to do very few ballets - the propaganda ballets, Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl - which technically are not challenging, nor artistically either. Maybe we’d get to do Swan Lake very occasionally.' By chance I was talking to him on the day when the National Ballet of China opened its Sadler's Wells season, and I wondered if he would have been here with them now, if the immense pressure on him to return had succeeded. 'I would assume so - I would assume that I’d be teaching or coaching there - not necessarily dancing, as I’m 42 - yes, I think that would be the most likely career pattern. I know the artistic director very well, but she was the generation about 10 years above me. A lot of the senior teachers and repetiteurs were my classmates, some of them slightly below me.'
Li Cunxin and Mary McKendry in the pas de deux from Esmeralda
Photograph by Branco Gaica© - courtesy of Australian Ballet
Li appeared in London several times, first with the Houston Ballet and later in a couple of galas. He was also a guest artist with Northern Ballet Theatre when they first danced Sleeping Beauty in 1984, when John Percival described him as 'dancing superbly ... with fine technique, phrasing and style, and acting throughout with a beautifully warm ardour'. He danced Ashton's Pigeons and Fille in Houston, and 'I loved them - I only wished we had more. It was fantastic: his style was a great learning process for me, and his ballets have heart and soul, which suited me. I love heart and soul ballets, I love story ballets. We did MacMillan's Manon too, and that was just wonderful - and Song of the Earth. I was des Grieux in Manon and had immense pleasure doing it. I had a very bad back and I was taking painkillers as I couldn’t bear to miss any performances - I was crazy about that ballet. I loved acting. I found it very difficult at first, but as I did more classical and contemporary roles I became more comfortable, and the last five years I felt really comfortable - only then did I feel princely on stage, I didn’t have to pretend, I didn’t have to put a ‘look’ on, I just felt - every gesture I did, I felt I was that role.'
Li married one of his partners in Houston, Mary McKendry (once of London Festival Ballet), and for the last years of his career they moved to her native Australia and he joined Australian Ballet as a principal dancer. He retired when he was only 38, and I wondered if that wasn't rather young: 'Well, I feel I’d had a fabulous career, especially as I was still doing Don Quixote, La Bayadčre, Swan Lake - and I'd thought I’d never dance past 35. I’d been doing major roles ever since I defected when I was 18, so there had been an enormous physical demand. A lot of ballets had been created on me, and when you work with people like Christopher Bruce, it’s very demanding; and working with Glen Tetley was just total exhaustion.' I asked him to compare the change from dancer to stockbroker with the other two huge moves of his life - into the world of ballet, and from China to the West. Surprisingly, perhaps, he saw the last decision as the hardest. 'I think the first two, though they were very difficult, were quite obvious choices to make as the alternative was far worse. This last one, though - to throw away everything you’ve done and achieved in 25 years - most of your life - is a very difficult thing; it’s a scary thing.' His stockbroking colleagues were a bit suspicious of him at first, but his hard work and the business he brought in changed their minds, and when the book came out and they realised exactly what his background was and how great a journey he'd made, they became both supportive and proud of him. And they bought lots of copies of the book.
Although there's plenty of specific dance interest in Mao's Last Dancer, a reader who knew nothing of the ballet world would still find it absorbing - and moving, too: I've tried half a dozen times to tell people about the night his parents flew into Houston for the first time to see him dance, and what happened when they entered the theatre, and I haven't once managed it without choking up. His childhood in China, the culture shock of his arrival in the West - where people left restaurant tips of more than his father earned in a year - and the drama of his defection are the obvious highlights; but for me the key to it all remains that moment in the schoolroom. Whilst writing the book, Li called his former schoolteacher to ask her why she'd pointed him out, and she said she really didn't know - "I think the only reason was that you ran fast".