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Fifty years ago, in June 1961, Rudolph Nureyev made headlines by defecting to the West while on tour in Paris with Russia's Kirov Ballet. Six months earlier, during the height of Mao's Cultural Revolution, a baby was born in a village in China. The sixth of seven sons, Li Cunxin was destined to follow Nureyev's example. Twenty years later in 1981, while on a cultural scholarship to the Houston Ballet, Li defected.
His story is a remarkable one, equal to any roles that he has danced. He is now a successful businessman in Australia and was recently named Australian 'Father of the Year'. Darcey Bussell who, since retiring from the Royal Ballet has also been living in Australia, visits Li and his family in Melbourne to hear about his extraordinary journey from peasant to stockbroker, from Communist to Capitalist, from East to West via the world of ballet.
At the age of eleven Li was taken from the poor but happy life he enjoyed with his family by scouts from Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy who toured the country in search of children with the right physique to be trained as dancers. For the next seven years his education was a combination of rigorous ballet classes accompanied by political brainwashing. The name Nureyev was never heard - his videos banned. Madame Mao demanded ballets with a political message - more often than not Li would be dancing with a gun in his hand.
When he was eighteen Li's life changed dramatically with the arrival in Beijing of the first American cultural delegation to visit China. It was then that British choreographer Ben Stevenson, Director of the Houston Ballet, noticed Li's talent and began a chain of events leading to his defection and an international incident between China and the United States.
Producer: Merilyn Harris
A Ladbroke Production for BBC Radio 4.