Li Cunxin seen here on stage with Mary McKendry in the 1980s.
Li Cunxin seen here on stage with Mary McKendry in the 1980s. Photo supplied

My life with Mao's Last Dancer

SHE'S the wife of Mao's Last Dancer - a Chinese peasant boy who hit international stardom.

But there is more to Mary McKendry than what you'll see on the big screen tomorrow when the autobiography turned blockbuster tells of her life and that of husband Li Cunxin.

What you won't see at the cinemas is Mary's humble beginnings growing up and dancing in Rockhampton.

The city still holds a strong place in her heart and she credits her successful dance career to her late dance teacher Valerie Hansen and can't wait to bring her children back to visit.

Mary, 51, lived in Rockhampton until 1975, when she was 17, and joined London's Royal Ballet School.

With her two sisters, she attended the Range Convent, while her five brothers studied at St Brendan's College.

Her father was also a leading architect who designed The Pilbeam Theatre and Wandal's St Vincent Church.

Yesterday Mary told The Morning Bulletin that she remembered Rockhampton for its “happiness and freedom”.

But most of her childhood was dedicated to dance training.

“I would have ballet at 6.30am before school because of the heat and then walk to school,” she said.

“Dancing pretty much consumed us, but I couldn't get there quick enough.

Mary and Li this year with their children Sophie and Bridie.“My dance teacher fought my parents to send me to London when I was 17 and I was principal dancer by the time I was 23.”

Mary said Ms Hansen was an amazing teacher, many of whose students achieved great things in dance; one was Leanne Benjamin, who was also principal of the Royal Ballet School in 1987.

Mary was also principal dancer of the English National Ballet.

While dancing there she fell in love with Li and they were married in 1987.

The couple moved back to Australia in 1995 and now have three children, aged 20, 17 and 12.

Li was a poor Chinese peasant boy who made it big as a ballet dancer through an extraordinary journey, from a gruelling apprenticeship as a classical dancer in Communist China to the glory of creative freedom in America.

His autobiography was published in 2003 and became a best seller - now it's about to be a major film.

When he and Mary moved to Australia he was principal dancer with The Australian Ballet, but now Li is a stock broker and motivational speaker in Melbourne.

Mary gave up her own dancing career when their daughter Sophie was diagnosed with profound deafness.

She is now a coach at the Australian Ballet.

Camilla Vergotis plays Mary, Chi Cao plays Li and Amanda Schull - known for her lead role in Centre Stage- plays Elizabeth, Li's first wife.

Mary said she loved how the film had been portrayed and said it was very inspirational.

She said actor/dancer Camilla's characterisation of her (Mary) had been well done.

“I think she is quite funky and gung-ho,” she said.

“But the film is not about my life until we first met. It's mainly about his early life in China. Our lives go on much longer from the movie.”

Although Mary and Li are both used to the public eye, she said the film Mao's Last Dancer was about to take on a life of its own.

She said she expected Li's publicity circuit to grow.

More...

Buy your tickets to Mao's Last Dancer here.

Movie review: Mao's Last Dancer



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