I'm a writer, artist and keen photographer living in Brisbane.
You've read the book and watched the film; now you can see the exhibition of Mao's Last Dancer: Li Cunxin. This exclusive exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane will reveal never before seen interviews, performance footage and personal artefacts. The exhibition explores Li's inspirational tale from his poverty-stricken childhood in China and the chance that took him to Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. Then came his dramatic move to the USA and on to international fame. And now he is living and working in Brisbane. How lucky are we Brisbanites to have him here with us and to have the opportunity to visit this exhibition - only in Brisvegas.
Entrance to the Exhibition (image by May Cross)
This world-first exhibition brings a fresh perspective to Li's story by bringing together the stories of those who have supported him and/or danced alongside him. He is much loved worldwide and it's a story worth telling. When he was first approached by Museum of Brisbane staff he said, "Too much has been written already, with the book and the film. What else is there to say?" The answer was PLENTY as you will see with over 180 exhibits, collected over 12 months. As Curator Madeleine Johns explained, her biggest challenge was taking this exhibition beyond the book. She has certainly given audiences something new with which to engage.
Li Cunxin Opens the Exhibition (image by May Cross)
Li is the Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet and has had a dramatic influence on Queensland's arts scene. I feel privileged to have met him on several occasions and he is humble and generous. He has provided many personal artefacts, photos and memorabilia from his own personal collection - many never before seen outside his family. He said that he was thankful for the chance to share his journey with the general public. What a kind gentleman he is.
Li Cunxin with Swan Lake Dancers (image by May Cross)
When Li was asked what he liked most in the exhibition, he didn't hesitate and said it was the video footage of his parents speaking about what it was like to lose him when he was eleven. They acknowledged their sadness at his going away but knew that the great opportunity he had was a gift but it was his hard work and dedication that really got him through. This never-before-seen footage is even more poignant as Li Tingfang and Fang Reiqing (his father and mother) have since passed away. I was very moved by this eight-minute interview by Ian Darling. Don't miss it.
Li Cunxin and his Father on Screen (image by May Cross)
There are way too many highlights of the exhibition to go into here and I don't want to spoil the surprise when you discover them for yourself. However, my personal favourite is a pair of ballet shoes worn by Li. As a form of self-motivation, he wrote "fly" in Chinese characters on his shoes, evoking his ability to fly as a ballet dancer at the Beijing Dance Academy.
Li Cunxin Inked 'Fly' on his Ballet Shoes (Image by May Cross)
Not only did Li aspire to fly in his ballet, he loved flying kites from childhood with his father. Look up at the exhibition and you will see kites made by Li from bamboo, paper, silk thread and glue. The Museum of Brisbane is celebrating Li's life-long love of creating and flying kites with the Kite Wishes Project. This is a free project where the kids can create a kite, add a wish and send it flying.
Li Cunxin Loves Flying Kites (Image by May Cross)
Much has been said about Li's famous athleticism and you can see it in many of the photos and videos. I love the quote from Elizabeth Bigelow: He could pirouette 10-12 times and stop on a dime, suspended as if held by a string. Perfect, calm and uninterrupted silence. You could feel the audience holding their breath. He was undeniably gifted; but what you'll learn more about is his incredible hard work, determination and dedication to his art that led to his international fame.
Li Cunxin with Exhibits (Image by May Cross)
Li Cunxin with some of his Costumes (Image by May Cross)
The exhibition features costumes worn by Li when he was with the Australian Ballet and the Houston Ballet. These costumes are beautiful fashion items but also are genuine "worker" wear. Apparently the American costumes were very hard to track down as costumes are worn by many different dancers and entire productions were sold onto new companies. There is also an old Romeo costume of Li's from Houston Ballet which was a role he performed many times and danced with Mary McKendry (now his wife) as Juliet. Her matching Juliette costume is also on display, complete with necklace, and is a stunner.
Juliet Dress and Necklace worn by Mary McKendry (Image by May Cross)
As Reiki Master, Mikao Usui (1864-1926), said:"Someone who studies hard and works assiduously to improve body and mind for the sake of becoming a better person is called a person of great spirit."After visiting this exhibition, you will agree with me that Li Cunxin is a person of great spirit.
Editions of 'Mao's Last Dancer' (image by May Cross)
This is Museum of Brisbane's first ever ticked exhibition. When you see all the precious treasures on display you'll know why. It is sure to be an extremely popular exhibition and I urge you not to miss it. Further details can be obtained from MoB.