If I go back to the very beginning of my awareness of music as a child in a village in Shandong province, it was extremely primitive. We didn’t really have much music. The only thing we really had was loudspeakers in villages, and all day long they would play propaganda songs, phrases from Mao’s Little Red Book, and announce the news. It was really a propaganda outlet for the Party: Revolutionary marches and war songs were my main source of music until I was 11 and moved to Beijing. Anything Western was forbidden in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

Li Cunxin, Mao's Last DancerQueensland Ballet Artistic Director Li Cunxin. Photo supplied.

When I was selected by Madame Mao’s cultural advistors to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, 90 percent of the time the pianists would play very simple Chinese folk music or Revolutionary music. With frappés or jetés, any 2/4-rhythm music, they would play military march music. But with adage, they would occasionally sneak in some Western music, which inevitably became our favourites and we’d ask for more. Even then, the pianists wouldn’t say if the music was by Chopin or Beethoven – rather, “Oh, this is Chinese music created many years ago”, to which I thought, “God, this music is more beautiful than most others I’ve heard so far”.

It was only after Mao died that western influence started to come through in music and art. We’d gather in the dance studio at night where the teachers played waltz music. For the first time I fully experienced Western music. It swept me off my feet, it was so beautiful.

During the Cultural Revolution all the Western ballets were banned and most of the records were destroyed. Luckily, with Swan Lake, one of the teachers buried some of her notes and after Mao died she unburied them. That allowed us to put the ballet on. Swan Lake was the first Western ballet staged after the Revolution, and I was the Prince. It made me realise how incredible, how powerful the music can be for dance. Before then, I just thought it was for rhythm, to put steps to, but when you hear beautiful music your heart soars because
it’s so emotional.

I went to America in 1979, and I couldn’t pull myself away from listening to music on a little radio. I had a recorder, so I bought cassette tapes to record all this fabulous Western music that I wanted to take back to China. It was at this time that I began to hear more music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Chopin. And Gershwin – my God, I didn’t know that these pieces existed, expressing all these emotions.

These days I love Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mahler – really, it was the first Western music introduced to me, what you would call my first love. I shouldn’t forget Tchaikovsky, who composed music for so many fabulous, famous classical works like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty, all the ballets still so beloved by our generation. I fight with my children about what is played in the house because they want pop and my wife and I want orchestral symphonies. But it’s good for them to give us that education!

The music I couldn’t live without…

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Decca 4215802
For me, it has to be Beethoven’s Fifth by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s just incredible. It was given to me by one of the board members of the Houston Ballet when I first went to America, and it became my all-time favourite. It was my first major musical gift and I played it on my turntable, just mesmerised. I felt I was in heaven.

Queensland Ballet performs The Nutcracker at QPAC from December 8 – 16.


An exhibition exploring Li Cunxin’s life is at the Museum of Brisbane from December 1 – April 29, 2018.