The Nutcracker review – Mao's last dancer returns in ballet close to his heart

Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin takes the stage for first time in 18 years in pleasing yet predictable ballet

When Li Cunxin – better known as Mao’s Last Dancer – first performed outside the crushing confines of 1970s communist China, it was in The Nutcracker.

Back then Li, who had been plucked from rural grinding poverty to attend Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing, had been sent to America on a feted scholarship. There, he found himself in a production choreographed by Ben Stevenson, then creative director of the acclaimed Houston Ballet.

Li famously went on to become a celebrity dancer in his own right as well as author of a bestselling book, subject of a Hollywood biopic and, most recently, the force behind the resurgence of the Queensland Ballet.

Yesterday, in a special one-off performance, he took to the stage again for the first time in 18 years. The production was none less than Stevenson’s The Nutcracker.

This is a ballet close to Li’s heart: it was The Nutcracker that he performed for his parents in Houston to a standing ovation, after years of forced separation from his family following his high-profile defection to the west in 1981. It was also in the very same Nutcracker to Tchaikovsky’s score that Li and his wife Mary danced their final pas de deux together, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, some 26 years ago.

To say that this was a show that came with expectations then is something of an understatement. Not only is it rare and risky for former dancers of Li’s age (he is now 56) to take to the stage, but it is also a stage, for one day only, that he shared with Mary (the latter albeit in a more minor role). With tickets having sold out for QPAC’s 2,000-seat Lyric theatre less than an hour after being released, this was always going to be a night accompanied by buzz and, for Li at least, pressure.

Luckily this is a man who knows how to withstand, and thrive, when challenged. And that The Nutcracker is a bona fide celebration of pomp, Christmas, and all the trappings of capitalism (the opposite of the revolutionary ballets which Li grew up dancing in Maoist China) is not lost in this production. An opulent set put together by Thomas Boyd, and sumptuous costumes by Desmond Heeley, conjure up a world of lavish European wealth: at its heart is a vast Christmas tree adorned with lashings of presents.

Entering the stage in a long black cape to wild applause is Li as Dr Drosselmeyer, the magician who helps conjure up a bewitching, slightly sinister world for young Clara. Li commands his audience – both the guests at Herr Stahbaum’s party and us, watching the scene unfold – with aplomb, delivering his magic tricks and bestowing on Clara the wooden nutcracker doll. Dressed in a girlish white frock with a large pink bow, strawberry-blonde hair neatly tied down her back, is Mia Heathcote, who plays Clara with prim delight.

While central to the story, Dr Drosselmeyer is traditionally a character role. For this performance, however, Li has added in his own choreography, undertaking impressive pirouettes and jumps that hint at the artistry in his past. In one spectacular moment, in particular, he twists with glee in front of the Christmas tree. He is apart from the others, a man relishing that familiar moment of quiet when all the excited children, exhausted by the frenetic energy of Christmas Eve, have gone to bed.

But if Li is the star attraction, thankfully he does not entirely steal the show. Cuban dancers Yanela Piňera and Victor Estévez are flawless as the Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy; meanwhile, Vito Bernasconi performs the Russian dance, leaping and bounding across the stage with impressive athleticism. My favourite though was the Arabian dance, a seductive, gorgeous caper of slinky, sinuous moves pulled off by Alexander Idaszak and Lisa Edwards, the latter in a billowing silk crop top and trousers that show off her washboard stomach and abs.

For all this, at times it felt like this was a Nutcracker going through the motions. It has become a tradition for the Queensland Ballet to perform it every year during the festive season and that means that surprises, Li aside, are few and far between. Yet this is sure to be a crowd-pleaser and is aimed squarely at the whole family, from the fake snow that sprinkles down to the giant rats (who, hamming it up, are laugh-out-loud funny), and the swan carriage that Clara and Dr Drosselmeyer climb in together, which, through a clever trick of the eye, seems to lift off into the sky.

Above all, for one night only, it was a privilege to watch a legendary dancer perform. Seeing Li turn and twist under the Christmas tree, in front of the thousands willing him on, reminded me of a moment he recalls in his book from his youth – of the hours and hours he practised alone, in icy cold Beijing, in the dark with just a candle for light, dancing for Mao.

The Nutcracker is showing at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, until 22 December


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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