Australia The untold story of Mao's Last Dancer Li Cunxin: Love, sacrifice and dance
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Sophie Li was born into a world filled with music, sublime beauty and high art. Music was what her parents breathed, what they lived; it was, she says, "everything to them, ingrained".
Their art was the transcendent physical expression of the music written by the great composers.
"They were beautiful to watch," Sophie says.
Sophie was the product of a love affair that had played out on the classical stages of the world. Li Cunxin and Mary McKendry were both principal dancers with the Houston Ballet.
Long before they were partnered on stage, they had admired each other from a distance.
Li had been impressed by the Australian's "artistry and beautiful dancing" and Li was known for his athleticism and technical precision. Li's later autobiography would be read by millions and made into the famous film, Mao's Last Dancer.
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The pair married in Houston in 1987 and Sophie was born two years later.
"I'd never seen anything more beautiful in my life," recalls Mary, who had planned to continue to dance after her pregnancy.
"I had a beautiful husband, a beautiful baby, career — I thought I had more than I ever wanted."
But when Sophie was 17 months old, the music suddenly stopped. Everything went quiet. Their daughter had been born into a world of silence. She would never hear the music.
On a visit to Australia to perform at the Sydney Opera House, the family was in Brisbane when Li took Sophie to the park and she was given a red balloon. It popped and startled everyone.
"You have no idea how loud that pop sound was," Li remembers.
"The only person who had no reaction to it was Sophie … my heart just dropped."
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Back in Houston, Sophie was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf. From that moment, the Li's lives changed completely.
At first, Li refused to believe there was no cure, that he couldn't fix it. He took Sophie to China to seek out help with the top acupuncturist there. They went to a Chinese healer on the mountains in Li's hometown.
"I refused to concede," Li says.
Sophie’s parents were determined to help her learn to speak; to give her every opportunity the hearing world offers.
They made a choice that Sophie would later come to question and it nearly tore the family apart.
The day the music died
Li and Mary made a conscious decision to accept the advice of medical experts to fit Sophie with hearing aids rather than teaching her sign language.
"We were told early on that if she starts signing, she may not speak," Li says.
The music was turned off and the record players put away but still Sophie "didn't hear anything".
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Mary quickly understood what she had to do.
The sacrifice she needed to make for her daughter.
"I wanted what every mother wants, to hear my daughter's voice," she says.
"You wait for their first word, the first sentence. It makes them independent in the world. It gives them opportunity. I wanted her to have all of that."
Mary decided to give up her international career to teach her daughter to speak and hear. She was at the height of her career, but Mary says she didn't have any other option.
"What could I live with in 10 or maybe 15 years' time? More performances or a daughter that could be independent?" she says.
From Queensland to world stages
Mary McKendry had grown up in Rockhampton in a large family of five brothers and two sisters. At the age of eight, she was taken to the ballet and she fell in love with it.
From the moment she walked through the doors and heard the music it was where she wanted to be and it became her passion from that day on.
At the age of 15, her teacher told her parents she was good enough to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. She was accepted and living in London at the age of 16.
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"It was the relentless 10 or 15-hour days that you did because you wanted to improve. It was physically very punishing on your body but lucky for me I was a very strong Queensland girl," she said.
Mary still remembers her audition for the English National Ballet in 1977.
She went into the studio and quietly sat down at the barre. And then she saw a man walking across the room with a big fur hat, big boots, big scarf. It was Rudolph Nureyev.
"And that's how I got my first job with his Romeo and Juliet," says Mary.
"Rudolph took us all over the world."
In 1985, she joined the Houston Ballet where she met Li. Two years later, they had Sophie.
Soon after all that energy, that indefatigable work ethic, was poured into her struggling daughter. Where once she went to sleep rehearsing ballets in her head, now she went to bed thinking about Sophie.
“I woke up thinking about her,” Mary says.
“As soon as she woke, I had those hearing aids on. I had her sitting in front of me, I talked about everything I did — turning on the kettle, hot, cold, up, down.”
Sometimes, Sophie would put her hand over her mouth to stop her talking.
“She was trying to communicate with me but nothing made sense,” Sophie says now.
“I was a tiger mother so that she could have the same opportunities as everyone else," Mary admits.
But progress was slow.
“It was heartbreaking to see her give up her beloved ballet career, sacrifice it for our daughter and then seeing very little progress," Li says.
Sophie hears for the first time
When she was four, Sophie had a cochlear implant, an electronic hearing device which fits electrodes into the inner ear and mimics sound, invented by Australian Professor Graeme Clark.
Switching it on, says Sophie, was "overwhelming".
"I was deaf for the first four years of my life, so it was still really hard because there were sounds I've never heard before," Sophie says.
"But you train and do speech therapy and you get used to that kind of sound."
Mary and Sophie lived in their own bubble, but Sophie grew tired of the endless speech therapy.
"It was a love-hate relationship with my mum growing up," Sophie says.
Sophie was able to go to school, but it was exhausting trying to listen and understand what was happening.
She would go home in the middle of the day to rest and then be homeschooled by her mother.
Birthday parties were painful.
"I could hear the joy of the other children," Mary says. "And Sophie just looked completely lost."
A second cochlear implant improved her speech significantly but it was still "a lot of work" to hear.
As a teenager, Sophie tried to hide her deafness.
"There was such a negative connotation with deafness and being seen as not very smart," she says.
She so wanted to have "genuine" friends but found it really hard to connect with people as she wasn't able to hear and participate.
"I didn't get the pop references. I didn't get what was going on with music and movies and all that," she says.
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Sophie discovered reading and that she was academically bright.
"Study helped her," Mary says. "It was easier than socialising."
In spite of significant barriers, she graduated school with flying colours.
Her first job interview was a disaster.
Her prospective employer stood up and left when he realised she was deaf. A horrified couple at the next table took pity on her and hired her to work at their prestigious real estate agency.
But their workplace wasn't equipped for a deaf person. She was put on phones where the technology connecting her implant to the phone frequently failed to connect calls promptly.
Colleagues would call out across the busy office, but the background noise made it impossible for Sophie to hear them.
The disappointments led to breakdowns and depression.
"I'd be like, 'Why is it me that has to go through all this hard work? For what?'" she said.
Sophie finds her ‘tribe’
In July 2012, Li became artistic director of the Queensland Ballet and moved to Brisbane.
Sophie and her younger brother Tom stayed in Melbourne. She was 23 and on her own for the first time.
"I was still struggling with my identity. I felt pretty lost," Sophie says.
She started a new job at a charity Hear For You, mentoring young deaf teenagers.
It was a turning point. Sophie found her tribe, other deaf people.
Her colleague in the office was former Deaf Young Australian of the Year, Meg Aumann.
Meg didn't speak she signed, so Sophie started learning Auslan (Australian sign language).
"Growing up Sophie didn't have access to positive deaf role models or deaf friends," Meg says.
"There was no-one who was able to show her how to navigate life as a deaf person."
Meg told Sophie to stop apologising for being deaf. "Accept yourself as a deaf person. Full stop."
As Sophie became fluent in Auslan, she became more and more involved in the deaf community and started to "blossom".
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At deaf parties, her social anxiety disappeared.
"I really started to enjoy myself, I started to relax and understand jokes. I felt like I was finally, like, normal," Sophie said.
But as Sophie embraced the signing deaf community, her family felt they were losing her.
Her phone calls to her mother became less frequent. Mary was worried.
"I didn't want to lose her to just the deaf world because I knew she could speak as well, and I didn't want her to reject the hearing world because it was too hard," she said.
Things came to a dramatic head when the Queensland Ballet supported a charity that promotes the auditory-verbal approach.
Sophie didn't want to be part of it. There was a huge argument. Li couldn't even get a word in.
Actually, says Li, "there was a lot more than an argument they were screaming at each other."
Sophie slammed down her cochlear implants on the table and returned to Melbourne.
Mary was stunned and heartbroken.
"I had given up my life for her to speak. I'd given her the opportunity to speak to the whole world and I didn't want her to close that off," she said.
There was a six-month estrangement until Sophie wrote her parents a letter. She still loved them. She didn't resent them.
"They gave me a really valuable skill which is to hear and speak but what I did resent then was not giving me the access that I had needed with deaf strategies, having deaf role models," Sophie says.
When they read the letter Li and Mary couldn't speak.
"We thought we knew our daughter so well," Li says.
"We knew what makes her happy, what makes her sad. We knew her struggles, but not nearly. Sophie was really suffering a great deal."
Her parents started to see her point of view. They realised they had to meet her halfway. They decided to learn Auslan. Soon her siblings joined in too.
"It was a dream come true. It makes my life so much easier and it's hilarious watching them learn," Sophie says.
"We make a fool of ourselves, but that is a lot of joy, a lot of laughter," Li says.
"It's going to be a work in progress for all of the while, but we are definitely into it."
Mary’s return to the stage
Mary has been a teacher and coach at the Australian Ballet and ballet mistress for the Queensland Ballet's artistic staff since 2013.
"The studio is my mum's happy place," Sophie says.
Twenty-nine years after leaving the stage to teach her daughter to speak, Mary will make a comeback.
She will play the queen as a guest star in the Queensland Ballet's Sleeping Beauty production. And Mary has now written her own book about her life, Mary's Last Dance.
But first and foremost, Mary is a mother. And she says she's proud of the woman Sophie has become.
"We both had so many lows, but also so many highs through this journey. And it taught us about another world. We are broader people for it," she says.
Today, Sophie is happy and confident as a deaf person who signs and uses cochlear implants. She lives not far from her parents in Brisbane and works as a project officer at digital lifestyle guide The Urban List.
"I really appreciate being part of both worlds and the fact that I have a choice to be in either world whenever I want to," Sophie says.
"My journey was hard and tough at times, but the strength and the love of my family has really made all the difference."
Additional reporting: Mayeta Clark
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