Museum of Brisbane

A curator’s insight into Mao’s Last Dancer the exhibition

“The best thing about my job is that I get to completely immerse myself in a different story for every exhibition we create. One day I’m researching about the history of dredging in the Brisbane River, and the next I’m learning about pas de deux and grand jetés, or Chinese history under the rule of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. The story of Li Cunxin was not new to me when we began this exhibition—I had read the book Mao’s Last Dancer many years ago—but the biggest challenge was deciding how to take this exhibition beyond the book, and give audiences something new to engage with.

The exhibition explores Li’s life as an artist, and all his experiences that make him the dancer and Artistic Director that he is today. We look at China in the 1960s to provide some context to Li’s childhood: the politics, the poverty, and the traditions. We look at Li’s training at the Beijing Dance Academy and how, though the rigorous and painful training regime, he found inspiration and hope in some trusted teachers and friends. We look at his first experiences of Western culture, his controversial decision to remain in the United States, and his sudden rise to international fame. Finally, we look at his move to Australia, and how he is now having a profound impact on ballet in Brisbane.

Working with Li has been a wonderful experience, and I am privileged to learn so much about his life. It is strange to think that this well-dressed, successful man grew up in poverty, eating dried yams everyday—I’ve tried some, they’re terrible! The tell-tale sign is his generosity, and, despite his success, he still makes those who work for him feel valued. His love and respect for his family is obvious, and I remember the way he handed over his treasured book about the Li family tree—with so much care and attention and a humble ‘please give it back’ (yes, Li, we’ll give it back).

I imagine it would be difficult to let a stranger rifle through your private photographs and treasured possessions. Li’s life has been public for a while now since the success of Mao’s Last Dancer the book and movie. But a museum exhibition is different, there’s more truth to it—you can’t embellish original objects, they tell it how it is. It is a shame that many of his possessions from China had been destroyed after his move to the United States, but I’m still surprised, and thankful, that he kept as much as he did.

While the awards are impressive, it is the smaller, seemingly insignificant objects that resonate most for me. A crumpled ballet program for Swan Lake in 1980, all in Chinese, tells the story of China opening its borders and allowing Western ballets to be performed for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. A piece of paper where Li had ticked ‘no’ to returning to Houston Ballet for the 1995 season tells the story of a huge decision for Li and his family, where he said goodbye to his mentors and friends who had given him so many opportunities, and moved halfway across the world. I work with objects a lot in my job, but it’s always exciting to find something that tells a fascinating story.

Li’s life includes all the makings of a good, rags-to-riches story: physical and emotional struggle, politics, freedom and love. This exhibition expands upon the story visitors may already be familiar with, and includes new voices—from family, colleagues, mentors and life-long friends. The exhibition has sophistication and depth, enhanced by the most beautiful design that incorporates translucency and raw materials. I hope visitors leave feeling inspired, motivated and ready to dance.”

Madeleine Johns
Assistant Curator

Images: Mao’s Last Dancer the exhibtion: A Portrait of Li Cunxin, courtesty of Jono Searle.