British-born Ben Stevenson, who had formerly been a soloist with the Royal Ballet in London, served as the innovative powerhouse behind the Houston Ballet from 1976-2003. In March of 1979 he joined the Center’s Arts Leaders Delegation to China led by Lincoln Center Chair Martin Segal.

For Stevenson, who observed and gave classes at all the dance organizations on the itinerary, the experience was a turning point in his professional work. Of the early Center-sponsored visitors to China, many have made important contributions, but none have surpassed Ben Stevenson in commitment, time and generosity.

Deep in the art of Texas: Dance students Zhang Weiqiang (second from left) and Li Cunxin (right) with Ben Stevenson, artistic director of the Houston Ballet and Claire Duncan, principal teacher of the Houston Ballet Academy

While in Bejing in 1979, Stevenson visited China’s leading professional dance company, the Central Ballet of China and met the legendary company leader, Dai Ailian, who had trained in London in classical ballet. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Madame Dai’s company was restricted to performing a tiny political repertoire of “model works” including White-Haired Girl and Red Detachment of Women. She was eager to resurrect the classical repertoire and to bring her company into the contemporary world of ballet, albeit cautiously and quietly. The following year Stevenson staged his works “L” and “Preludes” in Beijing with the Central Ballet. 

At the Central Dance Academy, Stevenson was deeply moved by the students’ passion to learn the new techniques and ideas that he presented. Despite the limited resources of the grim and under-heated facilities, the students were highly trained and of an outstanding technical caliber. Like champion race horses at the starting line, they had the raw energy needed to embrace new ideas and they were prepared for very hard work. Stevenson’s approach was appreciated by the open-minded Academy Principal, Chen Jingqing, who agreed to Stevenson’s proposal to invite two students to study at the Houston Ballet for a summer with all expenses paid. Male dancers Li Cunxin and Zhang Weiqiang arrived in Houston that June under the auspices of the Center and enjoyed a productive summer of professional classes and southern hospitality.

The students returned to China at the end of the summer to continue their studies, and Stevenson travelled to Beijing the following March to teach at the Beijing Dance Company for a month and work with the Central Ballet. During this time he obtained permission from the Academy for five more students to train at Houston during the summer and for Li Cunxin to return in October 1980 to spend one year with the Houston Ballet as an apprentice. During his tenure in Texas, Li had opportunities to perform with the company and was given a leading role in the production of “Le Corsaire,” which he performed with principal dancer Suzanne Longley.

Last September, Li Cunxin, a graduate of the Central Institute of Dance in Beijing danced with Suzanne Longley in the Houston Balet's production of "Le Corsaire" at Jones Hall in Houston
Last September, Li Cunxin, a graduate of the Central Institute of Dance in Beijing danced with Suzanne Longley in the Houston Balet's production of "Le Corsaire" at Jones Hall in Houston

The Beijing-Houston dance connection continued for decades. Stevenson made countless trips to the Academy to volunteer as guest teacher, and continued to invite students and teachers to train at the Houston Ballet. He also provided guidance to the Academy as the institution endeavored to update its curriculum to meet modern international standards. In 1985 Stevenson worked with the administration to design and develop China’s first Department of Choreography to award academic degrees. This department eventually became an influential feeder program for China’s first generation of modern dance choreographers.

From the time Stevenson first visited China, he was enamored by the sophistication and elegance of the Chinese art he saw, and dreamed of choreographing a Chinese-themed ballet. He joked, however, that his lack of background in the culture might result in what he feared might be a dreadful “panda pas de deux”, so he decided to seek creative collaborators from China. In 1981 he approached the Center with this idea and Chou Wen-chung introduced three artists who had recently arrived from China and whose expertise met Stevenson’s requirements to an uncanny degree.

Li Keyu was a distinguished costume designer for ballet who had studied art with renowned master painters Wu Zuoren and Ye Qianyu. Her husband, Mao Yuan was an acclaimed composer at Beijing’s Central Opera Theatre who was experienced at composing for ballet. The third creative collaborater was Chen Xieyang, the conductor of the Shanghai Ballet Orchestra who had the background needed to lead the Houston Ballet Orchestra. The four put their heads together and decided upon a theme based on the work of the 18th century artist Zheng Banqiao, who was especially renowned for his bamboo paintings. Stevenson created a scenario inspired by a line in one of Zheng’s poems: “Forty years I paint bamboo, in the day with my brush and at night with my dreams.”

LI Cunxin and Janle Parker In the premiere of "Zheng Ban Qiao"

In Stevenson’s version, protagonist Zheng Banqiao, whose role was danced by Li Cunxin, dreams of a “moon maiden” performed by Houston Ballet prima ballerina Janie Parker. Mao Yuan’s score for the ballet was written for western instruments but, according to Maestro Chen Xieyang, had the indefinable essence of ancient Chinese culture. Li Keyu designed and created hand-painted chiffon costumes for the female dancers and pewter tights and scarves for the males. Zheng Banqiao premiered to critical acclaim in Houston and the critic of the Houston Chronicle described the performance as one of “Surpassing beauty and poetic movement.”

Onstage, the production of Zheng Ban Qiao was a shining model of international artistic collaboration, much enjoyed and acclaimed by the Houston Ballet fans. Offstage, however, it was viewed as a cultural exchange fiasco. Several weeks before the performance, Stevenson learned that Li Cunxin had made the legal arrangements necessary to remain in the United States after his visa had expired; in other words, to defect. 

Li Cunxin relates the details of this decision, his escape plan and its outcome, in his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer published in 2003 by the Berkeley Publishing Group in New York. The book was made into a movie with the same title in 2010.