Li Cunxin remembers the moment people started taking Queensland Ballet seriously.
It was June 2014, and Lady Deborah MacMillan had granted the company permission to premiere in Australia her late choreographer husband Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic version of Romeo & Juliet. A gigantic production, it had largely been the domain of the blockbuster northern hemisphere ballet companies.
“[Lady Deborah MacMillan] entrusted us with this ballet and we did her proud,” Li says. “That really shattered the glass ceiling for us and people began to see us with a different eye.”
Li arrived at Queensland Ballet in February 2012, to much fanfare. He’d been made a global celebrity by his autobiography and its subsequent 2009 Hollywood adaptation, Mao’s Last Dancer. It was a superstar appointment for the Queensland arts sector.
But it wasn’t just showboating on the part of the government. Li was filled with ambition to make Queensland Ballet an Asia-Pacific powerhouse, and it wasn’t long before his knowledge, connections and industry were paying off. He leveraged his personal friendship with Lady MacMillan to secure the box office record-breaking Romeo & Juliet and took the company on its first international tour, performing La Sylphide at the London Coliseum in August of last year.
Little wonder Queensland Ballet staff talk about Li as being an “ideas machine”. “You have to be,” he says. “Without vision you can’t go anywhere, [and] you have to be able to communicate that vision.”
The vision is backed by the numbers. Audience figures have swollen, with most performances now selling out. Season ticket subscriptions have jumped from 1700 to 7300 since 2012. Both development and cash income grew tenfold between 2010 and 2014. In late December, the Ballet received a $5 million grant from the Ian Potter Foundation and a further $1.2 million annual commitment from the Queensland Government.
“[The extra funding] allows us to expand our ensemble and infrastructure … we want to increase the size of the company so tackling bigger ballets will no longer be an issue for us,” Li says. “Our vision is to be a global ballet company and a powerhouse in this region. International touring is part of that. But so is being a global standard training institution – a place where young talents can come, to help them realise their full potential as a dancer.”
Now, in 2016, comes Queensland Ballet’s next giant leap. Friday night sees the premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A co-production with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, this new interpretation has been delivered by acclaimed UK choreographer Liam Scarlett, perhaps the hottest property in international ballet right now.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself: ‘Are we really doing these kinds of ballets?’” Li says. “And Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a rental. It’s a co-owned production with the RNZB. It’s ours, and we can take it anywhere in the world because I know it’s going to be very successful.”
It’s just the start. Later in the year comes Strictly Gershwin, the English National Ballet’s propulsive, much-celebrated homage to the golden age of Broadway. That’s followed by Little Red Riding Hood, the Ballet’s first production designed specifically for children; Lest We Forget, a collection of three works reflecting on war; and Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker, which has quickly become a Christmastime tradition for the Ballet.
We asked Li to tell us a little more about each.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream April 1–16, 2016
“Every full-length ballet is a big one, but to have someone like Liam Scarlett work with your company is a major breakthrough. This is very different to the George Balanchine version of the ballet. Liam is really a young genius. The best companies in the world all want a piece of him. He loves our company, and I have no doubt he’ll be back to work with us again.”
Strictly Gershwin May 27–June 4, 2016
“This is just one of those iconic productions. It’s absolutely going to enthrall Australian audiences. Obviously Gershwin’s music has such allure and excitement associated with it. But then you combine that with beautiful ballet and beautiful singing. We’re going to have four singers and then forty live musicians onstage – it’s just a phenomenal undertaking.”
My First Ballet: Little Red Riding Hood June 21–28, 2016
“This is definitely overdue. We’ve had our education and community programs for young children, we’ve had toddler ballet classes, but not a theatre piece created for little ones. The Nutcracker and Peter Pan are fantastic, but they’re for the family. To do a real bona fide children’s ballet is a thrill, so we will continue to develop the series. Little Red Riding Hood is just the start. But we think it’s important to introduce ballet to as young an audience as possible.”
Lest We Forget July 29–August 6, 2016
“A mixed program with three different ballets run in conjunction with the centenary of the First World War, this is about paying respects to those who sacrificed their lives in ensuring our peace and prosperity. We have two brand new creations for us: one from Ma Cong, who is one of the most exciting emerging choreographers in the world today; and the second by Natalie Weir, from Queensland. The third ballet is by Paul Taylor, the legendary American choreographer, who created this incredible work to accompany The Andrews Sisters’ songs. It’s going to be incredible.”
The Nutcracker December 9–23, 2016
“This is an annual Christmas tradition – such a magical ballet. When I first shared the idea a lot of people said, ‘This won’t work.’ But we’ve had sell-out season after sell-out season and as of now, we’re already over 51 per cent sold and we haven’t even opened the season yet. Every year people are scrambling for Nutcracker tickets.”