Li will perform in The Nutcracker in Brisbane this year for his Queensland Ballet. (ABC News: Stefan Lowe)
“Mao’s Last Dancer” Li Cunxin is coming out of retirement to star in a special performance of The Nutcracker in Brisbane.
It has been 18 years since the now Queensland ballet artistic director has performed professionally, but in the ballet world apparently you never say never.
The world-famous dancer has been enticed to make the comeback for one night only on December 10 this year — to mark the end of the ballet season.
Cunxin and his now wife Mary McKendry dance in The Nutcracker in 1987 for the Houston Ballet. (Supplied: Archive of Li Cunxin)
The father of three now has just four months to get back in shape for his starring role as Drosselmeyer, the mysterious magician-like figure in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet.
The 56-year-old said his first “comeback” is making him a little nervous.
“I think I am more than nervous actually a bit petrified,” he said.
“I have a lot of work to do I need to get back in shape.
“There is some hard work ahead of me I think I will have to be a little bit more disciplined than I have been.
Cunxin and McKendry in the 1990 production of Sleeping Beauty for the Houston Ballet. (Supplied: Archive of Li Cunxin)
“Will be a bit of pain and agony to go through, but it will be a lot of fun.”
Li said the character of Drosselmeyer was the conduit to the story unfolding.
“To really to provide that magic element I will be that spark,” he said.
“So I will have to perform really well to make that magic spark brighter than ever.”
Cunxin has been Queensland Ballet’s artistic director since 2012. (Supplied: Christian Tiger)
The one-off performance will be a magical night for the Li as he will also be joined on stage by his wife and Queensland Ballet mistress Mary Li.
Formerly Mary McKendry, the couple have not performed on stage together since 1991 in Houston, also in The Nutcracker.
“So it was about 26 years. It will be wonderful to be together again,” he said.
“The Nutcracker is also special in my heart as it was the first ballet I performed in the West.
“I will also love sharing the stage with our world-class dancers in our company.
“To perform in front of them will be such a privilege.”
Born in China to a life of poverty, Li was the sixth of seven brothers.
But at age 11, he was selected to attend the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy run by communist leader Mao Zedong’s wife, Madame Mao.
At 18 he won a cultural scholarship to go to America where he became a soloist with the Houston Ballet.
Two years later, in 1981, he defected and began to grace the world’s stages to critical acclaim.
He met his Australian ballerina wife while dancing in London.
They married and moved to Australia in 1995, where Li joined the Australian Ballet as a principal dancer.
Upon retirement he worked in the world of finance as a stockbroker, but ballet was always in his heart.
The renowned dancer took over the reins of Queensland Ballet in July 2012.
Every season has been as sell out since, his artistic flair and ability to attract international stars making 2017 the group’s biggest grossing season yet.
There is certain to be a run on the box office for the comeback which is also to be staged as part of the Wish Upon a Star competition, which enables a young dancer to perform with the company.
This year’s winner will also get to dance with Li in that special performance.
In 2003, Li published his international best-selling autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, which has received numerous awards and was adapted as a feature film in 2009.
He was also Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2014.