Mary’s Last Dance 
by Mary Li
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Paperback RRP $34.99

Mary Li. Photo by Mikala Connor
Mary Li. Photo by Mikala Connor

Mary Li (formerly Mary McKendry) had a stellar international career as a principal artist in the 1980s and '90s, first with London Festival Ballet, (now the English National Ballet), and then with Houston Ballet under director, Ben Stevenson. It was there she met Li Cunxin, also at the time, a principal artist with the company. They became partners both on and off stage and have since had anything but an ordinary life together. 

Mary’s Last Dance is therefore unashamedly pitched as a companion to Li Cunxin’s international best-selling memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer, both in the similarity of titles, the book’s cover design, and in its press-release promotion as the “long-awaited sequel”. And while Mary’s Last Dance does fill in many of the details of the final pages of Cunxin’s memoir and beyond, it also stands on its own as a tale of the resilience and determination of an Aussie kid from the country town of Rockhampton (or “Rocky”), who “makes it” on the world stage.

Li tells her story in a linear fashion, beginning with the short back-story of her parents – the refined Coralie who fell for the charming architect, Neil George, and married him in 1955. Moving from Brisbane to Rockhampton in 1960, the family of five quickly expanded to a family with eight children under the age of eleven. Li was child number three, and she conveys a clear sense of the loving chaos that reigned at the McKendry’s, where food and family were key. The importance of family to Li is a dominant theme throughout the book, underpinning much of the narrative. 

Li’s devotion to ballet from aged eight is covered, her move to London and the Royal Ballet School at sixteen, and in 1977, her audition and subsequent acceptance into London Festival Ballet. It was a very different era for dancers in the 1970s, where pay was minimal and working conditions at times quite brutal. Grit and determination, which Li seemed to have in spades, were essential for success. Nevertheless, with luminaries like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev still both dancing, it was an exciting time to be in the profession and Li gives tantalising, albeit brief insights, as one after another familiar name crops up. 

Li’s move to the United States and Houston Ballet, and her blossoming relationship with Cunxin are all covered in detail. She talks of their on-stage partnership as being “electric”, a rarity in ballet, and is effusive in her praise of his dancing as she discovers more about his extraordinary background. Li also talks of the “honour” of being privately coached by Fonteyn, now 70 and a good friend of Stevenson, for the role of Odette. It is a tiny glimpse into ballet’s long-established tradition of one generation passing down knowledge to the next.

Li’s subsequent marriage and birth of their first child, Sophie on July 12, 1989 is where her story really takes off. Both parents dote on their first born, with early concerns about Sophie’s hearing dismissed by two doctors. Their fears are confirmed when Sophie is finally tested at eighteen months – the news that she is profoundly deaf delivering a devasting blow. And after being told bluntly by a specialist that if they both wanted to continue their careers, Sophie probably wouldn’t learn to speak, Li decides to retire early from the stage to focus on her daughter – hence the book’s title.  

Li’s subsequent struggle to provide the best outcome for Sophie talks to the time, 30 years ago, of no hearing tests for newborns, no internet with its wealth of readily available information, and cochlear implants only in their infancy. Often relying on word-of-mouth to make informed decisions, and at other times her motherly instinct, Li’s gruelling journey is one of highs and lows, recounted with candour. 

Woven into this narrative is the birth of their two other children, Tom and Bridie, their move to Melbourne and Cunxin’s final performing years spent with The Australian Ballet. She recounts his disappointment at later being passed over for the position of artistic director of the company, and his subsequent reluctance to apply for the AD position with Queensland Ballet (QB) when it becomes available. The final chapter covers their recent years with QB where Li is currently ballet mistress and principal repetiteur. 

Sophie was apparently the impetus behind this memoir, encouraging her mother to persevere. In many ways, of course, it is her story also – a multi-layered narrative, unaffectedly told with no small amount of down-to-earth Aussie humour, which stands on its own as an engaging, and at 464 pages, solid read. However, if you do want more context to Li’s story, (and if you haven’t already), you could read Mao’s Last Dancer first.  


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