Mao's 'last dancer' stages a surprise encore

After swapping ballet for stockbroking 18 years ago, Li Cunxin performs again

Li Cunxin rehearsing his comeback role as Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker (Photo by David Kelly)

BRISBANE, Australia -- Li Cunxin's life story is so extraordinary that it was made into an award-winning movie.

Raised in abject poverty in China's Shandong Province during the privations of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Li was plucked from his peasant family at the age of 11 to be trained as a ballet dancer at an academy run by Mao's wife, actress-turned-revolutionary Jiang Qing.

After seven years there, he won a scholarship to the U.S. then made international headlines in 1981 when he dramatically defected on the eve of his scheduled return to China. He went on to become one of the world's top ballet stars, first as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and subsequently with the national ensemble in Australia where he eventually settled. Then in 1999, Li swapped his ballet tights for pinstripes and built a successful second career as a broker with Melbourne-based Bell Potter Securities.

Li's story thus far will be familiar to readers of his 2003 autobiography, aptly titled "Mao's Last Dancer," and the 2009 Bruce Beresford-directed film of the same name.

Li Cunxin (Photo by Georges Antoni)

What is less well known outside Australia is that Li staged another career pirouette in 2012: He gave up his highly paid finance job to take up the role of artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, then a lackluster provincial dance company.

Li's artistic and financial nous has helped transform the Brisbane-based company into one of the region's premier dance ensembles. As well as raising its cultural credentials, he has used his business connections and name recognition to drive corporate and philanthropic sponsorships. Such support reached a record 5.7 million Australian dollars ($4.6 million) last year from A$612,000 in 2011, according to the ballet's 2016 annual report. Box office revenues over the same period have more than doubled to A$4.6 million from under A$2 million.

Now as part of his ambition to raise the profile of the Queensland Ballet, Li on Sunday will take a career gamble at the age of 56 by stepping back on stage for the first time since his retirement in 1999 to perform the role of the shadowy magician Drosselmeyer in Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."

Officially, it is a one-off performance. But once news of it broke, the 2,000 available tickets sold out in 20 minutes and now Li is not ruling out further encores. "That's the million dollar question," he commented cryptically to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Much may depend on Sunday's performance. Few professional dancers keep going into their 40s. "My body has been going through hell," Li joked as he prepared for another day of rehearsals at the ensemble's Thomas Dixon Centre, a century-old former shoe factory building in Brisbane's West End. "My weight and body shape has not really changed in 18 years and I am in better shape than most, but there's a lot of pressure on me to get to that peak condition to perform."

Battle against starvation

Li knows all about pressure. The sixth of seven sons born to peasants in a village near the northeastern port city of Qingdao, family life was a constant battle against starvation in the wake of Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward followed by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, as described in his autobiography.

Salvation for Li came in the form of Madame Mao's cultural advisers, who scoured the countryside for children with suitable physiques to perform propaganda ballets. Li, it turned out, fit the bill perfectly, down to the length of his toes.

He was then forced to become both a ballet dancer and one of Mao's Red Guards, studying guerrilla warfare techniques alongside classical ballet pointe. Revolutionary works such as "The Red Detachment of Women," which tells the story of a group of female fighters operating on Hainan Island in the 1930s, requires performers to not only leap and pirouette but also wield bayonets and hurl grenades.

Mao's death in 1976, followed by the purging of Jiang Qing and her allies in the infamous "Gang of Four," eased the pressures on Li. Five years later, while spending time with the Houston Ballet, Li secretly married fellow dancer Elizabeth Mackey, then attempted to defect the day before he was due to fly back to China.

Lured into the Chinese consulate in Houston, he was then held against his will for 21 hours. During the standoff, George H.W. Bush, then the vice president, ordered the building surrounded by federal agents. Finally, Li was allowed to walk free into a new life in the West.

Li Cunxin at rehearsal with the Queensland Ballet (Photo by Eduardo Vieira)

In the late 1990s, as he sensed his dance career coming to an end, Li began to study finance and then took a job with ANZ Securities, a unit of Australia's third-largest bank. For two years, he played two roles -- stockbroker by day and principal dancer with the Australian Ballet by night -- before hanging up his shoes in 1999 and going full-time with Bell Potter.

A lucky man

By Li's standards, the next 13 years passed uneventfully as he and his second wife, Australian ballerina Mary McKendry, raised three children in Melbourne. Then in 2012, the Queensland Ballet came calling in search of an artistic director.

"I really enjoyed my stockbroking experience," Li said. "But my heart was still in ballet. One of the requirements in any life is to have passion and if your job is your passion, you will be the luckiest man on earth. The Queensland Ballet was the weakest ballet company in Australia. The challenge was enormous. I thought: wouldn't it be great to take a very weak company to be a global powerhouse?"

Li describes the current chapter of his life as in many ways the most demanding. "I have never lost more sleep," he said. "It's very challenging."

When he took the job in Brisbane, he never planned to return to performing. The decision resulted in part from Li's success at attracting sponsors. "I am able to understand business and speak their language -- it's a huge advantage for me," he said. This year, local financial services company Suncorp Group became the ballet's principal sponsor and underwrote a competition giving a local child a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform in "The Nutcracker." In turn, Suncorp Chief Executive Michael Cameron coaxed Li into also taking a role.

Whether or not Sunday's performance really is a one-off, Li says he is committed to staying the course with the Queensland Ballet in his quest to make it one of the world's best ensembles. "I think we are well on the way," he said. "We already have international-caliber artists performing international-caliber works. But even if we get there, I will never say so because I am a perfectionist."

In 2016, Li signed a new four-year contract, but he says his ambitions for the company mean he will probably stay beyond 2020. "But of course you don't want to outstay your welcome," he said.

That is the least of Li's worries, according to Deborah Jones, national dance critic of The Australian newspaper. "Li has really clicked with the Brisbane audience," she said. "He's a canny businessman who knows what will sell in this market and has increased the profile and quality of Queensland Ballet immeasurably. His fame has helped, of course, and the public seems inordinately proud of him."