A rich and varied tribute: Li Cunxin’s Swan song … sans the swans

Li Cunxin is bowing out as artistic director of Queensland Ballet but not before locking in a bumper season for 2024, writes Phil Brown

Oct 24, 2023, updated Oct 24, 2023
Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon is just one of the spectacular productions the Queensland Ballet is performing next year. Image: David Kelly

Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon is just one of the spectacular productions the Queensland Ballet is performing next year. Image: David Kelly

He could just leave. Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin has battled health problems this past year and recently announced his retirement from Queensland Ballet effective the end of this year.

Our ballet year always ends with a production of Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker, a tradition which Li began when he came to Queensland Ballet (QB) just over a decade ago. When the final curtain comes down on The Nutcracker this year it will signal the end of an era and there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house.

But before he leaves Li has taken one big parting shot – a blockbuster season 2024, his gift to the company, the state and the world for that matter, because QB is now recognized globally.

Li launched the program for 2024 on the Kite Terrace at the Thomas Dixon Centre, the perfect spot really because it was named after his boyhood dreams and the kite flying he did when he was a lad growing up in poverty in rural China.

The story is told in his best-selling memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and in the Hollywood film of the same name and the rooftop Kite Terrace crowns another of his legacies, the revamped Thomas Dixon Centre which is now regarded by many as one of the world’s preeminent ballet company facilities. It cost more than $100 million so it would want to be good and it is … spectacular in fact.

The Thomas Dixon Centre’s boutique Talbot Theatre will be host to several productions next year including a series entitled Queensland Ballet at Home in February which will be the Brisbane pit stop before Queensland Ballet on Tour, a regional jaunt around Queensland revealing a treasure trove of ballet masterpieces including Matthew Lawrence’s Tchaikovsky Mash, among other works.

Cinderella – My First Ballet will play at the Talbot Theatre in June and the contemporary program Bespoke in July and August with the Queensland Ballet Academy Gala also in August.

But let’s cut to the chase – what’s the biggie for next year? Depends on your point of view but for my money it’s the ballet you will want to get really dressed up for.  Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon is a co-production with Hong Kong Ballet and Atlanta Ballet and it’s on in the Playhouse at QPAC in October 2024. Internationally acclaimed Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa delves into the French fashion designer’s complex life in this full-length narrative ballet steeped in realism and beauty.

This one, Li Cunxin says, is a stunner.

“It has already premiered in Hong Kong and I couldn’t go because I was sick,” Li says. “But assistant artistic director Greg Horsman went and said it was magnificent. It sold out in 48 hours and really caught people’s attention. Coco Chanel was such a fascinating character.”

And the success of the return season of Strictly Gershwin this year shows that stories from the Jazz Age resonate with audiences.

“Vibrant textures and characters are the focus of my last curated season,” Li says. “The company will explore an arrestingly beautiful Coppelia, then fashion icon Coco Chanel in Jazz Age Paris, whimsical fairy kings and queens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and so much more.”

Another treat, although we will have to wait a while for this one, (it’s on in December 2024 in the Lyric Theatre at QPAC) is the spectacular production of Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camelias by Shanghai Ballet in a season exclusive to Brisbane.

“It is bittersweet to introduce such an incredible 2024 season,” Li says. “But it was very exciting to do it. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes and Mary and I won’t be too far away. We will support where we can but at the same time, we will give the new artistic director some space.”

(The search is now on for his replacement and an appointment is expected by the end of the year)

Li’s mentor, the legendary choreographer Ben Stevenson, who helped him start his international career at the Houston Ballet decades ago, has had something to say about Li’s retirement.

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“He thinks I’m retiring too soon, “Li says, “He feels I have so much to give but I said – Ben, I’m not you.”

Besides, Li and wife Mary (both are in their 60s) who has served as ballet mistress and principal repetiteur at QB, have had health battles. The pair will retire together which seems fitting since they began their love affair by dancing together.

But even though they won’t be there next year (except in the audience) the Li Cunxin stamp is firmly on the program with flair. That includes the production about Coco Chanel and Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet which will be the big mainstage opening show in the Playhouse at QPAC in April. Coppelia will be on at the Playhouse too later in the year after touring.

The program is, as they say, a rich tapestry and a tribute to the man who has made QB one of the most exciting companies on the planet.

Queensland’s minister for the arts, Leeanne Enoch praised Li’s “unwavering commitment and vision”.

“Li’s last curated program with the company is a wonderful gift for audiences,” she says.

“Congratulations Li and Mary for sharing your inspiration, vision and passion for dance and for your artistic legacy that will be showcased during Queensland Ballet’s 2024 Season.”

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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