This is the heartening rags-to-riches story of Li, who achieved prominence on the international ballet stage. Born in 1961, just before the Cultural Revolution, Li was raised in extreme rural poverty and witnessed Communist brutality, yet he imbibed a reverence for Mao and his programs. In a twist of fate worthy of a fairy tale (or a ballet), Li, at age 11, was selected by delegates from Madame Mao's arts programs to join the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1979, through the largesse of choreographer and artistic director Ben Stevenson, he was selected to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet—the first official exchange of artists between China and America since 1949. Li's visit, with its taste of freedom, made an enormous impression on his perceptions of both ballet and of politics, and once back in China, Li lobbied persistently and shrewdly to be allowed to return to America. Miraculously, he prevailed in getting permission for a one-year return. In an April 1981 spectacle that received national media attention, Li defected in a showdown at the Chinese consulate in Houston. He married fellow dancer Mary McKendry and gained international renown as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet; eventually, he retired from dance to work in finance. Despite Li's tendency toward the cloying and sentimental, his story will appeal to an audience beyond Sinophiles and ballet aficionados—it provides a fascinating glimpse of the history of Chinese-U.S. relations and the dissolution of the Communist ideal in the life of one fortunate individual.
A Wedding Qingdao, 1946