LI CUNXIN, MAO’S LAST DANCER: FROM PEKING TO ROMEO

Li Cunxin in Glen Tetley’s The Rite of Spring, photo Jim Caldwell

Interview conducted by Andrew Edmonson, Houston Ballet’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations

From 1979 to 1995, Li Cunxin was one of Houston Ballet’s most popular and beloved stars.  Discovered by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson in China in the late 1970s, Li developed into one of the Houston Ballet’s greatest male dancers, creating many leading roles in works by Ben Stevenson, Christopher Bruce, Gillian Lynne, and Ronald Hynd.

The story of Li’s dramatic defection from China was captured in his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer, and was later immortalized in the enormously popular independent film of the same name.  Today, after a detour into finance when he retired from dancing, Li has returned to the world of dance as artistic director of the Queensland Ballet in Australia.

In September 1987, Li Cunxin and Janie Parker lead the company into Wortham Theater Center, creating the title roles in Ben Stevenson’s landmark production of Romeo and Juliet.  In this interview, Li shares his memories of his magical partnership with Parker, the extraordinary response to Romeo and Juliet on opening night, and the ways in which moving into Wortham Theater Center helped to catapult him – and Houston Ballet – to a higher artistic level.

Li Cunxin and Janie Parker; photo by Jack Mitchell

The role of Romeo in Ben Stevenson’s production of Romeo and Juliet held a special place in your career.  Could you tell us briefly about its significance?   

To work with Ben on his creation of Romeo & Juliet and partner with Janie Parker as my Juliet was one of the highlights on my dancing career.

I could sense the pressure from Ben, as this production was going to open Wortham Theater Center. He started to choreograph the balcony pas de deux with Janie and me. He had tremendous creative energy and imagination, to the point that he had choreographed this particular section of pas de deux in one day.  Both Janie and I felt great. We had dinner with Ben that evening and he also seemed very pleased with what he had choreographed that day.

But he completely changed his mind and started to re-choreograph what we did the day after. I have to admit that what he did that first day was no doubt more musical and more beautiful.

Janie and I shared Ben’s excitement beyond description. We were like two children willing to explore and experiment anything to make Ben’s Romeo and Juliet characters alive and real. Janie was a wonderful partner. She has worked with Ben for many years and understood him so well. We had such chemistry, gained great understanding, trust and respect for each other.  At times we could almost finish each other’s sentence.  Working with Janie on Romeo and Juliet was one of most enjoyable moments of my career, and Romeo and Juliet was a pinnacle of our partnership.

Describe the process of working with Ben to create the role of Romeo.  Were there any special tips or pointers that he gave you that stuck with you? 

Ben was amazing and inspirational during the choreographic process. Some key words that provided me with inspiration and helped me to create Romeo: Romantic, passionate love, fresh, and real. Despair of lost love and disappearing hope.

Ben Stevenson coaches Li Cunxin in rehearsal

What are your strongest memories of performing as Romeo when the work premiered during the opening season of Wortham Theater Center in September 1987? 

The opening night of Romeo and Juliet was electric onstage and in the audience. When Juliet finally laid on top of my body and the curtain fell, there was an eerily dead silence. It seemed that time had stopped,  and the entire audience was in grief. And then, suddenly the audience erupted into thunderous applause, and bravos echoed throughout the new theater. When Janie and I stood up and we looked at each other in front of a cheering audience, we knew then that it was one of those special historical moments that we will forever treasure.

At the post performance reception, quite a few people told me that after the final curtain fell, so many people just sat in their seats, weeping, reflecting and savoring what they had just experienced that night.

It was a night to remember by so many in Houston.

What other special memories do you have of dancing Romeo? 

Yes, dancing Romeo in Beijing on Houston Ballet’s historic China tour in 1995, was truly emotional.  There I was, performing in front of my former teachers, classmates and people whom have taught and nurtured me over my 7 years at the Beijing Dance Academy, and in front of a TV audience of over 500 million people in China.

What added to this emotion was that it was my farewell tour with Ben, Janie and other wonderful people of the Houston Ballet-a company that I danced for nearly 16 years.

Li Cunxin in Ben Stevenson’s Peer Gynt

1987 was a milestone year for Houston Ballet, with the opening of Wortham Theater Center.  What was the psychological impact on the dancers of Houston Ballet moving into a state-of-the-art new home?

Even though I felt emotional leaving Jones Hall, I knew that it was an important turning point in Houston Ballet’s growth and maturity to move to Wortham Theater Center. There was an element of new challenge for the dancers to raise our dancing to a higher level.

For me personally, I felt excited and motivated every time when I stepped into the new theater. It certainly has elevated my dancing standard by performing on the stage of Wortham Theater Center.

What impact did the move to Wortham Theater Center have on you, your personal career and your development as an artist? 

I would attribute some of the highlights and most satisfying performing experiences at Wortham Theater Center.  Also I matured quite rapidly as an artist in that great theater environment.

What other memories and milestones do you carry from the first year of the opening of Wortham Theater Center?   

I performed as the Prince in the new staging of The Nutcracker that Ben Stevenson choreographed and Desmond Heeley designed for our first season in Wortham Theater Center in November 1987.  When the curtain rose in the second act of The Nutcracker and the audience drew a deep breath and started to applaud, we knew that Desmond Heeley’s lavish production has already captured Houston’s imagination.  I remember thinking that I better rise to a higher level of dancing to in order to live up to the audience’s  expectations. And I think that both I — and the company as a whole — did that on that opening might of The Nutcracker.

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