Ballet rebel's charity mission

10 February 2010 - 01:07

The Chinese ballet dancer whose story about his defection from his home country captivated the world in the 1970s is to visit South Africa to raise funds for the Zama Dance School, in Gugulethu, Cape Town.

Li Cunxin, now a stockbroker and motivational speaker, became one of the first cultural-exchange students from the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, allowed to go to the US to study.

His story of his subsequent defection and pain was laid bare in his autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer, published in 2003.

Speaking to The Times from Melbourne, Australia, where he lives with his wife, Mary McKendry, and three children, Cunxin said he hoped to inspire the ballet school students.

"I limit my travels each year, but this resonates with me. It's a worthwhile trip for me to encourage the students, tell them to have courage in what they do, be determined and work hard to make their aspirations come true," he said.

"When I first moved to America from communist China, where there were no financial markets, I was fascinated by the stock market. It was a new experience and I started attending investment seminars, reading books and gradually investing my hard-earned savings in stock," he said.

Faced with a choice of what to do once his ballet career was over, it was a natural progression.

"By the time Mary and I moved to her homeland of Australia, in 1995, I was 38 years old, we had three young children and I had a rather large family in China to look after. Coaching ballet after I retired was not going to work."

While still a member of the Australian Ballet, Cunxin did a correspondence course to learn about the markets.

"I was on a rehabilitation programme for a badly sprained ankle when I was offered a job with a large stockbroking firm. I went in, hobbling on crutches."

A year later, in 1999, Cunxin quit ballet.

"They are very different careers but they share the same ingredients for success: dedication, determination and hard work. These made me successful as a dancer," he said.

"I feel very lucky to have lived on three continents. It was a hard decision to move away from the country I loved, America, after we had been invited to dance for the Australian Ballet, but Australia is closer to China."

He is on the board of the Australian Ballet "breaching the world of business and dance". Cunxin visits his mother and six brothers in northeast China often.

"Though I have turned my back on the crazy communist beliefs, when I'm around my family I go right back to where I was before I left."

Cunxin's trip to South Africa was funded by Pick n Pay founder Raymond Ackerman, a patron of Zama Dance School for 25 years.

Cunxin will lecture at the Cape Town Convention Centre on February 22 . Tickets are available from Computicket for R250, or at the door for R300. All proceeds go to the Zama Dance School. He will be at Exclusive Books, in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, on February 23 to sign books .

  • Cape Town readers stand a chance of winning three double tickets to Cunxin's lecture at the Cape Town Convention Centre. To enter, send an e-mail, with The Times in the subject line, to