Ballet maestro Li Cunxin offers pearls of wisdom as he takes his final bow

As the curtain closes on Li Cunxin’s extraordinary tenure at Queensland Ballet, he is feted with honours and delivers a speech to University of Queensland graduates that offers the kernels of wisdom that have sustained his formidable life, writes Phil Brown

Dec 12, 2023, updated Dec 12, 2023
Retiring Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin after receiving an honorary doctorate from The University of Queensland. Photo: David Kelly

Retiring Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin after receiving an honorary doctorate from The University of Queensland. Photo: David Kelly

It’s a huge and very emotional week for Queensland Ballet’s outgoing artistic director Li Cunxin.

So far he’s received an honorary doctorate from the University of Queensland and been feted at QPAC by a trio of tribute ballets called Love & Legacy: Celebrating Li Cunxin AO.

Then at the end of this week Li Cunxin’s career at Queensland Ballet finally comes to an end with the final performances of The Nutcracker, a ballet he made an institution in Brisbane.

There will be tears aplenty and gratitude and so many other emotions.

It’s poignant that ill health has forced his retirement and that Mary, his wife and Queensland Ballet stalwart, is also retiring due to health issues. We wish them both well and we’re sure we will see them in the audience next year.

Li Cunxin has given so much to the company and to the arts in Queensland. His speech to the assembled throng at UQ is worth revisiting because it contains precious kernels of the philosophy that has sustained him and made him the international superstar he is.

Here is Li Cunxin in his own words:

“It is incredibly humbling to receive this honour. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this accolade. I want to start by congratulating the graduates and offering my best wishes as you begin the next chapter of your lives.

“In doing so I reflect on my own graduation from the Beijing Dance Academy 44 years ago. After seven years of harsh and disciplined training, where our daily routine was from 5.30am to 9pm six days a week, I can still vividly remember both excitement and trepidation about the future ahead.

“I had no idea how my life would eventually turn out, but one thing I was certain of was that I would live by the sacred values my parents and teachers have taught me, and carrying the important lessons and discoveries with me, I hoped that they would serve me well as I travelled through the unknown future.

“Today I want to share some of them with you, the graduates, as you are about to embark on your own bright careers. If ballet has taught me one thing, it’s that resilience and working harder than everyone around you will yield positive results.

“When I was a young boy training at Beijing Dance Academy I used to stay back at night after everyone went to sleep and practice my turns by candlelight for hours. I’d get up before others in the morning to hop one-legged up and down on four levels of stairs with heavy sandbags strapped on my ankles.

“I had hoped that by working extra hard I would have the strength and skill-set to leap high, pirouetting better than others and that in return this would allow me to become a better dancer and be able to help my parents and six brothers survive.

“This work ethic is why I was widely regarded as one of the best dancers China had ever produced when I graduated and it’s why I was chosen as one of the first Chinese cultural exchange students to study in the US back in the 1970s.

“It’s the same work ethic that propelled me to become one of the best dancers in the world and a successful stockbroker. It’s also why I turned in about 620,000 words for the first draft of my autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer  – though in hindsight that was probably a bit too many – and, finally, became the artistic director of Queensland Ballet, transforming it to a world-class company.

“I often think that if I hadn’t learnt the importance of a strong work ethic when I was that young boy, my life would look very different to what it has become.

“My philosophy is to live your life with pride, honesty and dignity, no matter how hard life is. That was what my uneducated father taught his seven sons when we grew up in rural China. That life was in abject poverty at a time when millions of people died of starvation and disease. It was a time when people even ate tree bark to survive.

“So, strength and quality of character mattered in life then, and I believe it matters now and always will. Throughout my journey I often asked myself: What’s the very best version of myself that I could create?  And what does ultimate success look like?

“The one thing I hate most is mediocrity. I would never be able to forgive myself for wasting a short and precious life with a mediocre outcome. Would you? 

“Life is like an honest and dignified clock – it just keeps on ticking no matter what. Each second, each minute, each hour, each day that passes is one less second, one less minute, one less hour and one less day in your life.

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“I know many of you are at the sunrise stage of your lives, so what I’m about to say may not make much sense to you now, but I wish someone did tell me this when I was your age.

“If I give each of you a blank piece of paper and ask you to write down your grandest dreams and most ambitious aspirations over the next 40-60 years of your most productive life – and we then fast-forward your life’s clock and pretend for now that it’s your final day on this earth, and you are to reflect on the life you have lived, the success you have achieved and contributions you have made.

“What would your ultimate report card look like? Have you lived a life with joy, positivity, generosity, passion, ambition, courage and excellence?

“Have you seized opportunities that came your way and made the best out of them? Have you made a positive difference in the lives of others and left a meaningful mark on society?

“If you couldn’t answer these questions satisfactorily, or if you feel that you could have done better with your life’s opportunities, then it would be such a great shame as your life is virtually over.

“There is no turning back the clock, there is no second chance, life is not a dress rehearsal. It would be horrifying to think that you have squandered the opportunity to achieve great things in your life.

“On the other hand, if you’re the person who could have a final big smile on your face before you leave this earth, knowing that you have done all you can and you’re satisfied with your report card, then you would have lived a full and remarkable life with no regrets.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be that second person?

“This is what I have to say to you today: I hope you will live life with hunger in your belly, a thirst for knowledge, the greatest work ethic and dare yourself to achieve the impossible. Don’t be afraid to fail.

“Create the very best version of yourself, don’t conform to mediocrity, strive for excellence through passion, dedication and hard work.

“I hope you will aspire to live a happy, inspired and courageous life, a life that’s meaningful, honest, dignified, full of pride, making remarkable contributions to society.  I wish you all the very best. Thank you!”

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

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