Mary McKendry had an idyllic childhood: a rambunctious family full of love and support, in a large Queensland country town, Rockhampton. Here she discovered the joy and beauty of ballet, an art in which she very quickly found herself at home.
Mary’s dedication and persistence in excelling shone, opening a world of possibility. At the age of just 16, she flew halfway around the world to start a life in London, studying at the Royal Ballet School.
Mary’s talent saw her join the London Festival Ballet, where she danced with the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, and then moved on to Houston Ballet, dancing under acclaimed director Ben Stevenson.
Here she met Chinese dancer Li Cunxin: their chemistry ignited the stage, and off stage the two fell in love, becoming darlings of the ballet world.
When their first daughter, Sophie, was born, their lives were complete. Mary and Li doted on their precious daughter, and revelled in their fortune at having Li’s parents live with them to care for her while they were dancing.
On her first birthday they started to notice Sophie wasn’t as responsive to noises as she should have been. One doctor cleared her of hearing problems – twice – but still, they noticed a difference when compared to other children. Their fears were confirmed when, at 18 months of age, Sophie was pronounced profoundly deaf.
She would never hear the music her parents performed to, would never learn Mandarin to communicate with her beloved grandparents, or hear her parents speak to her. It was unlikely Mary and Li would ever hear their daughter’s voice.
After being told bluntly by a specialist, If you both want to continue your careers, then she [Sophie] probably won’t learn to speak, Mary stepped out of the spotlight to focus on her daughter, determined that one day the two of them would have a conversation together.
While Mary grieved for her daughter, and for the career she put aside, her sole goal in life was for Sophie to have her own voice. They made the heartbreaking decision for Li’s parents to return to China, so the dual languages at home wouldn’t confuse Sophie. Mary and Sophie had to create a new relationship, different from what Mary had ever imagined.
Mary and Sophie spent years working together to give Sophie a voice. Through hearing aids, hours upon hours of daily speech therapy and fighting for a cochlear implant, all their efforts paid off when a sweet little voice sung along to Rain, Rain Go Away for the first time.
It took further years and specialist schools, but Mary achieved her goal: she and Sophie were able to have a verbal conversation together. As much Sophie’s story as it is Mary’s, Mary’s Last Dance, is, above all else is a story of love; a love of art, a love of family, and the unbreakable love of a parent for her child.
Mary Li (formerly Mary McKendry) was raised in Rockhampton, Queensland, the third of eight children. She was first introduced to ballet by her teacher Valeria Hansen. At sixteen she was accepted into the Royal Ballet School, London. She joined the London Festival Ballet (English National Ballet) in 1977 and was promoted through the ranks to principal dancer in 1981.
In 1985, Mary joined Houston Ballet as a principal dancer. During her performing career, Mary danced principal roles in all the major classical ballets, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker, as well as leading roles in contemporary ballets, some created especially for her. She has worked with legendary teachers, choreographers, artistic directors and artists, including Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Ben Stevenson.
She married fellow principal dancer Li Cunxin in 1987, and they have danced together all over the world. Following their return to Australia in 1995 Mary worked with the Australian Ballet as a coach, while raising their children Sophie, Tom and Bridie. For the past ten years she has been ballet mistress at Queensland Ballet where her husband Li is artistic director. Together they have turned the company into one of worldwide recognition and acclaim.
Image: Mary’s Last Dance – courtesy of Penguin Books Australia