Maggie Foyer talks to Queensland Ballet Artistic Director Li Cunxin about the company’s forthcoming visit to London.

Queensland Ballet Principal Dancer Yanela Pinera and Guest Artist Qi Huan in La Sylphide Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet Principal Dancer Yanela Pinera and Guest Artist Qi Huan in La Sylphide
Photo David Kelly

In August, Li Cunxin will have achieved another milestone in his exceptional career when he brings his Queensland Ballet to London, presenting seven performances of Peter Schaufuss’ production of Bournonville’s La Sylphide at the prestigious Coliseum theatre.

Born into an impoverished rural community in 1961 following the darkest days of Chairman Mao’s agrarian reform, Li’s extraordinary dance career has been immortalised in the book and the film, Mao’s last Dancer. His time at the Beijing Dance Academy was tough, “probably too tough, these days you can’t get away with it, but I will be forever grateful for the incredible training I had that set me up for my entire career.” He admits to being a workaholic and credits his dedication and work ethic as part of his Chinese upbringing, “I never take things for granted and I never miss an opportunity.” Add to this his twelve-year involvement in the financial world as a stockbroker and the impressive growth statistics coming from the Queensland Ballet start to make sense.

This is his third year as Artistic Director. “When I started we had 1,700 season ticket holders, this year we passed 7,300. The first year we scheduled 100 performances but we had to add 15 more because we sold out so quickly and this year we broke the 54-year box office sales record with Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet. It was unprecedented.”

In Brisbane, La Sylphide sold out nearly two months before we opened. “That was fantastic. The plan was always to premiere it in Australia and then take it to London.” Peter Schaufuss originally mounted his production on London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) in 1979. Schaufuss, then a dancer with the company, was a memorable James and his production won both the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards, establishing his reputation. His children, company member Tara and guest artist Luke Schaufuss will be seen in the leads at certain performances in London thus continuing the family connection with the ballet which started with Peter’s parents, Mona Vangsaae and Frank Schaufuss. Another historical link is that the two company ballet mistresses, Mary Li (formerly McKendry) and Janette Mulligan were dancers in the original Festival Ballet production.

On April 4, there was a historic reunion in Houston when Li Cunxin, Ben Stevenson (right) and immigration attorney Charles Foster (left) met at a showing at Mao’s Last Dancer to reminisce about the exciting events in 1981 that led to Li’s escape from China. That day, Ben Stevenson, former director of Houston Ballet and now director of Texas Ballet Theater was also celebrating his 79th birthday.

On April 4, there was a historic reunion in Houston when Li Cunxin, Ben Stevenson (right) and immigration attorney Charles Foster (left) met at a showing of Mao’s Last Dancer to reminisce about the exciting events in 1981 that led to Li’s escape from China. That day, Ben Stevenson, former director of Houston Ballet and now director of Texas Ballet Theater, was also celebrating his 79th birthday.
Photo Maggie Foyer

Conductor, Andrew Mogrelia, will lead the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and an added perk is that 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Herman Severin Løvenskjold. Talented, but unknown at the time, he was a surprise choice and delivered one of the best loved of all ballet scores. The production also features the intensely romantic sets and costumes of the late David Walker.

At Houston’s Dance Salad Festival earlier this year, the Queensland Company presented a programme of new choreographies. I asked Li if he had considered bringing something similar to London. “The sponsors always wanted a full week of La Sylphide and although there was the possibility of a second programme, we didn’t have the rehearsal time. We have just given nineteen sold-out performances of Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan. But I really wanted to bring a more contemporary programme, a style the company does very well.”

Li Cunxin married his dance partner, Mary McKendry, in 1995 and moved to Melbourne to finish his three final years as a dancer with the Australian Ballet. Before that he had spent sixteen years with Houston Ballet. “I was lucky to have danced many contemporary and neo-classical works: Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, Paul Taylor, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Bruce. Dance is so global, so versatile and the experience of different choreographers will make the dancers better artists. As director of the company I want the best possible ballets to give them as varied and versatile a repertoire as possible.”

“If you are going to call your company ‘classical’ you have to base your standards on the classical ballets. For me these are the most difficult to do well, technically and artistically. Then obviously the contemporary element, new works, are equally important. Each year I give young, upcoming, choreographers, the chance to make brand new works, to explore and to experiment.”

The thirty-six dancers of the Queensland Ballet, (twenty-eight plus eight young artists) are an international bunch. “The majority are Australians but we also have dancers from China, Japan and Cuba.”

Mary Li (centre) in La Sylphide Photo David Kelly

Mary Li (centre) as Madge in La Sylphide
Photo David Kelly

Qi Huan in La Sylphide Photo David Kelly

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide
Photo David Kelly

I asked what coming to London mean for him and his Company. “For me there are two important places to establish an international reputation: London and New York. They are tough places, the audiences are sophisticated and knowledgeable as they see so much. If you can gain their respect, you have reached a certain standard. Performing on big international stages is also important for the development of the dancers. It’s early days in my directorship and our company is relatively young and I want to gIve them that valuable experience.

“Our performances in Houston were also very beneficial for the dancers. Touring stretches them and it takes them out of their comfort zone. They learnt a lot from the other artists and they really had to rise to that extra level to achieve.’ Next week London audiences will have the opportunity to judge this for themselves when the production opens on the 4th August.”

Queensland Ballet perform La Sylphide at the London Coliseum August 4-8. For details click here.