‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ in shock retirement: Doctors call a halt to Li’s brilliant career

Queensland’s world famous ballet dancer Li Cunxin has called time on his storied career. Just hours before announcing his shock retirement, Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li  and wife Mary sat down at home for an exclusive chat with InQueensland’s Phil Brown

Jun 20, 2023, updated Jun 21, 2023
Queensland Ballet's artistic director Li Cunxin has announced his shock retirement. (Li Cunxin - Photo Eduardo Vieira)

Queensland Ballet's artistic director Li Cunxin has announced his shock retirement. (Li Cunxin - Photo Eduardo Vieira)

The shock announcement of Li Cunxin’s retirement due to ill health is set to send shock waves through the arts world. Li, as he’s best known (it’s his surname but surnames in Chinese come first) is a global superstar and as Queensland Ballet’s artistic director for the past 11 years he has turned the state company into a world class outfit.

He’s loved and revered by the dancers who were told late Tuesday morning, prior to a press conference. Floods of tears were expected.

I had an exclusive interview already locked in for Monday to chat to Li and wife Mary, who has served alongside him as ballet mistress and principal repetiteur. I knew they had both been ill – Li, 62, with heart problems, Mary, 65, with cancer – but the news that their health problems meant retirement came as a shock.

Having reported on their progress at QB over a decade it has been astonishing to witness what they have achieved. The company’s latest production Trilogy, which is on at QPAC now, features a piece entitled My Brilliant Career, based on Miles Franklin’s classic novel.

As he sat on the couch in their spacious living room flanked by Anh Do’s brilliant portrait, painted for the ABC program, Li was a tad more subdued than usual but the sparkle in his eye was still evident as he leaned forward and said … “Can I suggest a headline for your story? Li’s Brilliant Career?”

Coming from someone else that might have seemed egotistical but not from Li somehow. His career is renowned the world over through his years as a dancer and through his bestselling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer which was made into a Hollywood film directed by Bruce Beresford. The book tells the story of his rise from poverty in rural China, his defection to the west while dancing with the Houston Ballet in the US, his life as an internationally renowned dancer and his love for wife Mary and family.

Li Cunxin during his time with the Houston Ballet (Image:

Mary Li, formerly Mary McKendry, performed alongside him for many years before she gave up dancing to focus on family life. The Lis have three children, Sophie, Thomas and Bridie. Sophie was born deaf and Mary told her own story (and Sophie’s) in her moving memoir Mary’s Last Dance.

The family is close and Li says he wants to concentrate on health and family although he won’t be stepping down immediately.

“We will stay until the end of the year,” Li says. “In an ideal world I would have loved to have seen out my contract which goes until 2025. But we don’t live in that ideal world. So, this is what has been imposed on us by our health. Now we will put our health and family first.

“It has been a wonderful and exciting journey over 11 years. It has flown by quickly but it has been so much fun. We just threw ourselves into it and we have loved every minute.

“I came back to work in April and thought I was going to be okay but energy wise and stamina wise it’s just not there. It’s a very punishing schedule.”

Li Cunxin dances with wife Mary Li. (Image: Queensland Ballet)

Mary Li says she hasn’t worked “since my last radiation”. She is still in the middle of her cancer battle, a struggle she faces with courage and dignity.

“Someone suggested that we might both be able to stay on and just work in the background,” Mary says. “But we couldn’t do that.”

She paid tribute to her husband.

“If you wanted a boss you’d want Li,” Mary says. “You’d be lucky to cross his path. I encouraged him to come here because I just knew it was the right thing. “

Mary Li is from Rockhampton originally and the Lis had relatives in Brisbane. Li had worked as a stockbroker in Melbourne for some years after leaving The Australian Ballet, but ballet was still in his blood and Mary urged him to go for the job in Brisbane heading QB.

His appointment gained worldwide attention due to his profile and his trajectory has been stellar.

“When I first came here the annual budget was below $5million,” Li says. “Now it’s $27 million. That kind of growth is unprecedented. We had less than 50 staff when I got here. Now we have more than 200.”

The company now has a world-class ensemble of 48 dancers and among other things has an Academy in its standalone dedicated home at Kelvin Grove State College and the newly refurbished Thomas Dixon Centre, home to Queensland Ballet and a cultural hub.

Li Cunxin teaches dancers at the Queensland Ballet’s magnificent new home in West End. (Image: QB).

Li Cunxin has also laid the foundations for the Roy and Nola Thompson Production Centre at Yatala.

Parochialism aside, QB is now regarded internationally as one of the world’s most exciting companies.

Lady Deborah MacMillan, widow of the latest great British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, has worked closely with QB on productions of her husband’s ballets Romeo and Juliet and Manon. These productions are closely guarded and for her to share them with QB is quite something.

“I will be calling Lady MacMillan,” Li says. “She will be very sad. She is out there telling the world that QB is the best ballet company in the world. For her to be advocating for us like that is amazing.”

Mary Li reflects on the drama of the past six months, dramas that began with Li being choppered from a family holiday on Hayman Island last November to the mainland and then airlifted to hospital in Townsville.

“We’ve probably called ambulances 11 times since then,” Mary says. “It has all been very dramatic. The kids have been through it with us and they agree that it’s time for us to retire.”

Chairman of the board at QB, Brett Clark says he wanted to “acknowledge and congratulate Li for his selfless, generous and visionary service to Queensland Ballet over the past 11 years.

“When I think about what Li Cunxin has achieved in life, for his family in China, for his family around the world, for ballet, for Queensland, for Queensland Ballet, it is nothing short of sensational,” Clark says. “Where words elude us, actions might save us. Over the next few months, we plan to celebrate Li and acknowledge his sensational contribution.”

Clark says a global search for his successor, Queensland Ballet’s sixth artistic director, will be underway shortly.

As word of Li’s retirement started to trickle out, tributes began pouring in overnight. Director of The Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare praised Li saying he has been “a powerfully positive advocate for ballet in Australia and a dynamic force for dance worldwide”.

Australian Film Director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin have been big fans since moving to Queensland.

“Li Cunxin’s impact on the creative landscape of Australia will be felt for years to come. His decade at the helm of Queensland Ballet exemplifies the world class arts and culture that has transformed our region into one of the most exciting places globally today.

“In our four years of living and making our own work in Queensland, it has been a privilege to count Li and Mary as creative compatriots and friends.”

Li says the past eleven years represented one of the most rewarding chapters of his life.

“This journey has enriched my life beyond measure and offered me so much fulfilment and joy,” he says. “From the moments of success to the periods of challenge and uncertainty that have dared me to dream fearlessly, it has been an incredible opportunity to each day make a difference to the arts in Queensland and the nation, and I’ll miss it all terribly.

“I want to thank all those who have believed in my vision over the past 11 years – our government stakeholders, our visionary donors, our corporate partners, our audiences throughout Queensland, Australia and the world, our students and all those who have participated in our community programs. Thank you for believing in my vision. I have been but a guardian of our ballet company these past 11 years. Keep believing in Queensland Ballet as our company moves forward into exciting times.”

But there is still work to do with Mary still keen to help deliver the return of the hit ballet Strictly Gershwin in September and Li’s swansong will be a production of his beloved The Nutcracker in December. In retirement they will still attend every show they can.

“We will be Queensland Ballet’s greatest cheerleaders,” Li Says.

Premier Annastacia Paluszczuk said few people had been as influential on Queensland’s art scene as Li.

“As Mao’s Last Dancer, he earned global recognition for his story and his talent.

“But as Artist Director of the Queensland Ballet, he took ‘Queensland’ to the world stage.

“Li has been an inspiration to generations of dancers, especially those in our State.

“Along with Mary, an accomplished and acclaimed ballerina, Li set an example for others to follow and blazed a trail from Brisbane to the world.

“Perhaps it is to Mary that we owe the most thanks: the girl from Rocky who brought Li to a new home and happiness in Queensland.”

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