He has conquered the world of dance, now Li’s been granted keys to our city

He has given his all to Queensland Ballet this past eleven years and now the company’s outgoing artistic director Li Cunxin has been given the city’s highest honor., writes Phil Brown



Sep 11, 2023, updated Sep 11, 2023
Ballet superstar and the man behind the growth of Queensland Ballet, Li Cunxin has been bestowed with Brisbane's highest award. (Image Supplied QB)

Ballet superstar and the man behind the growth of Queensland Ballet, Li Cunxin has been bestowed with Brisbane's highest award. (Image Supplied QB)

He has the keys to our hearts and now Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin has the Keys to the City too. Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner is handing them over to him to recognize his outstanding contribution to Brisbane.

We’re not sure if it’s just figurative or if he really gets a key but we will find out next Monday when the honor is confirmed at a private ceremony with the Lord Mayor and Li’s close friends and family.

Frankly we think that should be followed by a ticker tape parade through the streets of Brisbane but Li, who was also awarded an Order of Australia in 2018, says he doesn’t want too much fuss because he has been doing what he loves – taking Queensland Ballet from an admired provincial company to a world-class one now recognized globally.

It was a stroke of genius to recruit Li to the post but it made a lot of sense for the Li family. (Li and Mary have three children – Sophie, Thomas and Bridie)

Mary is, after all, a Rockhampton girl and the couple had family connections in Brisbane.

So, after a stellar career as an international ballet superstar, often dancing alongside Mary (she was Mary McKendry in those early days together) Li and Mary chose a move to Queensland and some of their southern friends thought that was crazy.

Li had moved into stockbroking after finishing as a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet based in Melbourne and he was successful in the finance world too. He had also written his best-selling memoir Mao’s Last Dancer, the amazing story of his rise from poverty in rural China, his defection from his home country and his rise to international ballet stardom. The book was eventually made into a Hollywood film of the same name directed by none other than Bruce Beresford.

But Li yearned to get involved in ballet again and coming to Brisbane gave him that opportunity and he has given Queensland Ballet his all. So has Mary for that matter as ballet mistress and chief repetiteur.

A couple of months ago the couple dramatically announced that they would be both retire from the company later this year due to health problems.

Among his long list of national and international achievements, Li has been pivotal in the growth of the Queensland Ballet, doubling the ensemble, creating a world-class Academy at Kelvin Grove State College and a home for ballet and the arts at the Thomas Dixon Centre in West End.

Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner paid tribute to them and said he was “saddened to hear of Li’s retirement after 11 years at the helm of Queensland Ballet”.

He said Li had left an indelible mark on Brisbane’s arts scene.

“Li has extended the dignity, grace and elegance of ballet into every aspect of his life,” Cr Schrinner said.

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“On behalf of Brisbane, I feel it’s appropriate to acknowledge the talent, passion and vision that has enriched our creative scene and inspired generations of dancers.”

“For many years, we’ve enjoyed the great privilege of witnessing Li’s achievements come to life both on and off the stage. The Keys to the City are awarded to those who embody the ideals of Brisbane, and few people have had such a significant and enduring impact on Brisbane’s art scene. I can’t think of a more worthy recipient.”

Li Cunxin thanked the Lord Mayor for honouring him with the title of the 55th recipient of the Keys to the City.

“I’m incredibly proud to accept the city’s highest honour from Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner,” he said. “I have devoted so much of my life to Brisbane and Australia’s arts scene and it’s truly special to have this recognised with this incredible honour.

“I am truly grateful. It’s a job that brought me joy and fulfilment, and the last 11 years at Queensland Ballet represents one of the most rewarding chapters of my life. To have my life’s work acknowledged with the Keys to the City which my family and I love, it’s a wonderful gesture and one I will always cherish.”

Dating back to medieval times when cities were enclosed by walls, the symbolic gesture can be performed to recognise outstanding achievement in sport, community, or humanitarian work by a Brisbane resident at an international or national level.
Li Cunxin is now in pretty illustrious company. Previous recipients of the honor include Keith Payne VC, Dame Joan Sutherland, The Bee Gees, Major General Peter Cosgrove, Darren Lockyer and recently The Matildas.

And though he now has the keys to the city and is retiring soon Li isn’t done yet and will stay on to deliver the rest of the program for 2023 including the much-loved ballet Strictly Gershwin later this month which he agreed to bring back due to popular demand.

During their tenure we have seen both Li and Mary on stage in various character roles and he has been honored at City Hall before when the Museum of Brisbane hosted Mao’s Last Dancer: The Exhibition in 2018.

It’s hard to think of the company without him but the search is now underway for a successor.

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