Li Cunxin to retire

20 June 2023

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet for the past 11 years, today announced that, due to ill health, he will retire at the end of the 2023 season. At the same time, his wife Mary Li, also with health concerns, will retire from her role as ballet mistress and principal repetiteur with the company.

Li’s contribution to the growth of Queensland Ballet has been quite exceptional. His input has included a doubling of the number of dancers in the company, which now stands at 48 artists; the development of a young artists’ scheme with the Jette Parker Young Artists Program; the growth of an Academy situated at Kelvin Grove State College; the development of the Thomas Dixon Centre as home to Queensland Ballet with the inclusion of a very accessible small theatre; the expansion of company activities to the Gold Coast; and the growth of philanthropy, touring and community activities.

His choice of repertoire has been of exceptional significance too. I have admired in particular his triple bill programs, which always give audiences a varied understanding of the range of styles and subjects that ballet can encompass. Li’s Choice in 2022 was outstanding and I described it as ‘an absolute cracker of a triple bill [showing] Li as a great director’. He has encouraged the work of Australian. choreographers, both established and emerging, and has also staged works from a range of overseas-based choreographers whose productions have not often (if ever in some cases) been seen in Australia. It is hard to forget, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Liam Scarlett, which was created in conjunction with Royal New Zealand Ballet while that company was under the direction of Ethan Stiefel, and which will tour to Canberra in October.

Yanela Pinera as Titania, Queensland Ballet 2016
Yanela Piñera as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

But perhaps more than anything, Li (and his staff of teachers and coaches) has developed the performance standard of the company to a new level of excellence. His dancers perform with such a love of dance and such a desire to give to the audience. They show a strong and visible engagement with all aspects of a production and it is simply heartwarming to watch them.

Speaking of his retirement Li said:

I am tremendously proud of the company I see before me today. Queensland Ballet stands proudly on the world stage in performance, pathways and participation. I will never be far away but as I take this time and the organisation continues to thrive, I know I am leaving the company in a strong position. While I am very proud of the company’s growth, the major projects we have undertaken and the dreams we have fulfilled, I’m mostly proud of the fact that Queensland Ballet is completely set up for success. Our foundations are stronger than ever and I’m proud to be a part of that legacy.

Queensland Ballet will begin a search for a new director shortly.

Personal recollections
I have many fond memories of Li in various of his roles from performer to artistic director. In particular I am pleased that I had the opportunity to record an oral history interview with him for the National Library of Australia in 2019 (TRC 6989 currently needing written permission to access). Vivid in my mind too is LI’s astonishing leap onto the stage in the opening moments of Jiří Kylián’s Sinfonietta with the Australian Ballet in 1997. ‘A soaring entrance,’ I wrote in Dance Australia, followed by the words ‘enthralling jumps and superbly controlled arms’. But perhaps my strongest recollection goes back to c. 1996 when Maina Gielgud was artistic director of the Australian Ballet and was extraordinarily generous in allowing me to watch company classes. I recall on several occasions Li would stay in the studio after class was officially over and practise manège after manège of spectacular grand allegro steps. He would always finish right in front of me, kneeling, and with a flourish of the arms to second position—always a showman.

Li will never retire from being a dancer at heart and I wish him and his wife every happiness in the future.

For more about LI on this website follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 June 2023

Featured image: Portrait of Li Cunxin following his award of Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2020. Photo: © David Kelly

4 thoughts on “Li Cunxin to retire

  1. Sad to read this news Michelle. Li Cunxin has had a remarkable influence on the art of ballet in Australia. It is a shame that ill-health has forced both his, and his wife’s retirement. They will be a great loss to The Queensland Ballet.

    I sincerely trust their decision to retire at this stage will lead to great health outcomes, and have no doubt that their achievements will continue to inspire generations of dancers.

  2. I was quite taken aback with the news, Bill, and what you say about Li’s influence is absolutely right. Fingers crossed for the future.

  3. There will be many New Zealanders who share the sentiments that both you, Michelle, and Bill Stephens have written about the news of Li Cunxin and Mary Li retiring from QB.
    It was such a glorious season of hope when Li Cunxin and Ethan Stiefel collaborated on the joint commission of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and I was certainly not alone in hoping that would presage a series of choreographic collaborations between QB and RNZB. That alas did not develop…though a number of fine New Zealand dancers did join QB around that period.
    It is inspiring to follow how well directed this company has been. I quicken to your account of being invited to watch class, to see how dancers forge their art in the studio. To put in the time watching a company class has always seemed to me the least of effort that a dance writer can make, to follow the process as context for then reviewing the product, the production.
    Very best wishes to both Cunxin and Mary as they return to full health.

  4. I absolutely agree about what one can learn from watching class. I also did an oral history interview with Mary Li in 2017 (TRC 6898, also requires written permission to access) and was privileged to watch an onstage class and rehearsal as a result. Not only was it of interest to watch the dancers, it was a great experience to watch how the coaches and other staff were working during the rehearsal. It just confirmed the outstanding benefit the QB dancers were getting from the Li family and others.

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