Author Mary Li

This highly anticipated book is a companion piece in a way to ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’, the extraordinary story of Li Cunxin currently Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet.

Now for Mary, his wife. It is a powerful and moving tale of a mother (and father’s ) love, of Mary sacrificing her career for her daughter and the various struggles the family has been through. It blends four or more worlds: those of ballet, finance, Western and Chinese and the hearing and deaf. How does the family – but especially Mary and daughter Sophie – manage? The importance of family is a major theme throughout the book.

The book is warm and engaging. Mary’s voice comes across with a definitely Aussie ‘accent’. It is divided into six parts and twenty chapters, with photographs in the middle.

Mary Li (nee McKendry) was raised in Rockhampton, affectionally known as Rocky,  in Queensland, the third of a large, boisterous family of eight children. Much is made of her supportive parents Neil George and Coralie.

The family moved to Brisbane in 1960. Li was first introduced to ballet by her teacher Valeria Hansen and it became her vocation. We follow her to primary and high school then at sixteen she was accepted into the Royal Ballet School, London. The culture shock and difficulties adjusting are at first very hard, but Li copes full of tenacity and resilience.

Li joined the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) in 1977 and was promoted through the ranks to principal dancer in 1981. She talks of the regional and international tours including Australia and America and the names of prominent people in the dance world are scattered through the pages.

In 1985, Li joined Houston Ballet as a principal dancer under Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. During her performing career, Li danced principal roles in all the major classical ballets, including ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Giselle’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Nutcracker’, as well as leading roles in contemporary ballets, some created especially for her.

Li has worked with legendary teachers, choreographers, artistic directors and artists, including Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Ben Stevenson. Li describes her and Cunxin’s on-stage partnership as being “electric”, unusual in ballet, and is lavish her praise of his dancing as she discovers more about his extraordinary background.

As well, Li mentions the “honour” of being privately coached by Fonteyn, then 70 and a good friend of Stevenson, for the role of Odette. Ballet mistress Betty Anderton of the then London Festival Ballet is also important. Mary married fellow principal dancer Li Cunxin in 1987, and they danced together all over the world.

Li fell pregnant after their marriage and with great joy their daughter Sophie is born in 1989 in Houston. Both doting parents are thrilled. At first both sets of grandparents come and help with baby Sophie. Li and Cunxin visit Australia to dance with the Australian Ballet in their gala, then Queensland for the Queensland Ballet celebrations and then back to Houston.

But a major life-changing event happens when Sophie is diagnosed at eighteen months old as profoundly deaf. They are told bluntly by a specialist that if you both want to continue your careers, then Sophie probably won’t learn to speak

Li decides to retire in order to look after Sophie. Li and Cunxin have to decide what is best for Sophie…Thirty years ago there was no internet with easily accessible information, no hearing tests available for newborns and the development of cochlear implants was only just beginning.

Li’s struggles and stressful journey and the intense family relationships are detailed with directness. As Li says ‘ The mother I thought I was and the daughter I thought I had were taken away from me. We now had to start building a new kind of relationship”…( I wear hearing aids myself so know some of the problems faced ).

We also follow Sophie and how she resiliently battles to find her voice, the many operations and medical visits, the difficulties of coping with school and university and how she copes dealing with both the hearing and deaf worlds.

Also of great importance is the arrival of their two other children, Bridie and Tom. Li discusses their move to Melbourne and Cunxin’s final years of performing with the Australian Ballet. Li relates Cunxin’s disappointment at not being chosen to be Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet and his hesitation as to whether to apply for the position of Artistic Director with the Queensland Ballet. The last chapter details the recent years with the Queensland Ballet where Mary is currently ballet mistress and principal repetiteur.

Sophie was apparently the catalyst behind this book, suggesting her mother keep going with the writing of her multi layered autobiography. It is a book full of love, hardship, dedication and hope.

One wonders now what the future will hold …

Mary’s Last Dance
by Mary Li
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Paperback RRP $34.99

Featured image: Li Cunxin and Mary Li dancing together