Portrait

Sitting in on Queensland Ballet’s rehearsals with the company’s artistic director Li Cunxin. By Cass Moriarty.

Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin

The 12 graceful young men move together like a pod of mythical sea creatures, cresting, breaching, elegantly powering through the space as if it is water. Piqué. Arabesque. Sauté. The absolute control over their bodies. Their muscles coiled and taut. The confidence as they lift and hold, sway, then relax into each other with fluidity and apparent effortlessness. The subtle angle of a neck, the delicate shape of fingers, their arms curled overhead in movements unique to internationally acclaimed choreographer Jiří Kylián. Mesmerising.

And overseeing every move of every dancer, watching intently with a critical eye, is Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet. Our heads are bent together as, like a proud father, he whispers explanations of the moves and the meaning, as he interprets the poignancy of this all-male cast rehearsing the Soldier’s Mass in commemoration of the fallen of World War I.

Forward. Step back. Piqué and push. The dramatic music swells. I see strong young men, artists, pushing their bodies to achieve precision of movement and technique. I see soldiers, lonely in their fear and yet resolute and courageous together. Performers and soldiers both, guided by the stager, Ros Anderson from the Netherlands, as she recreates the choreographer’s vision and intent.

We are in Studio One of a converted warehouse, Queensland Ballet’s temporary home while the Thomas Dixon Centre undergoes a $40 million renovation to upgrade the 2000 square metres that was originally a shoe factory to a staggering 12,000-square-metre performing arts facility, a landmark of the Asia-Pacific region.

But this space is spare and unadorned: mirrored walls girt by smooth wooden barres. The susurration and squeak of ballet shoes as they glide across the floor, and underneath that, the haunting music, oboe and flute, masculine and sombre, gathering into a sweeping crescendo, the orchestra punctuated by the gentle rhythm of the stager as she guides the dancers through each step with a steady voice, half-sung, half-spoken: raise your right leg more; close in tighter; feel the beat. The careful explanation and demonstration.

Li whispers that the measured calm of rehearsal will progress to a dynamic performance as the stager pushes the dancers to reach their potential on stage.

The music stops. Silence.

“Not bad,” says the stager. “Not bad for the first time.” And the spell is broken. The room erupts into laughter and the quiet conversations of deep-throated young men asking questions in colloquial Aussie voices about particular lifts or turns, comments about the exact positioning of a hand or foot, the mechanics of technique. A ceasefire.

I am quietly stunned that this is their first rehearsal. “It looks to me like they’ve been practising for weeks,” I murmur. Li’s eyes sparkle with pride and a little mischief. This is his family. This is where his heart lives.

As we head towards his office, we pass the wardrobe room – a large, open-plan hive of activity where the costumes are created: a rack of pale blue diaphanous dresses; a row of foam heads; sewing machines, fabric and costume decorations. “Where the magic happens,” Li says, smiling. I ask him about the dichotomy of the simplicity of the studio versus the spectacle of the stage; of technique versus artistic maturity; of training and discipline versus the freedom of expression and all the colour and light of a finished performance.

“Yes, it seems opposite,” he says, “but somehow they go together. You need both to find that beautiful balance. I want absolutely disciplined dancers but I also want that spontaneity. Consistent and precise technique gives security and foundation so that you don’t falter on stage, even under enormous pressure, but that allows you to be free so that you can go beyond and push the boundaries.”

When he accepted the role of artistic director seven years ago, Li’s vision was to make Queensland Ballet a world-class company. “Audience demand has become broader and ballet must be versatile in the calibre of choreographers and the crucial [ability] of dancers to bring different styles to their skill set.”

Li is excited by the 2019 season, particularly Soldier’s Mass, which is appearing for the first time by an Australian company. It is part of a triple bill Masters Series with George Balanchine’s famous Serenade and the world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s The Shadows Behind Us. Later in the year, the company will stage Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic production of Romeo and Juliet, one of Li’s “favourite ballets … only the best companies in the world get permission to perform it, such as the Royal Ballet in London, American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi”.

Li marvels at the fact choreographers ask dancers to perform movements “they couldn’t do themselves, that only exist in their imagination, [then] the dancers inspire choreographers to try something even more than they imagined”.

While Queensland Ballet’s principals are the stars, Li praises the company’s consistently strong cast and says The Masters Series is testament to their talent, versatility and physical training. “Those three ballets are unique and beautiful in their own right,” he says, “but coming together [on the one program] is such a feast.”

And it is Li’s role to plan the menu and direct the banquet. Each performance “has to be seamless [and] become second nature”.

“We dream boldly on the artistic side,” says the man who, at age 11, was plucked from obscurity in rural China to train with Beijing Dance Academy. More than 40 years on, he is embraced as one of the world’s favourite ballet icons and is passionate about Queensland Ballet’s scholarship program. The company’s performance last year in the country of his birth was “very emotional. I was very proud. That’s where it all started for me, and to take my company back and perform at such a wonderful standard was incredible.”

But Li is most proud of the supportive culture of Queensland Ballet. “Our company works like a family, a very cohesive team. Even though this is a competitive industry, there is a sense of enjoyment, a certain camaraderie. They are good friends.” He pauses. “There is no fear.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Only the brave". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of Parting Words and The Promise Seed.