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Li Cunxin, the man known internationally as Mao's Last Dancer, has been appointed the new artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.
The addition of Li, whose best-selling autobiography was adapted into a feature film by Australian director Bruce Beresford, is a major coup for the Brisbane-based company and is expected to attract new audiences.
Although the 52-year-old left almost three decades of ballet behind him in 1999 to pursue career opportunities as a stockbroker and a stint as a motivational speaker (the latter should come in handy for QB's fundraising effords), he said the prospect of returning to the artform in a leadership role lured him out of retirement. "I've never lost my passion for dance, and I'm excited to start a new journey.
"It's also a homecoming of sorts – my wife Mary McKendry is from Queensland and we're looking forward to making it our home."
Li's life story is widely known – even outside the rarefied world of dance – thanks to his award-winning autobiography Mao's Last Dancer. Born in poverty in rural China, he was hand-picked at the age of 11 to study at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. There, he endured grueling 16-hour days of intense training for seven years.
He graduated as one of China's finest dancers but in 1979 defected to the US, sparking a diplomatic stand-off between China and America. He became principal dancer first with the Houston Ballet company and then with the Australian Ballet.
Li takes the reins at the Queensland Ballet in July, replacing current artistic director and chief choreographer Francois Klaus. His wife, currently a coach with the Australian Ballet, will undertake work with dancers at the Queensland Ballet.