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It’s been 18 years since Li Cunxin last danced on stage, giving his final professional performance with the Australian Ballet in Don Quixote in 1999. But the man, whose extraordinary life story was told in the film Mao’s Last Dancer, based on his best-selling autobiography of the same name, is readying himself to come out of retirement for one night only.
Li Cunxin. Photograph courtesy of Queensland Ballet
Announcing Queensland Ballet’s 2018 season yesterday, Li revealed that he will play the magician Drosselmeyer in Ben Stevenson’s production of The Nutcracker for QB on December 10. His wife Mary Li (née McKendry) will also dance in the same performance, playing one of the parents at the Christmas Eve party in the first act of the popular ballet.
Now 56, Li told ABC News that he is “more than nervous, actually a bit petrified. I have a lot of work to do I need to get back in shape. There is some hard work ahead of me. I think I will have to be a little bit more disciplined than I have been. [There] will be a bit of pain and agony to go through, but it will be a lot of fun,” he said.
Li Cunxin and Mary McKendry, Houston Ballet in 1987. Photograph courtesy of Li Cunxin's archive
The Nutcracker has a special palce in Li’s heart as it was the first ballet in which he performed in the West for Houston Ballet, then under Ben Stevenson’s artistic directorship. The last time he and Mary danced together on stage was in the same Houston production in 1991.
Born into poverty in China, Li was chosen by Madame Mao’s cultural advisors to attend the Beijing Dance Academy at the age of 11. At 18, he won a cultural scholarship to go to America where he danced with Houston Ballet, then under Stevenson’s artistic directorship. In 1981, Li defected and went on to become a Principal with the Company.
He moved to Melbourne in 1995 with his dancer wife to join The Australian Ballet as a Principal Artist and danced there until his retirment at age 38. After working as a stockbroker for several years, Li was appointed as QB’s fifth Artistic Director in July 2012.
The revelation that he is to don his ballet shoes again came with his announcement of the QB’s 2018 season.
The Nutcracker plays the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, December 8 – 16. Li Cunxin will perform on December 10.