LI Cunxin arrived at Queensland Ballet as artistic director-designate on July 16, 2012. He took full control of the company’s reins this year and has made significant changes already with more in store. When I was in Brisbane to review QB’s Giselle, which closes this weekend, I took the opportunity to talk to Li about his goals and plans. At the June 21 opening performance, less than 24 hours before, Li had to tackle one of the most difficult issues any artistic director faces. His first cast Giselle, Meng Ningning, had injured her foot during the first act and at interval Li was told he urgently needed to go backstage. After an only slightly longer interval than advertised, Li made an announcement from the stage that Act II would be danced by Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
AS a director it’s your worst nightmare when they said at interval, Ningning is in tears, please come back. She says to me she can’t feel her foot. She doesn’t know if she can go on. I asked her to rate her pain out of 10. Eight or nine she says, tears pouring down her face. But she says she’ll go on if I want her to. I say, “No, no!”
I’m lucky as a director to have two alternative couples [Walsh and Lawrence; Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak, who was scheduled to make his Brisbane debut as Albrecht the next day]. Rachael was in the audience, and we had to stop her going into the intermission reception [Li laughs]. I did consider Alex and Clare because they were made up and warmed up [Idaszak had danced in the peasant pas de huit; Morehen played the role of Bathilde; Lawrence had appeared as the Duke of Courland], but I really felt that for Alex it was already an enormous ask for him to go on today [at the June 22 Saturday matinee]. Often you can destroy a young dancer’s confidence, destroy their careers by pushing them too far. In my heart, when I sat there and closed my eyes, [I asked], what is the right thing, what is the best experience you can give to the audience?
Alex is 20 [Li smiles like an indulgent father]. He has an innate noble quality. He’s a very natural partner and a very elegant dancer. Wonderful form. It’s always a big step for a director to give someone who is first year out of [the Australian Ballet School] and give them such an opportunity, but I was the beneficiary of such opportunities. When you have that kind of talent you have to give them opportunities when they arise. It wasn’t intended to be, because one of our top principals, Hao Bin, had a wrist surgery, he had a chipped bone. So I thought, well, you know, [for Idaszak] that’s the kind of opportunity you dream to have. The other thing is, it really sends a very clear message to all dancers that if you work hard, the opportunities will be there. It takes enormous faith and trust from a director to give opportunities like that, but I think it’s very important to do that.
My goals were, at the very beginning, I want to get the right team together. The team is key to realising the vision – the artistic team, the music, the production, the wardrobe, closely under my supervision. All these key people have to be right to allow me to reach the artistic goal. I think we’ve done very well to have the calibre of teachers and coaches to allow the dancers to reach their potential – to challenge them, to push them, to help them improve on a daily basis, and to have that innate understanding and knowledge [of classical ballet]. Classical ballets are the most difficult to do well. The most challenging. I really think we have that team.
Also we have to be able to – it’s not a one-year thing – we have to have a vibrant, talented and exciting group of dancers. I think we’re nearly there. I would never say we are there, because there’s continual improvement, continual fine-tuning.
There was a significant turnover in dancers after Li arrived.
IT was very much dependent on what I was going to find in the audition process. I wasn’t sure about what calibre of talent I was going to find. In particular there were ABS graduates of really good quality, good standard, so I felt it was an opportunity for QB. [This gave him a very junior company; about half the dancers are in their first professional job.]
It’s an enormous challenge. I felt there were two ways to go about adding experience. Obviously the knowledgeable and experienced artistic staff is one important element; the other was to balance it out with experienced dancers. So Matt Lawrence for us was a godsend addition [the former Australian Ballet principal dancer was subsequently a principal at Birmingham Royal Ballet, which he left to join QB]. Then we also have Huang [Junshuang] from the US [where he danced with Houston Ballet], He’s a phenomenal dancer. Absolutely phenomenal. His skill set is really way up there in the international standard. So we have him and Matt and also Hao Bin, three male dancers at the top, coupled with three female experienced dancers, Ningning, Rachel and Clare. So we’ve got three star couples to lead. The middle rank, the soloist rank, is what I want to be able to bring up.
Li recently promoted Lisa Edwards to soloist and she was first cast Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle.
SHE is fabulous. I couldn’t have asked any more from that girl, in every area. Leadership, commitment, the care for her dancing, anything you ask her. Clare had a hip injury so I had to rest her for a couple of days and I wanted her partner, Alex, to keep working, so I asked Lisa to step in. She knew everything. She knew every step. She’s thriving. She’s the happiest. A happy dancer is a good dancer.
If Ningning doesn’t come back [Edwards] would be a very logical person to give the opportunity [to dance Giselle]. [This indeed happened; Edwards danced two performances with Huang. Morehen was also given a performance with Huang.]
I really think as a dancer you want to do different things. You can’t be just typecast as the prince. That’s not my company. My company has to be versatile. Huang was Albrecht last night and Hilarion today. I think it’s fabulous. As they mature they take these kinds of experiences with them and it makes them better artists at the end. Matt Lawrence did [the non-dancing role of] the Duke last night. He was fabulous as the Duke. He did Ugly Sister in Cinderella [QB’s first major production this year]. It’s wonderful to have that humility and that willingness to give it a go rather than, ‘’I’m a star’’. I don’t want that kind of company.
Li’s fund-raising skills have been in early evidence.
MY goal was to be able to have as many performances to live music as possible. When we announced the  season we did not have the funding [for live music for Giselle]. I really struggled with myself. I thought, I cannot let the audience see this ballet with taped music. I cannot let my dancers dance this ballet with taped music. On tour, it’s a different story. It’s hard to take an orchestra [QB performed a pre-Brisbane regional Queensland tour]. But I felt it would take a lot of the magic away [from the main season] so I’m so pleased we found the generosity and the support for this. [Private money was raised so QB could engage St John’s Camerata to play for Giselle.]
I went to these two dear friends of ours from Melbourne, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, and they said, ‘’we will support you’’. They love the music, they love the ballet, but they really gave me a challenge: “You need to find Queensland-based support. You need to match what [we] give you. So Philip Bacon, who is a very generous soul, he came forward and said, ‘’I see your vision’’. He’s passionate about music. It’s a nice fit.
QB, it would appear, has attracted a lot of new money this year, although Li will not elaborate.
I WOULD like to keep that to ourselves for the time being. Let’s say it’s substantial. The government money is really static. But definitely our box office is hitting incredible strides. We’re adding 10 extra shows this year throughout the season, including the Dance Dialogues. But we are definitely on target to sell out all the main seasons. Even with the 10 extra shows. That’s absolutely unprecedented. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling for our dancers to perform to full houses, to sold-out houses, and for the audiences when they place that kind of faith and enthusiasm in you. But you have to give them quality. [The Giselle season was extended from nine to 12 performances and is sold out.]
A goal was to focus on quality sets and costumes. I really felt particularly for story ballets, and even for contemporary ballets, you’ve got to do it with taste and quality. So again we found these really generous donors to allow us to have a brand new Cinderella, Gerry and Valerie Ryan from Melbourne. Their reason was simple. They said, we didn’t make our money just in Victoria. We made our money nationwide. So this is something we’d like to give to Queensland. They wanted to help me with my vision too.
Another goal was on the business side, the admin side. From marketing to PR to development to education to finance. Every aspect of the company would really have to work together to share the same vision, to strive towards the same goal. Everybody has really risen to the challenge. It’s a paradigm shift in people’s minds. I saw people in development, reception, greeting [guests] on opening night with generosity. I was proud, not only did the dancers shine on stage but the whole organisation took pride in what they did.
Dancer numbers are, not surprisingly for a company of this size and ambition, a concern.
I WOULD like to have more. We have 27 now. We will have 28 by August, so we have one more dancer coming. I can’t talk about it now. Somebody who’s fantastic. We have about 20 pre-professional dancers. This year they are really fantastic. They are a good foundation to build upon. My aspiration from day one, I thought 35 dancers is our goal. That’s the ideal number for us. It will probably take us a few years to get there, but 35, plus around 20 pre-professionals, that gives us 55. Then we can do any size ballets.
At the moment 27 – we do need a few more. We don’t have much room for error. Injuries always happen with this many performances. We work our dancers really hard. [For this reason, at this stage QB does not announce casting ahead of performances. Its small numbers and the casting of dancers in multiple roles can mean, and allow, significant re-arrangements at short notice.]
A way to increase numbers is with guest artists. For the Giselle season the Australian Ballet principal artist Daniel Gaudiello was invited to dance two performances with Rachael Walsh.
I’M really gung-ho about artist exchanges. I think it’s very important. Daniel really wants to work with us. It’s a natural fit. He’s a graduate of QDSE [Queensland Dance School of Excellence] and the pre-professional program. He’s a Queenslander. This is a wonderful connection for him to still have. We can give him … [Li pauses]. He hasn’t danced Albrecht before. He’s very excited.
I’m very picky about who I have dancing with the company, so not just anybody can come in. I’m open about collaboration, but it has to be the right fit. We have three beautiful principal couples, so I want to give our dancers the opportunity first. But Daniel is quite unique in his relationship with Queensland Ballet. I think he and Rachael will be just magic. There’s already wonderful chemistry.
Next year Tamara Rojo, artistic director and prima ballerina of English National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta, will be guest artists when QB stages Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – but they will not dancing together.
YOU cannot sentence a smaller company to always do smaller ballets. It’s not fair. We’re going to do this in a very innovative way. I convinced Lady Deborah MacMillan that we are going to do a very high quality production. To have stars like Tamara and Carlos to appear with our own principal dancers, for them to agree to it, was very generous. But they see my vision. It [would be] easy for me to say, you two dance together, you know each other … My idea was always, I want them to dance with our stars. Because that experience will be with our dancers forever. That knowledge is going to carry them for the rest of their lives. To watch Tamara and Carlos dancing [together], it’s not the same.
There are also negotiations with ENB on other collaborations. Can he talk about the exact nature of the relationship?
I CAN’T! But I would like to say I’m so excited. Tamara and I have really built a wonderful rapport and relationship. We share a similar vision and we see it as so important for companies to collaborate. Artist exchanges, coach exchanges, production collaborations. Those are the areas. The reason I can’t tell you is that we still have ongoing discussions. We definitely have a partnership, but on what scale, exactly what will happen, to what extent, we are still in discussions. I would like to stress, ENB will not be the only one. We will be collaborating with other international companies as well. I would like to think we will have a few really closely aligned international partners in the future. It’s exciting. I truly believe in collaboration, in partnership. It will be of enormous mutual benefit.
Could I add another goal? Both [QB chief executive] Anna Marsden and I said on day one we really want to make QB’s image very appealing. I want the company to feel there is a whole refreshed approach, with sex appeal on stage and offstage. I want to be fashionable. I want to say we do quality, but interesting works. That aspiration has permeated to every aspect of the organisation, not just on stage. We are definitely hitting that goal too.
I’m very happy. I am truly proud of how our dancers have performed. To be totally honest, the company is very young. For us to do these full-length story-telling productions – it takes the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi and ABT [American Ballet Theatre] with 90 to 250 dancers to do these ballets, so for us it’s very ambitious. Our company has done them very well. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always more experience needed, [but] so there is at ABT, so there is at the Bolshoi. They will never say, that is perfect.
I’ve only taken over total charge since January. Before then I was doing a lot of planning and preparation work and assembling a new team. So it’s really only six months.
Does he ever think he has ambitions for the company that are too great?
Never. No, never.