Many people will be familiar with Li Cunxin’s amazing life story from his bestselling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, which was subsequently adapted to the big screen.

The latest chapter of Li Cunxin’s remarkable story is happening right here in West End. Li has left behind his successful stockbroking career in Melbourne and taken over as the Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet.

While he retired from dancing in 1999, Li says he always thought he would return to ballet eventually. “In the back of my mind I guess yes, I always thought it would be really wonderful for me to come back to help dance and dancers in a meaningful way. Even though, over the years since I finished my dancing career, I have been involved in the Australia Council for the Arts as a councillor, a board member of The Australian Ballet, and been involved in some fundraising with various ballet companies around the world, it was not really hands on … this is my opportunity to roll up the sleeves and get my hands wet.”

While he has involvement in all aspects of the company, Cunxin’s main focus as the Artistic Director is on the creative side of things, from the dancers, musicians and choreographers to production and costumes. His vision for the future is ambitious.

“I would like Queensland Ballet to become one of the top ballet companies in the world, both classical and contemporary – have incredibly high quality productions, very high dancing standard and to be seen as dynamic and innovative … I would like Queensland Ballet to become a powerhouse company in Asia Pacific and I think we can achieve that.”

Li is also responsible for putting together the program for each year. He says the reaction to the 2013 program has been “nothing short of phenomenal”. It features a mix of both classical and contemporary ballet. “I think certain years perhaps you will see maybe a bit more contemporary, but I suspect classical is always going to be at the forefront of this company’s programs,” he says, “not just because financially we might do well. I really think they are the most difficult ballets to do. The traditional ballets are the most technically challenging so really require a high standard of dance.”

Cunxin says that while some may view the choice to focus on classical ballets as conservative, he sees it as quite the opposite. “It’s actually very risky to undertake and embark on these big ballets with our small size company. We have to do a lot of innovative things to be able to get a quality show on the stage.”

The first big show of 2013 will be Cinderella at QPAC next month (April). Li says he expects he will be feeling a range of emotions as the curtain goes up on opening night. “There’s going to be obviously excitement, nervousness, a sense of uncertainty about how the audience will respond, but I think mostly it will be a sense of joy.”

Words by Leah Carri  |  Images by Christian Aas supplied by Queensland Ballet