Li Cunxin

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This article is about the dancer. For the Tang Dynasty general, see Li Cunxin (Tang dynasty).
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Li.
Li Cunxin
Li Cunxin.jpg
Li Cunxin in 2010
Born 李存信 (Lǐ Cúnxìn)
(1961-01-26) 26 January 1961 (age 55)
Qingdao, Shandong, China
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Mackey (1981–87)[1]
Mary McKendry (1987–present)

Li Cunxin (born 26 January 1961) is a Chinese-Australian former ballet dancer and stockbroker. He is currently the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane, Australia.[2]

Early life[edit]

Li was one of 7 brothers, born into poverty in the Li Commune near the city of Qingdao in the Shandong province of the People's Republic of China. At the age of eleven, he was selected by Madame Mao's cultural advisors to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, where students endured 16-hour days of training, which he attended for seven years.

Li Cunxin was found by the Beijing Dance Academy at the age of ten during a blue audition. After that, he moved to the academy and did daily training there. The training in Beijing Dance was brutal, starting each morning at 5:30. Li performed well in the Politics class, [3] but did badly in Ballet. This changed when he met Teacher Xiao, who had a passion for Ballet. Teacher Xiao's passion influenced Li, and he became a very good dancer by the end of the seven years' training.[4]

Ben Stevenson taught two semesters at the Beijing Dance Academy, and he offered a full scholarship for Li to study at the Houston Ballet summer school. After his study at the summer school, Li had to choose whether to stay in America with his lover and his dream of dancing or to go back to his home country. He chose to chase his dream so he defected to the West, but he was cut off from his family for an entire seven years. After a performance in Washington DC with the Houston Ballet, Barbara Bush invited him to go to the White House and offered to help him communicate with his family. The Chinese cultural attaché invited Li to the Chinese Embassy after his Swan Lake performance. He was really anxious about visiting the Embassy but he was assured that Vice-President Bush had intervened on this matter. Li's parents finally obtained permission to go to America and had the chance to watch him perform for the first in their lives. When he was little, his parents did not have the money to travel to Beijing to watch his show. It was a dream for Li to dance in front of his parents.[4]

He was one of the first students from the Beijing Dance Academy to go to the United States with Zhang Weichang under financial support from the central government of the People's Republic of China.

International incident[edit]

In 1979, Li joined Ben Stevenson's Houston Ballet company as an exchange student. He began to question his allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, and began a relationship with an aspiring American dancer, Elizabeth Mackey. In 1981, they married so that Li could remain in the United States while avoiding deportation. Li wanted to be able to return to China to visit his family, but the Party detained him at the Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Houston. This caused a 21-hour international incident at the Consulate, which was surrounded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation while American and PRC diplomats debated the issue. Li was eventually allowed to stay, but his Chinese citizenship was revoked.[5]


Li moved to Melbourne in 1995, joining The Australian Ballet as a Principal Artist. Li retired from ballet in 1999 at the age of 38. In July 2012,[2] Li was named as Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet.[6] He was named Queensland National Finalist Australian of the Year 2014.

Personal life[edit]

Li Cunxin married the Australian dancer Mary McKendry in 1987.[7] They have three children: Sophie (1989) Thomas (1992) and Bridie (1997).[8]

He was named the 2009 Australian Father of the Year.[9]

Mao's Last Dancer[edit]

Cover of Mao's Last Dancer (Young Reader's Edition)

In 2003 Li published his autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer. It has received numerous accolades, including the Australian Book of the Year award. In 2008, the children's version of this book, Mao's Last Dancer: The Peasant Prince (illustrated by Anne Spudvilas), won the Australian Publishers Association's Book of the Year for Younger Children[10] and the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards Children's Book Award.[11]

Mao's Last Dancer was adapted into a 2009 feature film of the same name by director Bruce Beresford and writer Jan Sardi.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]