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Raising the barre: How a ‘small reno’ became a ‘forever project’ for ballet maestro

Dancer Li Cunxin, who rose to fame as “Mao’s last dancer” in a biography and feature film, has realised a 10-year vision as the Queensland Ballet puts itself at the epicentre of the state’s cultural fortunes, writes Nance Haxton

May 22, 2023, updated May 22, 2023
Queensland Ballet Executive Director and Harvard graduate Dilshani Weerasinghe. Image Jakob Perrett

Queensland Ballet Executive Director and Harvard graduate Dilshani Weerasinghe. Image Jakob Perrett

Li Cunxin’s vision for Queensland Ballet’s newly renovated home to become a hub for the Brisbane Arts community is coming to fruition, less than a year after its official opening.

The Artistic Director is now starting his second decade at the helm, overseeing the Thomas Dixon Centre’s transformation which he envisioned when he first walked through the halls of the old shoe factory building soon after he started with the company.

Walking into the Queensland Ballet’s headquarters now you are struck by how beautifully the architectural vision is executed. From outside the building you can see ballet classes in progress in the light-filled glass walled corner studio of the Thomas Dixon Centre, adding gravitas to the eclectic West End.

Inside the building the secret workings of the costumiers have been revealed by more glass walls, showing their intricate work in progress, much like watching an esteemed chef at a high end restaurant. Walking inside it’s an open welcoming space, for all to gather.

Queensland Ballet Executive Director and Harvard graduate Dilshani Weerasinghe says these have all been deliberate parts of the design, and it’s been a privilege to help realise Li’s vision.

“It grew from a small reno to something a little bigger and then a little bigger,” Weerasinghe said.

“But our whole motivation was let’s make sure if we’re going to do this, that it’s going to be a forever project that’s going to be something that’ll house us and QB forever.

“We dreamt really big and we thought if we have to curtail it, we will. But fortunately we haven’t had to. So all the dreams are here. We’ve gone on a bit of a journey from being a ballet company to being a ballet company with a welcoming destination. And how do we look after all the people who want to be a part of that.

“That cultural hub piece is really important as Queensland’s Ballet Company, that we are inclusive and are welcoming as many people as possible, not just to our community programmes, but to everything else that QB and the building can offer.

“We talk about being guardians of Queensland’s Ballet Company, and we are taxpayer funded. We have funding by ticket buyers and now by venue hirers, and those who use the venue, people who buy coffee, donors and partners. And so giving back was really important to think about how to do that. And I always say ballet’s a gift. There’s so many ways we can look at how ballet enhances what we do in community. Like our Dance for Parkinsons, Dance for Brain Injury, Dance for Healthy Movement. They’re all based here.

“But the really important piece was ballet. Yes, it’s about performance, but we really wanted people to come and stay a while in our home. So you walk in, it feels like our home. You can sneak peek into the wardrobe, if you walk the catwalk, you can sneak peek into the studios without taking away the magic.

“People coming in, staying a while, we are learning how to activate so that people coming in feel very welcome. They don’t feel intimidated. They love standing next to a ballet dancer, buying a coffee at the same time. So this whole demystifying ballet is really about connecting more easily with more people without taking away some of that stage magic. And what does happen behind the scenes? There’s enough that’s still mysterious.”

The Bunker Bar is the last part of the renovation and is close to completion. It will eventually become an intimate venue for jazz and blues style gigs and smaller performances.

“The Bunker Bar underneath is the World War bunker, every single brick was taken away, refurbished and came back, including all the graffiti elements,” she said. “It’s going to be a very special space.”

Li’s imprint is all over the building, particularly the Kite Terrace which has all encompassing views of the Brisbane CBD. But it nearly did not come to be.

“We had finished all the design, done all the engineering, and we were signed off and everything was fine and costed,” she said.

“And then Li rings me quite late one night, and he says, I think there’s a view from the top of our building. And I remember putting the phone down thinking Li is never wrong. And this is going to be a very scary moment for our design team.

“And so of course then we re-engineered everything because suddenly that rooftop terrace now needed to be load bearing.

“But it is an absolute legacy. And it’s called the Kite Terrace because the idea came from Li. And in Li’s life story, his book, he spent many, many beautiful but rare hours with his dad building kites. And they would make kites out of scraps of paper, string material, and he would write wishes down, tie them to the kite string and send them off. So I said, Li, this has to be called the Kite Terrace because this was a dream. Yes – your dream.”

Li Cunxin inside the refurbished Queensland Ballet HQ, the Thomas Dixon Centre in West End. (Image, Supplied)

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The Thomas Dixon Centre’s new contemporary spaces provide a dynamic backdrop for the company’s elite dancers to explore, as well as holding onto the site’s heritage.

Queensland Ballet First Company Artist Rian Thompson has been with the company for more than a decade and has watched the transformation of the company and the Thomas Dixon Centre in that time.

He remembers feeling very emotional when the dancers finally returned to the Thomas Dixon Centre once renovations were complete.

“I walked in and just the sheer emotion I felt from, I think the nostalgia of getting to come back into this building because whilst we had this amazing facility down the road, it was a great temporary building,” Thompson said.

“But when I walked back in, I just straight away I remember saying to Dil, I just feel really home and peace. And just seeing the brick work again and the four studios where I’d grown up and being in those with the natural light and everything.

“Which as an artist I think was really important because at the end of the day, what my favourite part of the building is always going to be the studios for me because that’s where I spend, that’s where we spend our time, that’s where we spend perfecting our art form, creating, building relationships with people from overseas, people from locally musicians, everything.”

Originally hailing from Mackay, Thompson said he has loved seeing how the renovations combined with Li’s vision have reinvigorated the company.

“There felt there was a real sense of ownership to being back here in that creative sense. It felt like it was really like, oh, we we’re back home,” Thompson said.

“That’s a really important part of this space is the fact that we’re able to house other arts companies or organisations or anything that’s got a creative nature. It’s really cool to know that they’re all in sharing this space together.

“And I definitely think the community of being able to just lock eyes with us every now and again, it’s kind of this nice little thing. And there’s obviously people we recognise from coming to the shows and that we’ve spoken to at Stage Door and that’s really lovely.”

Ultimately Dilshani Weerasinghe says they are proud of keeping the original vision of Thomas Dixon, and have shown his family through to ensure that connection with the past and the future is renewed.

“We kept the name Thomas Dixon Centre – his legacy, which was always about building a work environment where the workers could live around,” she said.

“And so we thought there’s another reason we wanted to stay here, is we wanted to stay in the West End in the cultural precinct, but also a lot of our dancers, a lot of our staff live around here. I love driving in and seeing dancers or production crew walking to work.”

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