Mao's last dancer steps into town

THE polished speaker holding an audience of 800 entranced in the Ipswich Grammar School hall was born into extreme poverty in China.

Li Cunxin, whose autobiography Mao's Last Dancer became a bestseller and a high-grossing movie, spoke of his early life, his family, his ballet training and success, and his plans for the future as Queensland Ballet's artistic director.

A person should never waste opportunities nor take freedom for granted, he said.

Mr Cunxin was born in 1961, the sixth of seven peasant sons.

"My worst memory of all was the starvation I experienced," he said.

"Both of my parents never had the privilege of going to school for a single day."

At 10, Li was plucked from his village school by government officials to be sent to ballet school in Beijing.

"One small moment can change everything in your life," he told the audience.

"It was such a small moment - it was a nothing moment.

"I was away for seven long years and only allowed to see my family once a year.

"How I wished I could hear my mother's voice.

"What made my life more miserable was I hated ballet with a passion.

"I was absolutely hopeless. I couldn't jump. I couldn't turn.

"Every teacher had me written off."

Mr Cunxin later became one of the world's top 10 ballet dancers, and travelled to the United States on a scholarship with the Houston Ballet.

"One of my biggest dreams was to help my family," he said.

"The thought of my family being able to change their fate was the most powerful motivation.

"Success made me feel good about myself. Others started taking me seriously and stopped laughing at me.

"From one of the worst students, I topped my class in 1979."

At 20, Mr Cunxin fought a diplomatic battle to stay in the US.

He later married an Australian ballerina and has now settled in Brisbane.

"I go back to China about two or three times a year," he said.

"My mother's still alive and we're still very close.

"China has really made remarkable strides.

"I don't think people are starving."

IGS Junior School parent support group president Nick Cook said the turnout to Mr Cunxin's presentation and book-signing was "fantastic".

"Li's so humble and great with the kids," Mr Cook said.

"We sold all of the books we had and we've more coming."

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