Li Cunxin has waited for the right time to stage Swan Lake at the Queensland Ballet, to be prepared for a visit from his mentor and veteran choreographer Ben Stevenson.By Donna Lu.
Li Cunxin brings Ben Stevenson’s ‘Swan Lake’ to Queensland
Ben Stevenson is older than he’ll have you believe. “I’m 28,” he jokes when I meet him at the Queensland Ballet studios in Brisbane’s West End. It’s the first time his choreography of Swan Lake has been staged in Australia. “Maybe the last time, too,” he says, sounding his 81 years.
In a ballet career spanning more than six decades, Stevenson has been a dancer, choreographer and artistic director, most notably of the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2003. He was born and trained in England, dancing for the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet and the London Festival Ballet under the likes of Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
Beyond balletomane circles, Stevenson is best known for mentoring Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin, of Mao’s Last Dancer fame. Li’s rise from the child of illiterate Chinese peasants to international ballet star now has the sheen of legend.
In the late ’70s, under Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” policy, Stevenson travelled to Beijing as part of America’s first arts delegation to China, which included representatives from the Guggenheim, the New York Symphony and Jazzmobile. He became good friends with George Bush snr, who was then the American ambassador to China – his wife, Barbara, was on Stevenson’s board at the Houston Ballet. “When I went first to teach in China all those 40 years ago, I spent a lot of time with him. We went cycling together,” says Stevenson.
Stevenson visited the Beijing Dance Academy, where Li was a student, and later returned to teach a couple of masterclasses. “When I first went to China it changed my life,” he tells me. We’re sitting in Li’s office, on the ground floor of the Queensland Ballet’s Thomas Dixon Centre. Several copies of Li’s autobiography line the bookshelf. A “Keep Calm and Dance On” canvas hangs on the wall, along with a framed photograph of Li and Stevenson.
“I went every day and I watched classes,” Stevenson says. “I was incredibly moved by how poor people were.” The Cultural Revolution had only ended a few years prior; all the students at the academy were on full scholarships and, like Li, many were from underprivileged rural areas. Students had torn shirts and shabby mended shoes. There was ice on the windows of the studio. “I sat there in a coat and a scarf and all that, and the boys were in little shorts and shirts.”
Stevenson wears square wire-rimmed glasses and a dark jacket over a wide-collared shirt. His hands shake as he pours some tea, the pot clinking against the mug. For the past 13 years, he has served as the artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theatre. Fifty years across the Atlantic – first at the National Ballet in Washington, DC, the Chicago Ballet, and then in Houston – has curled the edges of his polished English accent.
Following his visit to China, he offered summer exchange scholarships to students from the Beijing Dance Academy. Li was one of two students selected. Stevenson recalls meeting him in the arrivals hall at San Francisco airport.
“I had these names held up … waiting for the two boys to come out, and of course it was Li and Zhang Wei-Qiang, whom I knew from the class. And they had suits like this” – he clenches his fists to hide his fingers in the cuffs of his jacket – “and they had $5 each.” The suits were borrowed from the Ministry of Culture, and later returned, along with ties and briefcases.
Things have changed inconceivably with China’s rapid development. “Now, for instance, I have two Chinese boys in the company in Texas. One arrived and his parents, they bought him a three-bedroom house and a BMW. Another one just came and [his parents] bought him a condominium and they gave him $40,000 for a car,” Stevenson tells me. “He said, ‘The car I want is $70,000’, so they gave him another $30,000.”
Li joins our conversation midway, after finishing the ballet company’s morning class. He is lithe and graceful, with ramrod posture and a noticeable turnout. He rolls up a blue yoga mat that I hadn’t noticed was on the ground. He was doing some stretches earlier, he says. Stevenson makes a joke about doing calisthenics himself.
We chat about Li’s first visit to Houston. He was initially suspicious of the capitalist West, says Stevenson. “Very, like, Chinese…”
“I love Mao, I’d die for Mao!” interjects Li, clasping his fist to his chest with mock idealism.
“What was amazing,” says Stevenson, was that “he had this dictionary and it would say things like, ‘Greed… this only happens in the West.’ He was Mao’s wife’s favourite student and he was very indoctrinated in China.”
“I was the head of the youth communist party at the [Beijing] academy,” Li tells me. His fervour was one of the reasons he was selected for the exchange: “to help me to establish that technical and artistic brilliance and then go back to China to serve Mao’s grand political revolution.”
Instead, on a second stint in Houston, at age 20 Li fell in love, and deciding to stay, married 18-year-old dancer Elizabeth Mackey. Unlike other high-profile dancers who fled to the West – Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova among them – Li says his intention wasn’t to defect. “I loved China – despite the poverty and the tough environment,” he says. He “naively thought” that the Chinese government would be happy for him to remain in America for a longer period of time. “I didn’t realise that it would become a very big political scandal as a result.” Li was detained at the Chinese consulate in Houston for 21 hours, and released following timely intervention from George Bush snr, who was by then vice-president.
There’s something about the discipline of ballet – the painfully difficult process of self-mastery – that dovetails well with accounts of overcoming adversity. The story of Misty Copeland, for example, arguably the best-known ballerina in the world currently, is enriched by success against the odds: a late entree into ballet at age 13, her mother’s financial instability, a string of difficult stepfathers. Copeland is the first female African-American principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 77-year history – a triumph that has helped to draw record crowds and that has been parlayed into brand endorsements and books.
Li, the sixth of seven sons, grew up near the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao. The city, with its incongruous German architecture, is best known for Tsingtao beer, but the region’s primary industry is agriculture. It’s sweet potato country, peanuts, too; low rows of green shrubbery line provincial villages. Li was born in the Laoshan district in 1961, into a compound with no running water. Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward had resulted in the starvation deaths of tens of millions, mostly peasants in the countryside. Li recalls once digging into an animal hole to find a treasure of harvested peanuts. “What a cruel world, I thought, where we had to compete with the rats for food,” he writes in his autobiography.
At age 11, Li was among a handful of students across China selected to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, where he stayed for seven years. The going was tough – 15-hour days, torn hamstrings from being stretched too hard – but he began to love ballet. At the academy, Li discovered Baryshnikov’s weightless jumps in a video of The Nutcracker. To strengthen his legs, Li hopped up and down stairs with sandbags attached to his ankles.
The Chinese approach to ballet was quite technical at that time, he tells me, the focus being on how many pirouettes you could do or how high you could jump. He didn’t realise it lacked artistry until dancing under Stevenson’s direction. “Ben’s approach is about music – dancing with such freedom within what the music tells you and what the character tells you to do,” he says. “Dance is not just about the steps.”
The world premiere of Swan Lake, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, was a notable flop. Tchaikovsky’s now-famous score was considered too symphonic and noisy for ballet, and the 1877 choreography was dismissed as unimaginative. That Swan Lake is now considered one of the greatest ballets owes much to a restaging two decades later by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Imperial Ballet Theatre in St Petersburg. Petipa and Ivanov’s choreography is now restaged the world over, including by Stevenson, who has adapted the moves and condensed the ballet from four acts to two.
“Choreography is exciting. It’s scary because you work just as hard on a flop as you do on a success,” says Stevenson. His version of Swan Lake premiered in 1985 at the Houston Ballet – to warm reviews – with Li dancing the principal role of Prince Siegfried.
“Swan Lake is really the epitome of classical ballet,” says Li. “Not just one person – not just the Swan Queen, Odette or Odile, not just the prince, and not just the [dancers of the] pas de trois or the mazurkas or the divertissements … but also virtually every one of the members of the cast have to pull their weight.”
Li has previously helped Stevenson stage this production for the Ballet de Santiago. “I didn’t realise just how much work is involved,” he says. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s easy, just a bunch of swans, you know, running around.’ But then when you put all the pieces together, it gives you such great appreciation.”
The dual role of the Swan Queen is notoriously demanding, popularised in recent years by Darren Aronofsky’s film, Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman. The film had its detractors in the ballet world, who were dismissive of its stereotypes – pushy dance mothers, obsessive perfectionism, eating disorders – but also found insider support. “I have played the dual roles and understand firsthand the intense physical drain and the nervous energy that gets stirred up in both body and mind while preparing for it,” wrote the New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan in The Daily Beast by way of a film review. “It requires a particular strength and confidence in one’s emotional core unlike anything else in classical ballet.”
In the Queensland Ballet’s production, principal ballerina Yanela Piñera is performing the Swan Queen role with Joel Woellner, and for two performances the Bolshoi Ballet’s Evgenia Obraztsova is appearing with company principal Victor Estévez.
Li has held off staging Swan Lake at the Queensland Ballet for several years. “There’s so much to ask for in this production and unless you really get the dancer with certain technical skills and also with certain artistry, they can’t portray those dances well, to do the ballet justice,” Li says.
“I know how beautiful Ben’s Swan Lake is, so I wanted the company to be as ready as possible.” Glancing at Stevenson, Li adds, “I think Ben is relatively pleased.”
“I am,” says Stevenson. “It’s amazing how much the company has improved over the years. Every time I come back it’s grown, taken a big leap.”
We make our way upstairs to Studio 4, where Mary Li – Li’s second wife – is leading rehearsals. Two dancers are rehearsing a lakeside scene in Act 1, in which Odette transforms from swan to human, and explains to Prince Siegfried that the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart has cast a spell on her. A group of the company’s student dancers watch from the studio corner, sitting cross-legged beside the grand piano.
As the piano music swells, Stevenson calls out pointers with urgency. He is animated in his arm movements, his body rocking with rhythm. The music stops. He makes both technical and artistic adjustments. Odette’s attitude relevés need to have more anguish worked into them. A particular arabesque isn’t daring enough, he says, her weight too far back.
They go again from her jeté – much better. Then it’s on to Prince Siegfried, whose expressions need variation, Stevenson says. He jumps off his chair. The piano starts again, and Stevenson is centre stage, marking the moves as he has done for more than 60 years.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Pas de deux". Subscribe here.