Li Cunxin has turned around the for­tunes of Queens­land Bal­let. And the world is tak­ing no­tice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - writes Sharon Verghis

In an airy, con­verted 19th-century shoe fac­tory in Bris­bane, Li Cunxin is mov­ing two stately Queens­land Bal­let prin­ci­pal dancers, Chi­nese hus­band and wife team Hao Bin and Meng Ningn­ing, like gi­ant chess pieces across the pol­ished floor.

Li, 53, the cel­e­brated au­thor and sub­ject of the best­selling mem­oir and in­ter­na­tional block­buster film Mao’s Last Dancer, lauded in­ter­na­tional bal­let star, stock­bro­ker, mo­ti­va­tional speaker and artis­tic di­rec­tor at Queens­land Bal­let, the man whom friends hail var­i­ously as a “wickedly” good chef, dream builder, and “Ever­est-climber”, is valiantly try­ing to break through a thick crust of habit and re­straint as he takes the pair through one of bal­let’s best known and erot­i­cally charged scenes, the bal­cony pas de deux in Kenneth MacMil­lan’s darkly stormy, rev­o­lu­tion­ary ver­sion of Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a tough busi­ness. It was orig­i­nally made for tele­vi­sion in Canada in 1963 and im­mor­talised by some of bal­let’s most pow­er­ful pair­ings — Nureyev and Fonteyn, Kirk­land and Dowell, Ferri and Eagling, Osipova and Car­los Acosta — since the bal­let’s ex­plo­sive de­but at the Royal Opera House in 1965, it re­quires aban­don­ing pretty poses, spotlit en­trances and gen­eral ar­ti­fice. One of bal­let’s great­est chore­og­ra­phers, MacMil­lan, who once said he was sick of fairy­tales and not afraid of “ugly” chore­og­ra­phy, has proved chal­leng­ing for gen­er­a­tions of dancers, for­mer Aus­tralian Bal­let prin­ci­pal and now QB leading man Matthew Lawrence notes, pre­cisely be­cause he was not afraid of hu­man flaws.

This morn­ing, raw aban­don­ment is prov­ing a hard vibe to em­u­late for these re­fined, Bei­jing-trained clas­si­cists. “Don’t be so, uh, bal­le­rina, Ningn­ing,” Li im­plores the del­i­cate dancer, cat­a­pult­ing her so quickly for­ward with a hand on the bony wing of her shoul­derblade (“Run, run faster, fly!”) that she slides like a whizzing hockey puck un­der the piano af­ter al­most col­lid­ing full-tilt into it. Sweaty and puffed, the pair con­fer qui­etly in Man­darin as they strive to meet the chore­o­graphic de­mands, from that sin­u­ous weav­ing of bod­ies to the in­ti­mate back­bends, the alarm­ingly ac­ro­batic lifts (“Can you get one leg at 12 and the other at 3?”), and per­haps most dif­fi­cult, the dra­matic, emo­tional ges­tures re­quired for a bal­let made for strong dancer-ac­tors, not danseurs nobles (“Too small, too posed,” he cries at a del­i­cate pile, a robot­i­cally happy ex­pres­sion from Ningn­ing).

Over an in­tense hour, Li foren­si­cally finds, and plugs, ev­ery hole, fi­nesses ev­ery nuance (“Don’t look down, you’ll lose the au­di­ence”) demon­strates fa­cial ex­pres­sions — eyes wide, star­tled, scared, joy­ous. From time to time he breaks the in­ten­sity with dry jokes: watch­ing as the young cou­ple shyly, stiffly re­hearse a kiss, he rolls his eyes: “If I told people you were mar­ried, they will be sur­prised.” (He grins, adding sotto voce: “Ah never mind, per­haps they kiss at home tonight.”) At one point he spreads his arms wide, a sto­ry­teller in flight. “This pas de deux should be full of lay­ers of emo­tion so bring dif­fer­ent feel­ings to it. The steps are noth­ing. It’s the story, the mean­ing be­hind the steps.”

All through the bal­let’s his­toric Thomas Dixon build­ing on Bris­bane’s West End, not far from the hun­gry pel­i­cans, trendy cafes, jog­gers, tourists and fer­ries that de­fine the nar­row south­ern strip lin­ing the river that cuts through a cul­tur­ally re­ju­ve­nated Bris­bane, there is a sense of a vast hive hum­ming as a big bal­let is built, brick by brick. The cor­ri­dors are lined with parts of the set that ar­rived from the Birm­ing­ham Bal­let 10 days ago; wardrobe mis­tress Noe­line Hill sorts through nine cane skips of props — bird­cages, bas­kets of fake fruit, man­dolins, 22 racks of beau­ti­fully beaded, hand­dyed and braided cos­tumes for var­i­ous princes, har­lots, courtiers, beg­gars and page­boys (guest artist Car­los Acosta’s Romeo out­fit hangs separately in a plas­tic bag as be­fit­ting a su­per­star).

In the main stu­dio up to 60 dancers re­hearse the chaotic open­ing Verona mar­ket­place scene un­der the watch­ful eye of the MacMil­lan Trust’s Julie Wood (“Kenneth told his wife, Lady MacMil­lan, that if she ever had any doubts about the stag­ing, to ask Julie,” a watch­ing Li whis­pers). A short, droll, salty-tongued fig­ure in black, Wood su­per­vises a fight scene with the male prin­ci­pals, who last week had a sword­fight­ing les­son from vis­it­ing Bri­tish fight di­rec­tor Gary Har­ris from the trust. They seem a lit­tle cav­a­lier with their flash­ing weapons. “Hey Ty­balt,” she calls out. “Be more care­ful with that sword. Don’t gar­rotte him, you’ll have his head rolling down the aisles in a minute.” She sighs com­i­cally. “OK, let’s go from the top and see just how big a mess this is.”

Later this month, Queens­land Bal­let will launch the Aus­tralian pre­miere of MacMil­lan’s Romeo and Juliet — a na­tional coup. There is a buzz and sense of nervy mis­sion in this small re­gional com­pany, Aus­tralia’s old­est pro­fes­sional com­pany, as it takes on what QB chief ex­ec­u­tive Anna Mars­den de­scribes as a work “that will be the turn­ing point for the com­pany in its 53-year his­tory, suc­cess or fail­ure”.

Fea­tur­ing three of in­ter­na­tional bal­let’s big­gest stars in the lead roles —— the English Na­tional Bal­let’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Ta­mara Rojo and Royal Bal­let stars and guest artists Acosta and Steven McRae — this $1.6 mil­lion pro­duc­tion, par­tially funded to the tune of $300,000 through the New­man govern­ment’s Su­per Star Fund, is a high-stakes ven­ture. Even for sea­soned ob­servers, there is sur­prise at just how dra­matic has been the com­pany’s as­cen­dance since Li took over the di­rec­tor­ship from 14year vet­eran Fran­cois Klaus in July 2012.

Li’s dra­matic back­story, im­mor­talised in Bruce Beres­ford’s 2009 film hit Mao’s Last Dancer, is well known: a poverty-stricken child­hood; ar­du­ous dance train­ing in rev­o­lu­tion­ary China; a life in Amer­ica as a young dancer; a dra­matic de­fec­tion from his home­land while at the Hous­ton Bal­let; a glit­ter­ing in­ter­na­tional ca­reer; and a role with the Aus­tralian Bal­let as prin­ci­pal dancer. But it’s an­other per­sonal rein­ven­tion that has people talk­ing: Li is one of Aus­tralia’s most ef­fec­tive cul­tural rain­mak­ers.

QB’s 2013 an­nual re­port re­veals that last year sea­son ticket hold­ers in­creased by 153 per cent on the pre­vi­ous year to a record-break­ing 4316. Three new full-length bal­lets were pre­sented in the main stage and 15 additional per­for­mances were re­leased. Since 2012, QB’s sea­son ticket hold­ers have grown from 1700 to over 5300. Last year, QB dancers were seen by more than 60,000 people in 103 live stage per­for­mances. Li also over­saw a 160 per cent in­crease in phil­an­thropic and cor­po­rate in­come — a rare feat in these aus­tere times and a wel­come in­crease to the 2013 QB op­er­at­ing budget of $5.5m — and cre­ated a crowd-pleas­ing reper­toire of clas­sic story bal­lets ( Cin­derella, Nutcracker, Giselle, Cop­pelia) that saw sell­out Bris­bane sea­sons.

A con­sum­mate net­worker (“I dream big,” he says later over lunch), he’s lever­aged his weighty con­nec­tions to good ef­fect, charm­ing his way through the cor­ri­dors of Queens­land’s busi­ness, arts and po­lit­i­cal worlds.

In Fe­bru­ary 2012, soon af­ter his ap­point­ment was an­nounced, he hopped on a plane and went on a round-the-world net­work­ing trip, first vis­it­ing the Hong Kong Bal­let, then Lon­don and the US, where his stops in­cluded his old stomp­ing ground at Hous­ton and the ris­ing re­gional com­pany the Tulsa Bal­let. “Every­where he went, doors opened,” Mars­den says. ““The level of good­will was un­prece­dented.”

For Queens­land Bal­let, Li’s ar­rival is a happy h ac­ci­dent: he’s taken the helm at a time ti when the im­age of Queens­land as a cul­tural c back­wa­ter has been well and truly shifted. “It’s a bit of a golden age,” says Mars­den. M Queens­land has rein­vented it­self as a ar­guably Aus­tralia’s bal­let hub, there is th the QPAC In­ter­na­tional Se­ries, which since it its launch in 2012 has brought the Bolshoi, A Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre (per­form­ing in Aug gust) and Ham­burg Bal­let. Paris Opera Bal­let and a Na­tional Bal­let of Cuba have also vis­ited.

Li says the QPAC se­ries has helped cre­ate wider in­ter­est in bal­let and raised the pro­file of the art form in the state — “cer­tainly hav­ing the likes of POB and the Bolshoi hasn’t hurt”. lt must be noted, how­ever, that it’s proved to be a

stiff com­pe­ti­tion for the bal­let dol­lar. Then there’s the rise in Bris­bane of the Queens­land Art Gallery/Gallery of Mod­ern Art and an in­flux of new talent: Li has been joined by Lindy Hume at Opera Queens­land, Noel Staunton at Bris­bane Fes­ti­val and Wes­ley Enoch at the Queens­land Theatre Com­pany.

If there’s any­thing that points to the change of QB’s for­tunes, it is se­cur­ing MacMil­lan’s ver­sion of Romeo and Juliet. Li got to know MacMil­lan well while at the Hous­ton Bal­let, and also grew close to his wife, the Aus­tralian-born Deb­o­rah MacMil­lan (who bonded with Li over his daugh­ter Sophie when she was young; he spec­u­lates it was be­cause she was deaf). Lady MacMil­lan will re­port­edly make her first visit to Bris­bane in 26 years when Romeo and Juliet opens this month. Li flew to Syd­ney when she was vis­it­ing and con­vinced her, de­spite ini­tial ob­jec­tions, that QB would be able to han­dle the size and scale of the work (Lawrence, among many oth­ers, speaks to Re­view about Li’s charm­ingly per­sua­sive tal­ents).

Li then turned to oth­ers with whom he had per­sonal con­nec­tions — the su­per­star trio of Rojo (ENB artis­tic di­rec­tor and lead prin­ci­pal), in­ter­na­tional star Acosta and the Aus­tralian­born McCrae (prin­ci­pal dancer with the Royal Bal­let), who not only said yes but agreed to per­form op­po­site QB’s dancers in­stead of each other — “a pretty rare thing”, as Mars­den says.

At Queens­land Bal­let’s head­quar­ters, there is a pal­pa­ble en­ergy flow­ing through the cor­ri­dors. Li takes me through the build­ing, all spare, el­e­gantly in­dus­trial bones, high ceil­ings and ex­posed brick­work: he says the com­pany has out­grown its space and he’s al­ready plot­ting the pos­si­bil­ity of a new base. We bump into mu­sic di­rec­tor Andrew Mo­gre­lia, wear­ing a limegreen shirt and clutch­ing Prokofiev’s score; he tells me later in pass­ing there’s been an “amaz­ing” turn­around in the com­pany’s mu­si­cal as­sets since Li’s ar­rival. (Rec­ti­fy­ing an “ap­palling” dearth of live mu­sic, Li, a “phil­an­thropic rain­maker ex­traor­di­naire” ac­cord­ing to Mars­den, raised the funds via donors and spon­sors so QB was able to per­form with the Cam­er­ata of St John’s and fund a full-time com­pany pi­anist, among other things; Mo­gre­lia was named mu­sic di­rec­tor and prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor last year. )

Mars­den talks about the “nose­bleed­ing” rise of the com­pany: “In a bit over a year we’ve be­come a to­tally dif­fer­ent com­pany.” Li has forged an im­pres­sive track record, prov­ing there’s al­ways a way around road­blocks — from help­ing raise the $21m needed to fi­nance the Beres­ford movie to get­ting wealthy Queens­lan­ders to say yes to do­na­tions — his vi­sion for this small com­pany is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally grand: he sees it as be­com­ing noth­ing less than an Asia-Pa­cific bal­let pow­er­house with a strong in­ter­na­tional tour­ing pres­ence, talks eas­ily of seal­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies and carv­ing up ter­ri­to­ries and rights.

“We’re al­ready a strong re­gional com­pany,” he says with some be­muse­ment when asked about his plans. “Why not aim higher?”

Li’s achieve­ments at QB have raised eye­brows in some cir­cles: is it nip­ping at the heels of its na­tional, much big­ger and bet­ter re­sourced big brother, the Aus­tralian Bal­let? But a vet­eran dance ob­server who has fol­lowed both com­pa­nies dis­misses these com­par­isons: QB would have to be twice its size to even be in the ball­park of the 70-strong AB: “It might give AB a run for its money in Bris­bane, where the AB oc­ca­sion­ally likes to go, but other than that, no.” The AB’s artis­tic di­rec­tor David McAl­lis­ter says: “I think Li’s am­bi­tions and vi­sions for QB will greatly ben­e­fit the de­vel­op­ment of bal­let in this coun­try ... the stronger the state com­pa­nies, the stronger the Aus­tralian Bal­let.”

Li agrees the coun­try can sup­port three healthy bal­let com­pa­nies: (“our suc­cess should not can­ni­balise the oth­ers”) but it will be in­ter­est­ing, ob­servers say, to see what Li will do on the back of his pow­er­house net­works and fundrais­ing abil­ity in the next few years. OVER lunch in the board­room, Li is in a re­flec­tive mood. In the flesh, he is a dap­per, nim­ble fig­ure in a laven­der pais­ley shirt, with an ivory-skinned face of wide, smooth flat planes. He’s an in­trigu­ing study: this an­a­lyt­i­cal, re­served if courtly fig­ure is a vastly dif­fer­ent man to the al­most wildly the­atri­cal, pas­sion­ate, an­i­mated


fig­ure in the re­hearsal stu­dio. He’s made an art form of rein­vent­ing him­self, adapt­ing to his en­vi­ron­ment, but it’s easy to see the bal­let stu­dio is his nat­u­ral sphere: here he is most him­self.

He missed dance “ter­ri­bly” through­out his stock­broking years at Mel­bourne firm Bell Pot­ter, he con­fides: when the op­por­tu­nity came to lead Queens­land Bal­let, he was ini­tially hes­i­tant at the com­mit­ment it re­quired. He can­vasses ev­ery­thing from the dif­fi­cul­ties of cre­at­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of clas­sic story bal­lets (where are the new Swan Lakes?) to deal­ing with egos and pol­i­tics as artis­tic di­rec­tor (“it’s not about keep­ing ev­ery­one happy”). Al­ways, there is talk of his vi­sion for QB. Nearby a bust of French­born com­pany founder Charles Lis­ner by sculp­tor Rhyl Hin­wood serenely re­gards Li, who stares back in deep thought: Lis­ner was a vi­sion­ary, Li says.

Founded in Bris­bane in 1960 by Lis­ner, a Paris-born bal­let dancer, chore­og­ra­pher and pro­ducer who cre­ated 30-odd bal­lets while per­son­ally help­ing to fund the com­pany through its rocky early years, QB is the old­est pro­fes­sional bal­let com­pany in Aus­tralia, and one of only three in the coun­try to­day.

Af­ter Lis­ner re­signed in 1974, Harry Haythorne and Harold Collins fol­lowed; in 1998, the French-born Klaus, a for­mer Stuttgart Bal­let dancer un­der John Cranko, and later prin­ci­pal dancer at Ham­burg Bal­let un­der John Neumeier, be­gan his stew­ard­ship of the com­pany. Klaus was an in­stru­men­tal force, cre­at­ing much orig­i­nal reper­toire, but in 2012 he re­signed, re­port­edly as a re­sult of ten­sions with then com­pany chair­woman Joan Shel­don. The pre­vail­ing view was that the schol­arly, cere­bral Klaus was too in­tro­spec­tive (“Fran­cois was hap­pi­est in the stu­dio,” Mars­den says) and that the board was keen on some­one with a more commercial sen­si­bil­ity and net­work­ing flair — like Li, for ex­am­ple. Asked if this view is cor­rect, Klaus in an email to Re­view re­torts: “You make me sound an­ti­so­cial! Per­son­al­i­ties are for oth­ers to judge but it’s true that we’re very dif­fer­ent di­rec­tors and I think we each re­flect the cul­tural cli­mate in which we were ap­pointed. Back in 1998, I was hired as chief chore­og­ra­pher, coach and teacher, not as a fundraiser.”

Li has cer­tainly cat­a­pulted QB on to the na­tional radar. Ob­servers at­tribute the com­pany’s rise to the “Li ef­fect”: it is a tale of what hap­pens when a larger-than-life per­son­al­ity — com­plete with epic Hol­ly­wood-friendly back­story: what’s not to love about the tale of the rise of a Chi­nese ru­ral boy, the sixth of seven sons, who grew up so poor that he and his friends once stole food from a rat? — lands in a small pool. He is a su­per­star to in­ter­na­tional dancers, from starry-eyed Bolshoi prin­ci­pals to young AB prin­ci­pal Chengwu Guo, who played the teenage Li in Mao’s Last Dancer. The lat­ter says: “He (saw) my talent when I had just grad­u­ated from the Aus­tralian Bal­let School, and took me on to do his movie; I learned so much about act­ing, so when I came back to the Aus­tralian Bal­let to be­gin my pro­fes­sional bal­let ca­reer, those good act­ing skills helped me a lot. It’s also one of the rea­sons I am a prin­ci­pal with the Aus­tralian Bal­let to­day.”

McRae praises Li’s talent and star qual­ity while Kevin McKen­zie, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Bal­let Theatre says: “Li brings the same sheer joy of move­ment and re­spect for the power of the art form to his di­rec­tor­ship that he did for the Amer­i­can pub­lic as a dancer.” And Acosta tells Re­view: “Li has all the el­e­ments of a star. He has a re­mark­able story. But he was also a great dancer with strong tech­nique, jump, great part­ner­ing skills and a ter­rific ac­tor.”

Mars­den says star ef­fect aside — even now mem­bers of the pub­lic ap­proach him with copies of Mao’s Last Dancer to sign — his ar­rival has sparked a kind of rip­ple ef­fect in Queens- land’s phil­an­thropic cul­ture (Li says a lit­tle sternly that “there’s a long way to go”, but there’s no doubt it has roared into life since he ar­rived, Mars­den says, “which is ben­e­fit­ing not only QB but other arts com­pa­nies in Bris­bane”). His fans and friends range from John El­liceFlint, for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of San­tos, whom Li has known since his Hous­ton days (“It is a rare artis­tic di­rec­tor who has a strong sense of the bot­tom line — and Li has that in spades”) to for­mer AB col­league Steven Heathcote, the Hous­ton Bal­let’s artis­tic di­rec­tor emer­i­tus Ben Steven­son who hails Li’s “enor­mous de­ter­mi­na­tion” and for­mer Amer­ica’s Cup skip­per John Ber­trand, who says Li is a “dream-builder”.

Li’s is an ad­mirably huge vi­sion, but how real­is­tic is it to achieve? To some ob­servers, it’s too grandiose: Li will end up frus­trated by the lim­i­ta­tions a small re­gional en­sem­ble has his­tor­i­cally faced — a small au­di­ence base, limited reper­toire, dif­fi­cul­ties in at­tract­ing and keep­ing top-drawer talent, even — po­ten­tially — the sup­posed parochial­ism of con­ser­va­tive Queens­land au­di­ences, and the cost of hav­ing a non­chore­o­graphic di­rec­tor for the first time. (Rubbish, says Li tartly: he thinks it is cheaper to in­vest in solid pieces that last than hav­ing a di­rec­tor who cre­ates new works that don’t).

Then there’s the is­sue of bud­gets. For all that this is a “golden age” for the com­pany, Mars­den says QB strug­gles with the same fund­ing is­sues as other state arts com­pa­nies. This comes as news to some, who have lev­elled claims the com­pany was quar­an­tined from the New­man govern­ment’s aus­ter­ity budget, which cut arts fund­ing from $245m in 2011 to $237.1m in 2012. Mars­den ve­he­mently de­nies this, say­ing “we are grossly un­der­funded com­pared to the other four ma­jors in Queens­land”.

Li dis­misses the ar­gu­ment of naysay­ers who point to QB’s small size and scale as in­sur­mount­able bar­ri­ers: he cites aug­ment­ing the ranks though its pre-pro­fes­sional pro­gram and other sources, as well as up­com­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with the ENB and other in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies, and lo­cal joint ven­tures such as the re­cently con­cluded Cop­pel­lia, a co-pro­duc­tion with the West Aus­tralian Bal­let, and WAB’s up­com­ing La Fille Mal Gardee. “I think it makes great sense and al­lows a smaller com­pany like us to stretch our re­sources much fur­ther. In­stead of only hav­ing a budget of $200,000, sud­denly you have dou­ble that, and this will buy you a com­pletely dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tion, a com­pletely dif­fer­ent cal­i­bre of light and cos­tume and set de­sign.”

Mars­den agrees. “I think that’s the new model for bal­let com­pa­nies. No one can un­der­take a new $2m bal­let by them­selves but if you do it with a part­ner, it’s a mil­lion dol­lars each. So with this model it will mean we are a global player. I look at in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies like the ENB, the Scot­tish Bal­let, the San Fran­cisco Bal­let — they’re not the Roy­als and the Paris Op­eras, but they’re do­ing amaz­ing things. I see us as one of them.”

The other big topic in dance cir­cles is Li’s next move. Li was ap­proached about the job of artis­tic di­rec­tor at the AB 10 years ago, and con­firms he ap­plied for it. The di­rec­tor has a four-year con­tract at QB with a four-year op­tion; there is spec­u­la­tion, how­ever, that once he kicks a few more goals he’ll be zoom­ing in on the AB’s artis­tic di­rec­tor­ship. McAl­lis­ter’s con­tract will ex­pire at the end of this year.

On that ques­tion, Li smiles. “I’m re­ally fo­cused on what I’m do­ing here. People who know me know I don’t look side­ways. I have a vi­sion here to re­alise and I will be com­mit­ted to re­al­is­ing that vi­sion. I don’t know how long it will take — two years, eight years, who knows? But that’s what is im­por­tant as the mo­ment. And I’m lov­ing it.”

Mars­den, how­ever, is prag­matic. “Yes, it’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion, isn’t it? Look, he’s go­ing to hate me say­ing this, but Li is an amaz­ingly bright bird. And it would be wrong to trap him and force him to stay.”

“I hope we have him for the eight years — but I also think that if or when he leaves, he’d al­ways be such an ad­vo­cate for the com­pany.

“To be hon­est, I would love to see what he does with a na­tional com­pany.”

Li Cunxin in Bris­bane;

dancing with Mary McKendry, be­low left, and as a boy in China

Car­los Acosta and Ta­mara Rojo in the Royal Bal­let’s Romeo and Juliet, above; Li Cunxin with Bolshoi Bal­let prin­ci­pal dancers, left

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