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EXCLUSIVE: ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ Li Cunxin and his wife Mary are embarking on a new chapter

The couple were forced to retire after they both faced health scares…

The sun slants in through arched windows onto wooden floors. With its high ceilings, rugs and paintings, it’s a beautiful room in a grand old house in Brisbane. A house that signals success.

Li Cunxin and his wife of 36 years, Mary Li, sit tightly together on a linen sofa, her hand on his shoulder, an undeniable physical closeness.

Li doesn’t take any of this for granted. Not the house, the family, or the superstar career as a ballet dancer.

For him “everything is a bonus miracle”.

The author of Mao’s Last Dancer, a book that sold millions of copies and was made into a famous film, has never forgotten the poverty of his childhood in China, the “total desperation” on his mother’s face as she starved herself so one of her seven sons could have another mouthful.

That indelible image is what has driven him all of his life.

Tens of millions of people died of famine and disease in China between 1958 and 1962; his family struggled “desperately” for survival.

As a young boy he would send messages to the gods on pieces of paper attached to his kite, asking them to get him out so he could help his family.

“In some ways it’s a fairytale,” he says, looking around the lovely light-filled room. “I still have to pinch myself thinking, is this really my life? Is it a beautiful dream? If it is a dream, please don’t wake me up.”

For Li, ballet “is about magic because it has that magical effect. If you can make ballet as beautiful as possible, that magical factor will emerge. I really believe ballet is transformational, it is such an emotional art form.”

Yet now, as they sit on their cream linen sofa, the magic is coming to an end.

Because of health problems, Li and Mary are retiring as Artistic Director and Principal Repetiteur of the Queensland Ballet at the end of this year.

li cunxin and wife mary

After giving so much to so many people for so long, “the important thing,” Li says, “is spending time with each other, to look after each other and to obviously look after our health. You just don’t know what is around the corner.”

At their feet and guarding the house is the little white dog, Nala, who was promised to their youngest daughter, Bridie, if she stayed for a year when they moved to Brisbane.

Now she is a ballet dog, the mascot of the Queensland Ballet.

“Everyone loves her,” Li says.

Since he was chosen at the age of 11 to join Madame Mao’s Performing Arts University in Beijing, Li’s life has been about the pursuit of perfection, the transcendent physical expression of music.

In those seven gruelling years of “harsh training”, he learned discipline, resilience and determination.

He would need all of this when he defected to the west after becoming one of the two first cultural exchange students ever to be sent to the US under communist rule.

When he was locked up for 21 hours in the Chinese Consulate, Li heard the guards saying they were going to kill him.

“Really it was a miracle that I walked out as a free man,” he says now. “I really thought I was going to be dead. So just look at my life now.”

He later learned that US President George Bush Sr’s wife, Barbara Bush – who was on the board of the Houston Ballet – had intervened to save him.

Often travelling the globe, Li would go on to dance for presidents, prime ministers and royalty.

“A peasant boy. What are the odds of that?”

Li and Mary’s love affair would be played out on the classical stages of the world.

Mary McKendry had grown up in a large family in Rockhampton.

At the age of 16, she had been accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London.

The work was “relentless, physically punishing”. They danced 12- and 15-hour days.

“Luckily I was a big, strong Queensland girl.”

She would tour the world with the English National Ballet before joining the Houston Ballet as a principal dancer.

Long before they were partnered on stage, Li and Mary had admired each other from a distance.

“She was a wonderful dancer, a wonderful artist,” Li says. “It was my secret desire to dance with her.”

They were married in Houston in 1987. “In each other we found our soulmate,” Li says.

Their first child, Sophie, was born in Houston in 1988. Thomas was born in 1992 and Bridie in 1997.

“I had a beautiful husband, a beautiful baby, career,” Mary has said of when Sophie was born. “I thought I had more than I ever wanted.”

Sophie was born into a world filled with the music of the great composers, but when she was 17 months old, it became clear that she’d heard none of this; her own world was quiet.

At a park one day, she was given a red balloon. It popped.

li cunxin and wife mary

“You have no idea how loud that pop sound was,” Li recalls. But Sophie had no reaction. Li’s “heart just dropped”. Sophie was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf.

At the height of her international career, Mary gave it all up to teach her daughter to speak.

“We kept wishing there was a Mary Poppins who could teach Sophie language skills. But very quickly I realised that I had to be Mary Poppins and mother and speech therapist all in one. And so I became Sophie’s interpreter.”

After 16 years with the Houston Ballet, in 1995 the family came back to Australia where Li was a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet.

“And then I finished my dancing career and went into stockbroking, which was very successful. I had a wonderful time. I really enjoyed it.”

Until the call came from Queensland. Back then, the Queensland Ballet was “a very small company in a smallish city”.

Li was reluctant to join them – his family was happily settled in Melbourne – but Mary talked him into it. “She said, wouldn’t it be wonderful to give something back to the profession that has given us so much?”

Li began to see “the challenge and also the possibilities of a world-class ballet company. That was my vision. I thought, if you only get a chance to do this once, you might as well do it as grand and as glorious as possible.”

He was audacious. He drove the company to invest in staff, an auditorium, and new centres for teaching.

The Queensland Ballet is now regarded as one of the world’s most exciting companies.

“When I first came, our total turnover was about $5.8 million and right now it is $28 million,” Li says. “We had less than 50 staff when we first got here; now we have more than 200. Dancers, choreographers, teachers from all around the world want to come and work with us.”

Until last year, Li had “never even had a Panadol” and Mary had “never had a sick day in my life – I never go to the doctor, I barely had a doctor,” she says. They had been elite athletes for decades.

“I have always had such fabulous body control, muscle control,” says Li, “and suddenly going up and down stairs, I was wobbling.”

li cunxin, wife mary and daughter sophie

Mary’s “year of cancer” began last August, 10 months after the publication of her own book, Mary’s Last Dance.

She went to the doctor for a regular check-up. There had been no symptoms.

“It was just discovered by accident,” she says. “My doctor found a lump and sent me off to a gynaecologist. A tumour was removed – it was so tiny you wouldn’t even know it was there. And then they discovered the cancer in the tumour.”

Mary would have four operations and three sets of radiation. “It was a very aggressive cancer. I think 100 women a year get it,” she explains.

“I had masses of radiation because it did move very fast. If I hadn’t, it would have grown and I would have been on my way out.”

Mary encourages women to have check-ups. “They are insidious because you don’t know they are there,” she says.

“Unlike breast and prostate cancer, no one ever talks about ovarian or uterine or gynaecological cancers.”

After the first surgery, Mary kept dancing in the Queensland Ballet’s blockbuster production of Manon.

“I didn’t want to let anyone down and I didn’t want to be home alone with my cancer. Li was in the studio, so I’d much prefer to be closer to him.”

But doctors kept finding “another one” so there would be another surgery. “Finally, now I’m clear,” she says.

When he was 47, Li had been found to have cardiomyopathy, which in his case manifested as a thickening of the heart muscle between two blood vessels.

Five years later, he had a defibrillator installed. Even so, last November, he started to experience atrial fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia in which the heart beats irregularly and fast.

“Because of the cardiomyopathy,” Mary explains, “it slows one compartment down and in the other it goes fast. So it can be quite dangerous. It could cause a stroke.”

They were on holiday on Hayman Island when Li became seriously ill. He was helicoptered to the mainland and then airlifted to Townsville hospital.

“I was hysterical,” says Mary.

Li was found to have a litre of fluid around his heart. He would be rushed to hospital by ambulance 11 more times.

“This was crazy stuff,” says Li.

“I fainted in the garden because of my medication. My heartbeat dropped so low, and then it would kick start again because of the defibrillator, and I just suddenly woke up and looked at the sky wondering what I was doing there.”

In January, he had a heart operation to make a pathway to clear the fluid from around his heart.

“I wouldn’t say I am totally recovered,” he says. “I don’t know if I ever will be, but I am certainly much, much better. I am keeping myself out of the emergency rooms now.”

As a child, Sophie had struggled. “I was a tiger mother,” Mary says, “so that she could have the same opportunities as everyone else. I wanted her to be independent and I believed language was independence. Then, you had to choose between sign language and speaking. Now I’d do both.”

Aged four, Sophie got her first cochlear implant. For Sophie, music was “fuzzy”. School was
exhausting.

After years of speech therapy training – “and Mum didn’t let me off” – at nine years old, she had the vocabulary of a three-year-old. But Sophie was bright and worked hard. When she graduated from high school, she was among the top 5 per cent in the state.

Even so, university was difficult, and for years, Sophie struggled with her identity. It wasn’t until she was 23 and began working at charity Hear For You – which mentors deaf teenagers – that Sophie found her tribe. She learned Auslan and was able to begin to navigate and accept life as a deaf person.

li cunxin and wife mary

“It is so effortless,” she says. She began to blossom, her social anxiety melted away at parties with deaf people. Finally she got the jokes.

But it led to a massive falling out with her mother, who felt she was losing Sophie to the deaf community.

After a six-month estrangement from her shocked and devastated parents, she sent an emotionally honest email, and the family started to learn Auslan. Now she lives two suburbs away from her parents.

Today, Sophie helps empower deaf people as the co-founder and CEO of SignHow, an online, accessible dictionary comprised of community-generated videos of signs from different sign languages around the world. Sophie has travelled the world on her own, and last year was a finalist in The Australian Women’s Weekly’s Women of the Future Awards.

“What’s beautiful,” Mary says, “is that, because of Sophie’s struggles, her experiences, she wants to help others.”

Next year, for the first time in their lives, Li and Mary will be “free to just do whatever we like,” says Li.

“You look back and it has all been a bit of a blur,” says Mary. “The kids have been through it with us, and they agree that it’s time to retire.”

“They’re happy for us,” adds Li. “They are like, really? Can you talk about something other than ballet?”

Li is determined to prove to them that yes, he can broaden his repertoire. He looks forward to he and Mary “having coffee with each other, having time to read. I would like to write more. We’ll have our weekends at the beach. We have never had these luxuries.”

For Li, every moment of his life still feels like a luxury, and for that he will always be grateful.

“Because that life I came from was so tough, so impossible,” he says. “So all my life I have a lot of gratitude for the opportunities that I have had, and for the life I live now.”

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