Museum of Brisbane

Mao’s Last Dancer the exhibition: Bringing it together

Mao’s Last Dancer the exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin is a personal and creative biography celebrating the inspirational life and professional successes of Li Cunxin. A world-famous ballet dancer and author, Li is now Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet, a high-profile Brisbane identity who has significantly impacted on the city’s cultural landscape.

The exhibition aims to intimately recreate the powerful storytelling of Li’s autobiography by featuring personal objects and photographs, news clippings, costumes, performance footage and images. It also enriches the well-known narrative by introducing the perspectives of family, friends and colleagues with interviews, letters, stories and other insights, as well as illustrating the wider socio-political context with the integration of Mao Zedong regime objects and ephemera. The exhibition also explores Li’s influence on Brisbane by highlighting his transformation of Queensland Ballet.

The Museum reflects Li’s international life and rise from poverty to fame with a ‘borderless’ exhibition design.

Using simple materials for maximum impact, the main walls are constructed from tulle and roughly-hewn pine. These raw materials create a sense of intimacy and humility, while also referencing Chinese screens and white tutus. They have degree of transparency, connecting Li’s experiences and hinting at what is to come, while never forgetting the past.

The first section of the exhibition focuses on Li’s childhood and growing up in Mao’s China. The walls are painted concrete grey and propaganda posters are displayed alongside family photos, suspended paper kites made by Li and personal childhood effects.

As you move through his dance career, the exhibition opens into a large room filled with awards, imagery of international travel, rare and ornate objects from Houston, original costumes, photography and a large-scale projection featuring live performances with Houston Ballet and The Australian Ballet. The wall colour lightens, and the space widens, subtly hinting at the freedom and positivity that Li experienced.

The use of sound and moving image reflects the importance of performance in Li’s life. The beginning of the exhibition features footage of Li’s parents speaking in Chinese about how proud they are of their son, and the sound of their voices faintly resonates throughout the exhibition as an overlay to Li’s future experiences.

As you make your way into the final room of the exhibition, the focus shifts to Li’s role as Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director with costumes on display from his most ambitious ballets alongside a documentary commissioned by the Museum interviewing Li, Mary (his wife) and mentor Ben Stevenson giving you a private interaction with Li and his family.

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, Curator

Closing Sunday 29 April, don’t miss the opportunity to see this world-first exhibition. Book your tickets now.