How to pronounce Li Cunxin: Lee Schwin Sing
In London for the publication of his autobiography, Li Cunxin talks to ballet.co.uk about the book and about his life as a dancer.
This interview was conducted by Jane Simpson on 18th November 2003 and first
published at ballet.co.uk. It is reproduced with the permission of Jane Simpson and ballet.co.uk.
From the real-life Nureyev to the fictional Billy Elliott, these days we're all familiar with the legend of the boy who falls in love with ballet and fights his way through to become a dancer. Well, Li Cunxin's story isn't at all like that: in fact it's quite the opposite. This is the tale of a boy sitting quietly in his primary school in a remote area of China, knowing almost nothing and caring less about ballet, when a couple of visitors walk in, pick out one of the girls and say 'You: you're going to be a dancer'. And just as they're leaving, the teacher points at Li and says 'Why don't you try him as well?' - and Li begins a journey which takes him via years of hard work, defection to the West, and stardom in America to the present day, when he lives in Melbourne, an Australian citizen and a successful stockbroker, with an Australian wife and three children and an autobiography which has been in the bestseller lists for the last ten weeks.
The sixth of seven sons, Li was born into poverty: although he had no idea what life as a dancer would be like, he had to take the chance to escape, both for his own sake and for his family's. So when the girl from his class was dropped from the programme at the next stage of assessment for screaming when they bent her back to test her flexibility, Li bit his tongue, endured the pain and won through to acceptance at Madame Mao's dance school in Beijing. It meant separation from his family and for the first two years he was desperately homesick and hated ballet - but at least his worst fear proved unfounded, when at the first shoe fitting he discovered that, being a boy, he wouldn't have to wear the pointe shoes he'd been told would be so painful. In the end an inspirational teacher and a gradually dawning love for his art saw him through, and by the time he graduated he was seen as the next big star, a potential Chinese Baryshnikov. It does seem extraordinary that such a casual selection procedure could succeed: Li thinks that 'Maybe some generations back theres an artistic gene in me, and I just needed some guidance, some encouragement, needed to taste the success, needed someone to show me just how beautiful this art form was, then I was on my way'.
What Li most regrets about his years at school is that 'we squandered a lot of precious time on propaganda. We even stopped doing ballet classes for a few days because Mao had made a new saying and we had to study it over and over, chew it, regurgitate it - it's incredible the amount of time we wasted. And for so many years we were afraid to be seen practising our dancing rather than studying Mao's Red Book, because then people would think you were politically unbalanced'. But by the time he approached graduation just a few cracks were being opened up, and his class was allowed to watch a couple of videos of Baryshnikov. Li says he can still remember the shock - it was his first glimpse of the 'world standard' which from then on became his goal. Looking back now, he is deeply grateful for the quality of his training. 'Where China fell short was not in the school training, which gave me such a strong technical foundation, but it was the lack of a real repertoire. When I first went to Houston I danced more ballets in that first year than probably in ten years if I was back in China. And I think if China really wants to bring their ballet to world standards, that's where they have to put the investment, and not just to make the audience excited, to give them the diversity in the art form that they'd enjoy, but also to give them a world class generation of dancers - the challenge that comes with these ballets is invaluable'.
Ben Stevenson, on a visit to China, had offered Li a scholarship to his summer school in Houston, and it was in Houston that he made his career after deciding not to return to China. The culture shock of his first sight of Western life is one of the turning points of the book and of his life - the gradual dawning of the realisation that the propaganda on which he'd been fed from his earliest childhood was a lie. The immediate cause of his decision to stay in the West after his second visit to Houston was love rather than ambition, but he'd glimpsed artistic freedom and knew what his future at home would be like: 'The opportunities in China around that time were virtually non-existent - youd be limited to do very few ballets - the propaganda ballets, Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl - which technically are not challenging, nor artistically either. Maybe wed get to do Swan Lake very occasionally.' By chance I was talking to him on the day when the National Ballet of China opened its Sadler's Wells season, and I wondered if he would have been here with them now, if the immense pressure on him to return had succeeded. 'I would assume so - I would assume that Id be teaching or coaching there - not necessarily dancing, as Im 42 - yes, I think that would be the most likely career pattern. I know the artistic director very well, but she was the generation about 10 years above me. A lot of the senior teachers and repetiteurs were my classmates, some of them slightly below me.'
Li's move to the West happened at what he calls 'an inspirational time. Baryshnikov, Bujones and Nureyev were still dancing, Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland were dancing - the standard was very high. I had to struggle, I had to work hard virtually for every role; and being an Asian, being a Chinese face trying to be a Western face, I had to be that much better than an American or a French or a British face to get that same role. But technically and artistically, coming to the West helped me to achieve a much higher level than I would have if I had gone back to China. Working with the Glen Tetleys, Jiri Kylians, Kenneth MacMillans of the world, it drives your career forward - makes you progress to the next level, next level, next level - it makes you a better dancer because youre working with these choreographic masters. They demand a lot more from you with their ballets than just doing class every day. You learn one set of basic technical principles in the classroom, but that can only take you so far, and thats not what the audience is eventually going to come to watch you perform - the audience comes to watch you as a whole artist, and you have to emerge out of the classroom, use that as a foundation to deepen whatever you want to give to that audience onstage - much much more than whatever the classroom would offer you.'
Li appeared in London several times, first with the Houston Ballet and later in a couple of galas. He was also a guest artist with Northern Ballet Theatre when they first danced Sleeping Beauty in 1984, when John Percival described him as 'dancing superbly ... with fine technique, phrasing and style, and acting throughout with a beautifully warm ardour'. He danced Ashton's Pigeons and Fille in Houston, and 'I loved them - I only wished we had more. It was fantastic: his style was a great learning process for me, and his ballets have heart and soul, which suited me. I love heart and soul ballets, I love story ballets. We did MacMillan's Manon too, and that was just wonderful - and Song of the Earth. I was des Grieux in Manon and had immense pleasure doing it. I had a very bad back and I was taking painkillers as I couldnt bear to miss any performances - I was crazy about that ballet. I loved acting. I found it very difficult at first, but as I did more classical and contemporary roles I became more comfortable, and the last five years I felt really comfortable - only then did I feel princely on stage, I didnt have to pretend, I didnt have to put a look on, I just felt - every gesture I did, I felt I was that role.'
Li married one of his partners in Houston, Mary McKendry (once of London Festival Ballet), and for the last years of his career they moved to her native Australia and he joined Australian Ballet as a principal dancer. He retired when he was only 38, and I wondered if that wasn't rather young: 'Well, I feel Id had a fabulous career, especially as I was still doing Don Quixote, La Bayadère, Swan Lake - and I'd thought Id never dance past 35. Id been doing major roles ever since I defected when I was 18, so there had been an enormous physical demand. A lot of ballets had been created on me, and when you work with people like Christopher Bruce, its very demanding; and working with Glen Tetley was just total exhaustion.' I asked him to compare the change from dancer to stockbroker with the other two huge moves of his life - into the world of ballet, and from China to the West. Surprisingly, perhaps, he saw the last decision as the hardest. 'I think the first two, though they were very difficult, were quite obvious choices to make as the alternative was far worse. This last one, though - to throw away everything youve done and achieved in 25 years - most of your life - is a very difficult thing; its a scary thing.' His stockbroking colleagues were a bit suspicious of him at first, but his hard work and the business he brought in changed their minds, and when the book came out and they realised exactly what his background was and how great a journey he'd made, they became both supportive and proud of him. And they bought lots of copies of the book.
Although there's plenty of specific dance interest in Mao's Last Dancer, a reader who knew nothing of the ballet world would still find it absorbing - and moving, too: I've tried half a dozen times to tell people about the night his parents flew into Houston for the first time to see him dance, and what happened when they entered the theatre, and I haven't once managed it without choking up. His childhood in China, the culture shock of his arrival in the West - where people left restaurant tips of more than his father earned in a year - and the drama of his defection are the obvious highlights; but for me the key to it all remains that moment in the schoolroom. Whilst writing the book, Li called his former schoolteacher to ask her why she'd pointed him out, and she said she really didn't know - "I think the only reason was that you ran fast".
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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