Taking 5 with Li Cunxin AO
Ahead of our upcoming concert The Peasant Prince based on the best-selling children’s book, we sat down with Queensland Ballet Artistic Director and author Li Cunxin AO to talk writing his story, the incredible role music has played throughout his life and his favourite composer.
What inspired you to write The Peasant Prince? And what messages do you hope children will take away from the story?
Over the years of my career and throughout my life I was asked by various people and publishers, and even Hollywood came knocking on my door, to make a story or movie about my life and I always felt reluctant for my life to be shared in such a public way.
Eventually a close friend of mine who is also an author and is a famous children’s author, Graeme Base, the author of Animalia, The Eleventh Hour and Moonfish, he encouraged me to write my story. He said “Li, your story will give people hope and encouragement in life,” and it’s for that reason that I was hoping that if my story could even inspire ten, twenty or hundred people in the world then that would be wonderful and I would have done something with my life in a positive way. I do hope that my intended purpose of sharing my story has played that positive role in our society.
I hope young people living in such a wonderful free society such as Australia will be able to take away from my story a sense of what a privileged life they are living in a wonderful society that allows them boundless possibilities and opportunities to achieve great things if they want and also the importance of hardwork, dedication and passion. And along the way if you want to achieve an unusual kind of success you need to rely on that sense of determination, perseverance and discipline on a daily basis to achieve those amazing successes that will be inspirational to others.
As a father and teacher, how have you seen children connect and interact with dance and music?
I think music, ballet, opera, any kind of art form, really pays such an important role in young people’s lives. It unlocks your imagination and challenges your thinking to help you to look at things outside of the box because at the end of the day if you want to achieve an unusual kind of success you need to be creative, you need to be open-minded and arts does that for you.
How has music inspired dance for you in the past, and how does it continue to inspire your artistic vision?
As a performing artist, and as a former ballet dancer, and these days as a coach and director at Queensland Ballet, music has always played an important part in my journey and in my life. I would say music gave me the colour of life. It gave me nuances of inspiration that I would not have had in many ways and when I first went to America as an 18-year-old, music was the one thing that truly stunned me and touched me at how beautiful it can be, how colourful music can be. It really evoked deep emotions in me when I heard beautiful music and it often makes me just want to move and dance naturally – even though I felt music and ballet was always in a partnership together, music for me has played an extra layer of richness in my life.
What's your favourite piece of ballet music?
It’s very hard to select because there’s so much beautiful ballet music in our world. I would have to say Sergio Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. My second favourite would have to be Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Those two I can always close my eyes and always listen to the music and think “if I died today I would have gone to heaven".
Do you have a favourite composer?
Sergei Rachmaninoff – He has a lot of guts and emotions and a lot of rawness that always evokes a deeper emotion in me. Somehow when I hear Rachmaninoff, maybe it’s because of the harsh background he grew up with, his music had that kind of bloodied meaning for me. But, also because it evoked some kind of emotional response because I grew up in a similar suppressed but tough environment when I lived through my childhood in China.