10 questions with Li Cunxin AO


Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director chats about beautiful Brisbane,
the labour of love of dumpling-making,
and turning 60 alongside Queensland Ballet’s 60th celebrations

10 questions with Li Cunxin AO

What’s an element of your job people wouldn’t know about?

One of the most-respected people in my life, my former ballet director Ben Stevenson, said something a long time ago when I was in my early 20s, and at the time I didn’t quite understand what he meant. He said people expected him to be not only the director, not only the dreamer or visionary, not only the leader, or there to inspire or motivate, but he also had to be the parent or father to the Company, to play that nurturing, mentoring role. I think I understand what he’s talking about now! (laughs)

Favourite QB ballet production?

It’s too hard for me to choose – there are so many favourites… The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Cinderella, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet, Derek Deane’s Strictly Gershwin, Greg Horsman’s Coppelia… there are too many, and that’s just some of the full-length ballets that are pretty spectacular. 

I also love Bespoke and our contemporary offerings. And not just Bespoke, but new works, because they’re original creations. It’s like a blank canvas and you can paint whatever you want, you can draw whatever you want, you can make shapes, you can tell stories, you can allow your imagination to go as far as you want it to.

Any passions outside ballet?

AFL is one – as soon as you move to Victoria you’ve got to belong to an AFL club, otherwise you can’t start conversations (laughs). Everywhere we went, sooner or later, the question would arise ‘which club do you belong to?’ And if you say you’ve got no club, you’re in trouble. But I also love tennis, and I’ve started to enjoy rugby league since I moved to Queensland – it’s a brilliant game, so physical, so skillful. Actually Mary (Li’s wife) recently said to me ‘I don’t think there’s one sport you don’t like’, which is so true! I love basketball, I love American football, swimming, cricket. I do love sports.

Dumpling-making is one of your skills: it’s so much hard work. What do you get out of it, and enjoy about it?

Making dumplings holds such a special place in my life. I grew up with dumplings, it’s closely associated with my mother, with love. Truly it’s a labour of love – if you don’t love someone, don’t make dumplings for them because it’s too much work! They are also special because you can’t have them every day. When I grew up, we would only have them on special occasions – Chinese New Year, New Year’s Eve, or for very special guests. 

When I came home from Beijing in the early years, my mother would make me a very small bowl of dumplings to welcome me home, that nobody else could touch, so it was those kinds of special occasions. And when I make them today for patrons, for donors, for friends, for family, I still remember my mother’s voice in my mind, her instructions, and her storytelling about dumplings. Also, dumplings are happy food – they make people happy.

Chinese New Year – do you celebrate it?

I do, but unfortunately it rarely falls on a weekend so there’s not much scope to celebrate. The Chinese New Year is a minimum three-day affair, but most times it’s a 15-day celebration so normally in China, people have at least two weeks’ holiday to celebrate – it’s enormous. Occasionally if it’s on a weekend I’ll sometimes visit my brother or brothers in Melbourne, or sometimes they’ll come to me if they’re in the country.

What did you think of Mary’s new book, Mary’s Last Dance?

Oh I loved it. I get quite emotional reading it, and I think she did a really good job. Ever since the publication of my book in 2003 readers have been bombarding my publisher, wanting to read Mary’s side of the story, but for all these years she has said no. A big part of Mary’s story is about the sacrifice of her career for our daughter Sophie, and the journey they went on with Sophie’s deafness, so she feels it’s their story together and she would only write it if Sophie wanted to share it. Sophie was the one who encouraged Mary to write it, and I’m very pleased she did because the response has been truly phenomenal!

Will you ever write another book?

Actually before I accepted this job at Queensland Ballet I was on the verge of writing my next book. It had to be put on hold as I realised what an enormous amount of work it would be taking the Company to the next level. So that project is still on hold…

You’ve travelled the world – what do you love about Brisbane?

There’s a lot. Obviously the weather is beautiful, and I love the space and the natural beauty with the water meandering through the city. I love the people – I find Queensland people are very hospitable, very sincere, very down to earth. We’re spoilt for beaches and mountains, and I think it’s still vastly underappreciated and relatively unexplored by many people – the natural beauty that Queensland has to offer. I also feel like Queensland is a state full of possibilities and potential, so I’m excited by that, and obviously Queensland Ballet is in that same exciting potential and possibility space.

Favourite Australian holiday destination?

I love Noosa, I love Coolangatta, Hamilton Island, Straddie, Port Douglas…there are so many. I also like Mornington Peninsula, the wineries down there, as well as in South Australia – so many fabulous destinations. I also like what Jude Turner has done with Spicers Retreats – they are pretty spectacular and each of her properties are very unique.

You celebrated your 60th birthday this year (serendipitously along with Queensland Ballet’s 60th anniversary celebrations) – how do you stay motivated?

For me it’s really – I think life’s too short. And I want to make every day of my life as full as possible, and I want to really live my life to make a positive difference. I guess if one doesn’t be careful, your life can disappear so quickly without a trace, without leaving any imprint in our society, and I’d like to be able to say, when my life is all said and done, that I didn’t waste it and I lived with enthusiasm, with positivity, with a sense of success and that I’ve made a difference in people’s lives or a difference to society as a whole.

So I think that’s what motivates me on a daily basis: not conforming to mediocrity. It’s easy to say well I’ve done it, I’ve done more than other people, I can stop now. But I just think life’s too short, and I’d like to make as much of a contribution as I possibly can in my lifetime.

By Cassandra Houghton

photo credit: Ali Cameron


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