WATCH THE VIDEO: Meet acclaimed ballet dancer Li Cunxin, profiled in an Immigration Museum exhibition that traces his journey from Mao’s China to Australia.
Li Cunxin’s journey to Australia via America is nothing short of extraordinary.
The author of the famed autobiographical Mao’s Last Dancer – published in 2003 and made into a feature film of the same name – has forged successful careers as a ballet dancer, stockbroker and dance director, despite a harrowing childhood.
Born in a remote peasant village in China’s Shandong Province, the sixth of seven sons, Li experienced extreme hunger every day and witnessed some villagers resorting to eating bark.
Then, at the age of 11, Communist Party officials visited his village and Li was selected to join the Beijing Dance Academy run by Mao Zedong’s wife. His audition was by no means easy: Li tore both hamstrings.
In Beijing, Li endured seven harsh years of training – practising from 5.30 am to 11.30 pm six days a week and strapping sandbags to his legs for strength work – and at 18, he was accepted on a cultural scholarship to study with the Houston Ballet in Texas.
Two years later, following personal intervention by president George Bush Senior, Li defected to the West after being held for 21 hours in the Chinese consulate in Houston, a time in which he feared for his life.
In 1987, he married Australian ballerina Mary McKendry and in 1995, they moved with their three children to Melbourne where Li danced for almost four years as a principal with The Australian Ballet.
Following a successful stint as a stockbroker where Li raised funds to help his brothers in China establish businesses, in 2012 Li was appointed artistic director of Queensland Ballet, a position he still holds.
Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition is on until 7 October at the Immigration Museum, 400 Flinders Street Melbourne.