For Griffith University’s A Better Future For All series, in partnership with HOTA, Home of the Arts, Kerry O’Brien welcomed renowned dancers Li Cunxin AO and Mary Li.

A talented boy from rural poverty in China, Li Cunxin is catapulted to stardom when, at just 11, he is selected from millions to become a dancer. But then, at the height of his prominence, he makes the extraordinary decision to defect to the USA. On the other side of the world, Australia’s Mary McKendry is also destined for international ballet stardom. From a chance meeting in London a romance blossoms and Mary and Li Cunxin go from dance partners to life partners.

This conversation traversed each of their incredible careers, their success against the odds and Mary’s heart-breaking decision to sacrifice her career for the love of their child.

Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin AO is Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director.  Having led a long and diverse career as a dancer, Li brings his passion for ballet, devotion to artistic excellence and international reputation and networks to Queensland Ballet’s rich 60-year history.

At the age of eleven, Li was selected by Madame Mao’s cultural advisors to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1979 he joined Ben Stevenson’s Houston Ballet company as an exchange student and later went on to achieve the top rank of Principal in 1982. He moved to Melbourne in 1995 with his wife, dancer Mary McKendry, to join The Australian Ballet as a Principal Artist. Li retired from dancing in 1999, at the age of 38, but maintained his strong ties to the ballet community. Before taking on the role of Artistic Director at Queensland Ballet, Li worked in Melbourne as a senior manager at Bell Potter, one of the largest stockbroking firms in Australia. He is currently on the board of the Bionics Institute, and until his appointment as the Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet, he sat on the board of The Australian ballet, which he joined in 2005.

In 2003 Li published his international best-selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, which has received numerous awards. The book was adapted as a feature film in 2009.

Li received an Order of Australia (AO) in the Queens Birthday Honours List 2019 for his distinguished service to the performing arts, particularly to ballet, as a dancer and as an Artistic Director.

Mary Li

Mary Li (formerly Mary McKendry) started her dance training in Queensland at the age of eight. She successfully completed the RAD Solo Seal Award in Australia and continued her training at the Royal Ballet School in London.

Mary joined the London Festival Ballet (English National Ballet) in 1977 and was promoted through the ranks to Principal Dancer in 1981. In 1985, Mary joined Houston Ballet as a Principal Dancer.

During her performing career, Mary danced principal roles in all the major classical ballets, such as Swan LakeThe Sleeping BeautyGiselleRomeo and JulietThe NutcrackerCinderellaDon QuixoteOneginLes Sylphides and La Sylphide. She also danced leading roles in contemporary ballets and many new ballets were created on her. She has worked with legendary teachers, choreographers, artistic directors and artists, including Rudolf Nureyev, Glen Tetley, Christopher Bruce, Margot Fonteyn, Ben Stevenson and many others. Mary and her husband Li Cunxin have danced together all over the world.

Since retiring from dancing in 1992, Mary has been invited to teach and coach in many international ballet companies. She has been a teacher and coach at The Australian Ballet for the past 10 years, and joined Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Staff as Ballet Mistress in January 2013.