Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer

AAR Penguin Marys Last DanceMao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Chinese ballet dancer, Li Cunxin, was welcomed and commended around the world. Whilst we learned in the book that Cunxin had married a ballerina from Australia, we knew little about her.

The dancer wed by Li Cunxin in America, is Mary Li (nee McKendry). This book, Mary’s Last Dance is Mary’s own autobiography: the story of Mary Li’s life.

Mary McKendry was raised in Rockhampton and that’s where her story commences. She grows strong, eating chops in the northern Queensland sunshine within a large, loving family steered wisely by wonderful, supportive parents.

Throughout the book, we actually feel their affection and warmth as we hear their loving voices saying, “Hello Darling. Hello Beautiful.”

Classical ballet and Mary McKendry were meant for each other. If it wasn’t factual, it would seem too incredible that in rural ‘Rocky’ Mary comes under the tutelage of a ballet teacher of the calibre of Miss Hansen. Recognising the potential in her new student, Miss Hansen recommends not national, but international training for her protege.

Miss Hansen is thinking much bigger things than the Australian Ballet Company and recommends no less than the London Royal Ballet School! Mary had to audition her way there but that direction was her destiny. It determined her future.

In the absence of this book, we wouldn’t know that whilst still a student at the Royal Ballet School, Mary goes on to join the London Festival Ballet. She’s now being paid for working and touring with the famed, iconic, inimitable, Rudolph Nureyev.

Mary gives us a fabulous description of first setting eyes on the famous man as he’s striding through the studio in a fur coat, hat, scarf and fine boots. We also learn that this brilliant ballet dancer swears like a sailor.

VISA problems almost halt Mary’s life in London and her ongoing professional progress. However, such issues are successfully resolved via the boldness of youthful dare with flair. Mary is unstoppable. She is a rising star soon to be a principal dancer, touring the world with Nureyev’s company.

Mary’s artistic achievements include returning to Australia on tour and dancing at our iconic Sydney Opera House. (I’ve never yet even stepped inside it.) Additionally, Mary performs at Queensland Ballet’s 30 Year Anniversary Gala. That’s eerily portentous, as it’s exactly halfway to the 60 Year Anniversary Gala which will be directed by her future husband, Li Cunxin, assisted by Ballet Mistress, Mary Li.

Mary recalls first seeing Li performing in a trio at Beijing Dance Academy prior to his future opportunities in America. It is as perfectly partnered principal dancers at Houston Ballet that Mary and Li fall beautifully in love and eventually marry. A pas de deux becomes permanent when a magnificent man weds a marvellous woman. We know Li Cunxin is an outstanding performer, a mesmerising dancer, yet, he seems so quietly and politely to enter Mary’s life.

With the arrival of beautiful, baby Sophie, it seems that this star couple have it all. However, initial suspicions are confirmed when the diagnosis that their daughter is profoundly deaf is brutally delivered. The narrative is so personally and poignantly written that we readers, also deeply feel the devastation.

At this point the book also becomes Sophie’s story. Mary, Li and their beloved daughter are navigating an uncharted course. Beyond the beautiful but dated and not quite relevant story of Helen Keller, there are no books to guide them. No footprints to follow. Options are limited as they are acutely aware that all decisions and any delays will have lifelong implications for this precious child. As they search for choices and chances for Sophie, it is heart wrenching reading.

After a lifetime of working toward the summit upon which she now stands, Mary makes the ultimate artistic sacrifice. She gives up dancing to devote her time to Sophie. It is reassuring to realise that we are reading retrospectively and that Sophie herself triumphs over her own situation. Sophie beautifully emerges as an independent young woman with a university degree and a trail of achievements behind her.

Some difficulties are encountered in the bi-lingual household as Sophie assesses her own options and makes her own decisions about how eventually, she will live independently of her parents. After learning sign language, Sophie is multi-lingual. She lives overseas and is working on soft coding for a much-needed dictionary of sign language. Sophie played an important role in bringing this book into being.

Mary’s Last Dance has been referred to as a sequel to her husband’s famous book but I would deem it a separate story which stands alone, independent of Mao’s Last Dancer. Throughout the lively narrative, the book has a completely different voice and perspective to that of Cunxin.

Mary’s Last Dance is the vantage point of different person: Mary McKendry now Li. She is a vivacious, loveable and independent woman who unlike her husband is not subjected to regime and patriotic duty. Mary has chances, choices, opportunities. Ballet is one of those.

The book concludes but the story continues here in Queensland. Her husband, Li is now Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet and Mary is repetiteur. It is a wonderful privilege to live here and watch as these visionaries have taken Queensland Ballet forward. Clearly, Queensland Ballet is now a world class ballet company.

My one suggestion would be, that when inevitably, this book is re-printed, that the cover photo is replaced and in keeping with the excellent title. Instead of Mary seated behind her husband and peering over his shoulder, it should show soloist Mary in all of her glorious, dancer sparkle and splendour: Mary’s Last Dance epitomised.

Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer is published by Penguin Australia Pty Ltd and available from all leading booksellers including Booktopia.

Image: Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer – courtesy of Penguin Australia Pty Ltd

Review: Michele-Rose Boylan