As a child growing up in rural China during the punishing years of the Cultural Revolution, Li Cunxin felt like a small frog stuck in a deep well.
The little frog, so the Chinese fable went, thought the well was the entire universe. Then, one day, another frog shouted down to him from above, telling him all about the wonders of the world beyond. Realising for the first time that he was confined, the little frog became desperate to escape. Yet, no matter how high he jumped, he remained stuck. ‘Accept fate,’ his father told him. ‘Learn to live with what is given.’
Born in 1961 at the tail end of the Great Famine, where up to 45 million people perished, Li was the sixth son of seven boys. For his parents, both illiterate peasants, ‘it was a daily struggle to make sure their children didn’t die of starvation,’ he says.
Yet Li refused to accept the fate for which he seemed destined: that, like his parents, and their parents before them, he was going to spend his life toiling in the fields.
Li’s story, described in his bestselling autobiography and Hollywood biopic, Mao’s Last Dancer, is now well known. Plucked from his rural school as an 11-year-old boy to train in Madam Mao’s Beijing ballet academy, Li infamously defected to the West where he became a star dancer at the Houston Ballet.
As the frog who got out of the well, his achievements are currently being celebrated at the Museum of Brisbane in his adopted hometown. Stuffed with documents, newspaper articles, photographs and videos, the exhibition titled Mao’s Last Dancer: A Portrait of Liu Cunxin spans from childhood to Li’s current position as artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.
‘It almost feels as though I was still dreaming,’ he says, as we walk through on a private tour. Wearing a grey polo shirt, and sporting a gold bracelet on one hand and an elegant silver watch on the other, he looks younger than his 57 years. It’s just as well, since Li recently returned to dance for a special one-off performance of The Nutcracker, his first time on stage in 18 years.
The performance elicited a standing ovation, yet Li remains humble.
‘My own reputation was at risk,’ he says. ‘Mao’s Last Dancer is a story read and loved by so many people around the world – 99 per cent of whom have never seen me dance. That’s why you can imagine the tickets sold out.’ He pauses and laughs, shaking his head. ‘I really am foolish to put myself in that position!’
In 1979 Li accepted a scholarship abroad in America, a land he had been brainwashed to believe was evil and backward. Two years later – drunk on the possibilities of freedom and in love with a young ballerina, whom he had recently married – he defected. For 21 hours he was held hostage in the Chinese consulate; his betrayal was viewed as treason.
‘It was life and death for me truly,’ he remembers. ‘It was a miracle that I should get out of there in one piece. Really they could have killed me.’
The drama of that night is recalled in the exhibition, with a now iconic front-page photograph of the young Li striding out of the consulate triumphant, his lawyer on one side, his bride Elizabeth on the other, clutching his hand.
That marriage didn’t last, largely, says Li, because of his own emotional turmoil. ‘I hated myself because I thought my defection would have caused irreversible damage to the prospects of my family,’ he recalls. ‘I lived with that guilt for many years.’
Unable to return to China, or even to phone home, Li was cut off from his family for six years. Finally his parents, still dressed in their Mao suits, were given permission by the Chinese state to visit the States. It was their first time on a plane.
‘I wanted to give them the world, I wanted to take them to experience [everything they had never seen]: the escalator, or a swimming pool,’ recalls Li.
The Museum of Brisbane features rare footage of Li’s parents, now deceased, which Li saw for the first time in the exhibition. He found the experience affecting. ‘If it wasn’t for everything that they did we wouldn’t have survived: we would have starved to death. If my father didn’t work that hard, if my mother didn’t have her strength, positivity, sense of humour…,’ he says, tailing off.
Li is now a father to three grown-up children of his own, with his second wife Mary McKendry, an Australian dancer he married in 1987.
Following his retirement from dance, Li became a successful stockbroker in Melbourne – providing the means for a material life he could have only dreamed of as a child.
‘My parents hid their one cent savings under the pillow. So, when I went to the West thinking there is this stock market where you can invest your savings and make more money – it was the most fascinating thing for me.’
Yet Li is uneasy about some aspects of the Australian upbringing.
‘In China there is a saying: “Sweet medicine is not necessarily good for you, but bitter medicine is the best”,’ he says. ‘In Western society we try so hard to provide the comfortable lifestyle for children that we almost don’t want our children to fall.’
‘Before they even fall we want to hold their hand, we want to rescue them. Therefore it’s never that challenging for the young generation. The question, then, is how do they learn? How do they become resilient if the situation is all too easy?’
Discipline, integrity and grit are all skills that helped Li become one of the best dancers of his generation. But if there is anything he teaches his children, it is that freedom is not guaranteed.
‘That’s one of the reasons I was willing to sacrifice my life. Once I had tasted that freedom in America, I couldn’t possibly live a life without freedom anymore,’ he says. He tells his kids, ‘You have it, so you have to really do something great with it.’
For all Li’s success, he always remembers his roots.
In the museum there is an old video of Li performing with his wife Mary as newlyweds. The pair are not under bright lights or on a stage but are in a dusty back street of the poverty-stricken village where he grew up. Though the black and white image is grainy, there is a charm to the lifts and turns, and a certain simplicity: they are young, supple, in love. And they are dancing barefoot.
‘Mao’s Last Dancer the exhibition: a portrait of Li Cunxin’ is showing at the Museum of Brisbane until April 29