International ballet star Mary Li reflects on a long-awaited opportunity to dance for the Australian Ballet.
Growing up in a rambunctious family in Rockhampton, Mary Li (formerly Mary McKendry) discovered an extraordinary early passion for ballet. It saw her move to London at age sixteen to study at the Royal Ballet School and dance at the London Festival Ballet with the likes of Nureyev, and later to Houston Ballet, where she fell in love with the acclaimed dancer Li Cunxin. The couple became the darlings of the dance world.
In the passage below from Mary’s Last Dance, Mary recounts an invitation she received to dance for the Australian Ballet at the Sydney Opera House in 1990.
One evening, out of the blue, the phone rang. It was the Australian Ballet’s general manager, Noel Pelly.
‘Mary, how are you?’ he said. ‘How’s life after the baby? I hear you’re dancing as well as ever.’
He was such a charming man. I have to admit it was a joy to hear his Australian accent, but I was more interested in why he was ringing.
‘I’m loving being back on stage,’ I replied.
‘I’m glad to hear it, Mary. We are planning an all-Australian gala at the Sydney Opera House in November. Maina and I would really like you to take part. It would be so wonderful for the Australian audiences to see your beautiful dancing.’ Maina Gielgud was the Australian Ballet’s artistic director.
My heart skipped a beat. Who would I dance with? What about Sophie? Brisbane was easy with all my family there, but Sydney? All kinds of thoughts were running through my head.
‘Thank you, Noel.’ I was overjoyed. ‘Can I bring my husband, Li, as my partner? He’s a very good dancer.’
‘Maina wants to make this an all-Australian gala,’ Noel replied.
‘Well, Li is married to me and that makes him half-Australian,’ I said, half-jokingly.
He laughed, and then said, ‘Ross Stretton has already agreed to come. We would love it if you and he could dance together, especially since both of you are living in the States, which will make it easier for you to rehearse. How do you feel about that?’
‘Okay, Noel. I would love to, but I need to get permission from Ben first. Can I confirm at the end of the week?’ He agreed.
Niang and Dia [Li's parents] could tell I was excited about something. I was clapping my hands with joy and Sophie, toddling around, started clapping her little hands too.
‘Well done, darling. You must do it,’ Li said.
Over the previous few years I had been invited by Maina Gielgud to guest with the Australian Ballet, but I could never make it. The first time I was pregnant, and the next time I wasn’t available due to other performance commitments. I was always so flattered to be asked, and disappointed I couldn’t make it happen. I was longing to perform again in my home country. Ben gave his permission. I could hardly believe it was happening!
This was going to be such a special experience for me, in the iconic Sydney Opera House, in my home country. It was what I longed for – to perform at home at the height of my career. Soon after, much to my delight, I was invited by the Queensland Ballet to dance at their thirtieth-anniversary gala performance in Brisbane after the Sydney performances. They’d heard I was coming to dance with the Australian Ballet. Finally, the timing was just right.
But I couldn’t run off and do it just like that. Sophie was my prime responsibility now. Should I leave her in Houston with Li, Niang and Dia? I knew Li would say, ‘Don’t worry about Sophie. She will be fine with us.’ But I didn’t want to leave either of them behind. Sophie would be sixteen months old by the time of the trip and I wanted my Australian family to meet her. Could we bring Niang and Dia? They’d always wanted to see Australia and they could meet my brothers and sisters too.
I’d heard that Ross Stretton was a wonderful dancer and partner. He was an Australian and a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. I was all set to fly to New York to rehearse with him, but he called a week before my flight. ‘Mary, I’m so sorry. I’ve injured my back and won’t be able to make the gala,’ he said apologetically.
I was so disappointed for Ross – what a blow! I wondered if there was a chance the Australian Ballet might now allow Li to dance with me, as there wasn’t much time left to prepare. I really wanted the Australian audiences to see him dance too. We both knew that audiences always liked the fact we were a husband-and-wife team. People found it so romantic. I called Noel, and suggested that with Ross injured and time running out, I would like to come with Li as my partner.
By this time Noel had already heard from Ross. ‘All right. You can bring Li, but we won’t be able to pay him,’ he said.
‘That’s fine, Noel. I’m sure he would be fine with this,’ I replied. Li knew how much it would mean for me to perform in front of my family and in Australia. He’d be happy to come and support me. Whether he got paid or not, and he would never want me to lose this opportunity. To have him as my partner would make it even more wonderful.
Now we had to ask Ben for permission for both of us to go. We weren’t sure how he would react, but the timing was good. He was happy to let us go and agreed for us to dance his La Esmeralda pas de deux. It is simply divine, and would be a fabulous showcase for our particular talents. It requires virtuoso technique as well as being very sexy and fun. La Esmeralda would have me in a luscious green-velvet tutu with a bright-orange flower in my hair, and a tambourine – a gypsy girl, both fiery and innocent. I knew this pas de deux was going to be a huge hit with the Australian audience and Li would be the added bonus. Now I knew for sure that with him as my partner for both performances, the experience would be all the more special for me.
I couldn’t wait to tell Sophie, and as soon as I was home that afternoon I scooped up my daughter and lifted her high in the air.
Sophie, Sophie! You’re coming to Australia. You’re going to meet all your uncles and aunties. They’re going to love you so much! You’re going to see Sydney Harbour and you’re going to see the famous Opera House, and you’re going to see cockatoos and kangaroos and have Vegemite on toast!’
She laughed and laughed and I held her close until we settled down to dinner. I rang Mum and Dad, too, so that the family could make arrangements. They were over the moon. ‘Now I can show off our precious pearl to everyone,’ said Dad, with his usual enthusiasm.
I couldn’t wait to see my family and show them my daughter, and I swore I would dance the dance of my life.
Finally we were there: Li, Sophie and me with Niang and Dia in a three-bedroom high-rise apartment right on Sydney Harbour. The view from our window blew me away just as it had done when I was a child when our parents took us on our ‘cultural’ holidays – that vast blue sky, the sparkling water, the shining boats and magnificent bridge.
There is a quality of light in Australia, a clarity, like nowhere else in the world. I always loved the distinctive smell of eucalyptus trees, and the sounds of familiar raucous birds always told me I was home. I was going to dance at the iconic Sydney Opera House, which some say is the eighth wonder of the world.
This was Li’s first time visiting and performing in Australia. ‘I can’t believe how beautiful Sydney is, Mary,’ he told me. ‘But so quiet. Where are all the people?’ After China and the busy freeways of Houston, harbourside Sydney certainly was sleepy. If you think this is sleepy, wait until you see Brisbane, I quietly laughed to myself.
‘See you later, darling,’ I called to Sophie as Li and I headed off. She waved and did her cute little blow-kisses. And we left her with her grandparents to wander around.
As Li and I walked I watched him as he took in the magnificence of Sydney Harbour. It was a warm and clear day, with a light breeze. And there was the magnificent Opera House perched at the very edge of the water, glistening in the brilliant sunlight. The elegant tiled sails that make up its unique roof line looked stunning against the blue, blue of the Aussie sky.
We walked up the wide front stairs and met with Noel and Maina. We got our schedule for the week and appointment times for some publicity shots. It was wonderful to meet the other dancers and to be among all those familiar Australian accents. It was also nice to put faces to the names of some of the dancers I had only heard of. We were shown to our dressing rooms. I was sharing with Lisa Pavane, Miranda Coney and Lisa Bolte.
We started rehearsals the following day and were a little surprised when we saw the size of the stage. It was really small – much smaller than we had anticipated. Li is a very big mover and La Esmeralda requires a big stage to do the choreography justice. Li had to do a huge manège (split jeté leaps around the stage in a circle). We could see straightaway that the stage would be quite inhibiting for both of us.
We bumped into Jack Lanchbery, a world-renowned conductor and fellow Australian whom Li knew well as he had conducted at Houston Ballet. Knowing he was going to conduct for us had given us confidence. He had intimate knowledge of the dance steps and we trusted that he would bring out the best in us. It makes such a big difference when you have a conductor of that calibre.
Jet lag was catching up with us by the end of that day and we returned to the apartment exhausted. Soon after dinner, I crashed out and felt that I had slept for a long time when Sophie’s cries woke me up at midnight. Poor Sophie was wide awake and ready to play. Li and I had to take turns with her, so one of us could get some sleep.
Mum and Dad flew in to Sydney the next day. Our parents greeted each other like old friends.
We told Mum and Dad about the small stage. ‘It’s all because Jørn Utzon’s design was compromised,’ Neil George told us. ‘His sails were revolutionary and his design was very courageous, but it scared people. His original design was for only two walls and to have it open to the harbour, but the government insisted on four walls, so that meant the stages had to be downsized. What a great shame.’
Sophie had a Western-style breakfast first with us and Mum and Dad, then Chinese food for lunch with her nana and yeye. We would come home in the late afternoon and all have dinner together. Niang and Dia were nervous to walk too far without Li, but Coralie and Neil George did take them to visit a few nearby sights, including the Chinese Garden of Friendship at Darling Harbour, which was built in 1988 to symbolise the friendship between Sydney and the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province.
Before we knew it, it was opening night. As I sat in front of the dressing-room mirror putting on my make-up, I realised I was nervous. I felt I was dancing well since having Sophie. Once you have a baby, that baby is the most important thing in the world, and afterwards I had just become more courageous and danced with a new maturity. I wanted to give my home audience the best performance I could, and I knew I was safe in Li’s hands.
I put on my green tutu with its velvet bodice striped with glittering silver and the bright tangerine flower in my hair, and took my place in the wings with Li. We were on at the end of the first half. I knew Mum and Dad were sitting in the middle of row E, the best seats in the house, and I just knew in my bones that this would be the best performance I’d ever done for them. We noticed there were a lot of the company dancers standing in the wings eagerly waiting to watch us, which added even more pressure.
Photo credit: Branco Gaica
‘Take a deep breath, relax and enjoy,’ Li said, as he squeezed my hand. I took a deep breath and simply nodded. The orchestra started and after a few bars we charged on stage together. Li took my hand and I stood en pointe, lifting my leg to attitude and balancing for a few seconds. The audience burst into applause immediately. This opening is a dramatic way to start, and gives the audience a taste of what is to come. And Ben’s pas de deux delivers from the beginning to the end. In the final steps I walk towards Li, my hand in his, and lift my leg up to a split en pointe, and on the last beat of the music, pop my head against his. The applause was rapturous! Then it was Li’s turn to perform his solo with all those stunning double turns in the air to the right, to the left and to the right again. His solo was technically brilliant, with high leaps and dazzling pirouettes that he delivered with such charm and ease. Then I did my solo with the tambourine, a solo full of challenging steps that was a little cheeky and lots of fun. By this point we were already spent, but we had two codas to go and they were complete show stoppers. The music really takes off and we did turn after turn – for me, thirty-two fouettés, hitting my tambourine with each one. Then I had to do a circle of high jeté jumps, banging my tambourine above my head at the precise moment my legs reached full split. Finally, we flew towards each other on centre stage. Li spun me around furiously for multiple pirouettes and I finished with another dramatic whack of the tambourine. The cheers and thunderous applause were instant. The audience loved it!
I remember feeling so elated, especially knowing that my parents and friends were there in the audience. And I knew we had performed well. I was overcome with emotion.
‘Thank you,’ I said to Li in the usual understated way that dancers show their appreciation to their partners.
‘That was good, Mary!’ he said.
My eyes shone with happiness. Li hugged me tight. He knew how much this performance meant to me. Yes, it was good! I thought.