Arts / A mentor, a dancer and a story still echoing

"The Nutcracker" dancers, from left, Lina Kim, Alec Roberts and Tamara Hanton. Photo by David Kelly

“The Nutcracker” dancers, from left, Lina Kim, Alec Roberts and Tamara Hanton. Photo by David Kelly

WHEN “The Nutcracker” sets foot in the Canberra Theatre later this month, we’ll be seeing the tip of the iceberg of a very special production for eminent British-American choreographer Ben Stevenson.

It was Stevenson, then director of the celebrated Houston Ballet, who was behind “Mao’s Last Dancer” Li Cunxin’s leap into the Western world and now Li is the incredibly successful artistic director of Queensland Ballet Company.

Since his appointment, Li has paid respect to his former guru by inviting him to Brisbane to choreograph both productions of “Cinderella” and “The Nutcracker”.

“It is very special to me,” he tells “CityNews” by phone from his studios at Texas Ballet Theater.

“It was during my first trip to China when I saw Li in a class of the Beijing Dance Academy and I was so impressed… [President] Nixon had just gone there and I was part of an early arts delegation.

Artistic director Li Cunxin, left, and eminent British-American choreographer Ben Stevenson at the Queensland Ballet's rehearsal for "The Nutcracker". Photo by Christian Tiger

Artistic director Li Cunxin, left, and eminent British-American choreographer Ben Stevenson at the Queensland Ballet’s rehearsal for “The Nutcracker”. Photo by Christian Tiger

“I thought it would be neat to get some students to summer school…   the school in Beijing seemed a bit shocked, but said they’d have to ask the government and that they would choose the dancers, not me.”

“I was so thrilled when Li arrived, he was a very special student.”

A long period of “wonderful” collaboration followed, during which Li defected and eventually became a principal dancer with the company.

It was with some sadness, then, that he learned that after moving to Australia and enjoying several years with the Australian Ballet, Li had left the profession to become a stockbroker.

“I always knew Li was smart,” Stevenson says. “When he came here he could only say ‘hello’ but he learned English in three months, then he went to night school, took accounting and became top of his class.”

And there were some vacation trips together when Stevenson discovered that Li could be a very astute gambler.

“I guess the stockbroking was like using the other side of his brain.”

But to Stevenson, a British dancing prodigy who remade the face of ballet in Texas, it was a relief when Li accepted the job as artistic director at Queensland Ballet.

“It must’ve been good for him, dance was always his passion,” he says.

This “Nutcracker” is one of many he has done over the years and he’s preparing yet another version for Christmas in Fort Worth, but for him a revival is never a case of museum ballet – that would be unprofessional.

“I came to Australia recently with my assistant Timothy O’Keeffe and worked on this production,” he says.

“Every time you do it, you have to get other ideas, you see dancers doing it and they give you those other ideas.”

A good example is in the Stahlbaum Christmas party scene, where daughter Clara receives a life-like “Nutcracker” as a gift.

“I try to make that part more of a family occasion than a big production number… it’s more amusing and also the dancers in it are children, too.”

In Canberra, the company is engaging young Canberra dancers to fill some of the roles.

It’s that time of the year when directors stage crowd-pleasers, so “Alice in Wonderland” is in the pipeline at home, to be followed by a couple of different works by choreographer Christopher Bruce.

Stevenson is canny but adventurous and the principle is clear to him – “if you do ‘Swan Lake’ that will sell tickets, so that can pay for work that’s really avant-garde.”

“The Nutcracker”, Canberra Theatre, November 23-27. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

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