On Pointe by Myles McGuire
Li Cunxin on The Little Green Road to Fairyland and collaborating with Queensland Music Festival.
When one thinks of ballet for children, there are certain images that spring immediately to mind. Pink tutus; The Nutcracker; a younger sibling taking to the stage in their first performance. For many Australian children, ballet is a rite of passage, with weekend mornings spent at a local hall or church, perfecting pirouettes and pliés—and, though few continue to a professional level, the memory of these classes remains vivid and formative.
For Li Cunxin, now in his seventh year as Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director, the importance of this cannot be understated.
“You plant this magical seed in their imagination, in the formative years,” Li says, “And you never know what kind of incredible impact it will have as they get older and make their own contributions to society.”
We are talking about The Little Green Road to Fairyland, a coproduction with Queensland Music Festival. Adapted from Annie R. Rentoul’s beloved 1922 children’s book of the same name, Fairyland is a unique mixture of dance, music and vocal performance, a rich imaginative palette for both creatives and audience. The story of a Fairy who forfeits her supernatural gifts for the benefit of others, it is a tender tale of understanding and kindness.
“It has really important messages for young children,” Li says, visibly excited as he describes the production. “I think it will really implant this passion, this love affair for music and ballet, but more importantly the messages the story delivers—the love, compassion, hope—is something we desperately need in our society. The sooner we can influence our young children with those positive, uplifting, inspiring stories, the better we’ll be when they grow up.”
Li’s own story is well-known, his childhood documented in the memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and its film adaptation. His experience of ballet as the child of impoverished parents living in Maoist China may be worlds away from that of most young dancers, but it has become a touchstone for those interested in the art form; contrasting the extremes of discipline with creative and personal freedom.
If anyone can testify to the life-changing power of the performing arts, it’s Li, and it’s clear this philosophy has inflected Queensland Ballet under his direction. Since 2012 it has grown from sixty employees to two hundred, doubled the size of its ensemble, and implemented a world-class academy while enjoying unprecedented prosperity. With this infrastructure it’s now possible to bring metropolitan ballet to regional Australia, Fairyland just one of several shows the company has plans to tour.
Given his own upbringing in remote Northern China, and the intensely politicised nature of his training in dance, it follows that reaching audiences outside of the city is important to Li. Fairyland is a particularly apt choice for this reason, with its quintessential Australian bush setting and themes of selflessness and community.
“Arts is non-political,” Li says. “It really impacts people on that emotional level, it’s not superficial. When we think of our own childhoods, art is really in the forefront—the sounds it creates, the images, the happiness. It truly opens people’s imagination, particularly young people. It’s not just the entertaining aspect, not just to make people happy, it really challenges people. And it really challenges their thinking. It challenges them to be more creative.”
With Fairyland to tour St George, Goondiwindi and Roma, ballet lovers of all ages will have the opportunity to observe not only a wonderful performance; but an exciting new chapter in Queensland’s development as a hub for the arts. It’s this legacy that Li is most interested by, and Queensland’s future as a place that produces not only exceptional dancers, but audiences with an appetite for the highest calibre of performance. For this reason, Queensland Ballet shows are developed with touring productions in mind.
“We would like to take [our shows] to as many regional Queensland centres as possible,” Li says. “Every year we’ll be touring anywhere between five to twenty centres, and that means smaller communities—where we might be performing in a town hall or gymnasium, but we’ll put up the stage. People drive two or three hours to see a performance like that.”
There are clear parallels between this ambition and Queensland Music Festival’s raison d’être.
“Queensland Music Festival’s reputation for regional community engagement is unparalleled,” Artistic Director Katie Noonan says. “This is Queensland Music Festival’s first collaboration with Queensland Ballet, and having been lucky enough to work with them before, I knew that we could trust the team implicitly to deliver a ballet as magnificent as the music.”
Not only is Fairyland magnificent; it’s a collaboration between two organisations that represent Queensland not just in name, but in essence. Above all it’s an opportunity to inspire a new generation of people who love ballet, both dancers and audiences—no matter how far they live from the main stages of the city.
For more 20th Anniversary stories click here.