Li Cunxin’s ‘Cinderella’ salute to his American mentor

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Queensland Ballet’s principal artist Laura Hidalgo in “Cinderella”. Photo: Justin Ridler

Arts editor HELEN MUSA previews the Queensland Ballet’s impending production of “Cinderella” under the watchful eye of its artistic director, the celebrated Li Cunxin.

“CINDERELLA” is romance personified – rags-to-riches, a fairy godmother, a dazzling ball gown, a handsome prince, a jewelled slipper, the mice and two very ugly stepsisters.

Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin, best-known to the world as the hero of the book and film “Mao’s Last Dancer”, believes it’s the first time this ballet has come to the nation’s capital and he couldn’t be more pleased, since it’s the version choreographed by Ben Stevenson, the British-American dance mentor who, in the 1970s, brought him to Houston where he was to become an international ballet star.

“Ben’s the one who discovered me in China, nurtured and mentored me and made me into the dancer that I became,” Li tells me by phone from Brisbane. 

“And now as the director of the Queensland Ballet, I still find inspiration in him as a director… I was very fortunate to have met a man who creates such strong interpretations.”

Describing Stevenson as “a very unconventional kind of man, a bit eccentric but also equally talented as both an artist and a teacher”, he praises the enchanting quality of his directing, supported in “Cinderella” by Thomas Boyd’s scenery and Tracy Grant Lord’s sumptuous costumes.

He has no hesitation in placing Stevenson alongside the greats such as Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko.

“Ben’s choreography is very magical, he is an incredibly musical choreographer so he is able to capture the nuance of the music beautifully,” he says.

Li completely rejects criticisms about Stevenson’s unusual choice of music for the ballet, saying that, just like Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, “it is just such beautiful music”.

“Of course there is a slightly darker side to the score,” he says with considerable sympathy for the composer. 

“Prokofiev had a bit of a cynical view – you can’t blame him, just think of his upbringing, living in pretty challenging times under the Soviet regime.”

Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin… best-known to the world as the hero of the book and film “Mao’s Last Dancer”. Photo: Georges Antoni

“CityNews” spoke to Stevenson in 2016 when he was here to direct “The Nutcracker”, which was seen in Canberra, and “Cinderella”, which has been in the repertoire of the Queensland Ballet since then, although it’s the first time we will see it.

Li has plenty to crow about. Since he’s taken over at the Queensland Ballet, he’s almost doubled the box office and received rave reviews, and it’s not all just about his well-known head for good business.

“It’s obvious that we should do classical work like ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, that’s fantastic,” he says.

“But I also wanted to introduce new work centred on the young, talented choreographers who bring new content and new approaches, so we have a whole program of new works called ‘Bespoke’.”

As well, sitting on the fence between classical and contemporary ballet is the company’s hit success, the adults-only production, “Dangerous Liaisons” by international choreographer Liam Scarlett, a co-production between Queensland Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater.

“It has all the intrigue, the betrayal, the love and the passion to make a pretty special ballet,” he says.

Maybe not quite as special as “Cinderella” though, of which Li says: “The story itself is timeless – what more could you want?”

“Cinderella”, Canberra Theatre, November 5-10. Book at





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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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