Li Cunxin has turned around the fortunes of Queensland Ballet. And the world is taking notice
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 It was originally made for television in Canada in 1963 and immortalised by some of ballet’s most powerful pairings — Nureyev and Fonteyn, Kirkland and Dowell, Ferri and Eagling,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
LI CUNXIN IS ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST EFFECTIVE CULTURAL RAINMAKERS
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