In October 2014 I recorded a conversation I had with a former ballerina as we drove down the highway late at night. In the original recordings her soft-spoken voice is barely audible over the panting of her dog in the backseat and the heavy rain which beat against the windshield. This is a transcription of that audio, lightly edited for clarification.
Read Elizabeth’s retelling of this story in her blog post published April 22, 2017.
In 1981, at the age of only eighteen years old, former ballerina Elizabeth Bigelow (maiden name Mackey) became part of an international scandal when her marriage to fellow dancer Li Cunxin sparked scandal in the media and tensions with China. Li, whom the Communist party allowed to study and dance abroad in the U.S, met Mackey while dancing she was alone in a studio at the Houston Ballet. The two began a friendship in the summer which melded into a romance. By spring, Li’s home country demanded his return to China. In an effort to keep Li in the U.S, eighteen year old Mackey and twenty year old Li married in secret.
The secret didn’t last long. The two were soon discovered and the newly married couple went to the Chinese Consulate in Texas to straighten out the mess. What started as a courteous meeting quickly turned frightening when guards burst into the room, threw Li against a wall, then dragged him out and brought him to an isolated room where he would be interrogated for twenty-one hours. Their release would require both the power of the Chinese Embassy and vice-president George Bush.
The media was quick to pick up the story and create a frenzy. Hundreds of reporters and cameras waited outside the consulate. Their trip home was followed by the FBI. Mackey appeared before the camera multiple times for interviews, most notably on Good Morning America. Almost immediately offers for a movie deal came rolling in, which Mackey refused. Li later wrote an autobiography in 2003 which Samuel Goldwyn Productions picked up and made into a film in 2010. Mackey’s experience left a mark on her career and forced her to question whether life in the limelight was for her. Here are her words.
Why did you get into ballet?
“Well, I had to do something because I had too much energy so my parents put me into gymnastics and that didn’t fit… so they put me into a ballet school instead. I just had a lot of energy.”
You started ballet at ten, and in ballet that’s an old age to start at. Did you have any issues with starting later than what’s normal?
“No, not until I got to be around fifteen because I didn’t have as much training as other people did so I was kind of behind for a while. It’s like other things, as you get older and more mature… you can understand how your body works better… it kind of becomes a converging point… plus, whenever I had time off I still danced, I was very driven.”
When you were fifteen in 1978 there was an article written about you in the Boca Raton News titled Elizabeth Mackey Committed to Ballet. Was it around this time that you committed to the Houston ballet?
“I didn’t go to Houston until I was seventeen when I moved out of home. I visited the Houston ballet when I was fifteen, I just knew that that was what I wanted to do and so I dropped out of high school, when I was fourteen actually [I dropped out] and I went back for a short period of time and dropped out again. I was like, ‘You know what? I just want to be a ballet dancer’. I did a little bit of homeschooling but that didn’t really work out because I was too busy.”
What was that like, completely dropping out of high school and only having to focus on this one thing?
“It was awesome. It was great, I just got to do what I wanted to do and could spend more time focusing on the athleticism of dance.”
What did a day’s schedule look like for you?
“I would get up at noon, because I was a teenager, and would have a class at two. The class would go from two to four and we would have a half hour break and then go from four-thirty to six. Then, we would have another half hour break and either do a class or rehearsal at night from six-thirty to nine.”
How did you become a part of the Houston Ballet?
“I wasn’t really in the company, I was an apprentice-type person. I went to Houston and auditioned, it was an audition [based] company. Then, I was there in the summer and they asked me to stay for the year… I did dance with the company, but I wasn’t a paid dancer in the company.”
How did that work-load differ from what you had experienced before?
“The hours were very different, class was in the morning then you had all afternoon off until there was another class at night. So, it was a very different amount of time spent [training] whereas before I was dancing eight hour a day, there I was only dancing four unless there was rehearsals then it was probably only about six. It was a little harder to stay in shape, it wasn’t as much dancing as I would have liked… I liked the more new, contemporary ballet works by more recent artists, although I liked the classical [such as] Swan Lake or Cinderella. I wasn’t fond of the Nutcracker because I probably danced it… more than a million times, we did it every single year.”
When did you meet Li Cunxin?
“Li grew up in rural China and came to the US to study and dance. When I auditioned for the school he came with them, and that’s when we met. I was dancing alone in a studio and he came in while I was rehearsing and we ended up talking. He just felt comfortable with me. He knew that if people said things to him like, “Oh, go say such and such to a girl,” he would then come up to me and ask, “Would you say this to a girl?” I would say “No”, because it would have been insulting or inappropriate. He knew he could trust me so we ended up hanging out together all the time because he felt like I was someone who wouldn’t let something like that happen. Most the people there were crazy kids, sixteen, seventeen years old.”
When Li was ordered to return to China in 1981, what happened then?
“We had known each other by then for a year, and we had been going out pretty consistently on Friday nights. We’d go to the Chinese movies. We would go with another dancer who was from China… we’d go to the Chinese theater, eat dinner, and watch karate movies. We started to get to know each other really well, became really good friends, and then became lovers. Then, [the Chinese government] said he had to go back [to China] during the spring. Knowing he would have to go back we began discussing what his options were. He was trying to talk to a lawyer about staying, but the lawyer said he would have to defect, and if he defected that would cause serious issues for his family… the repercussions would be really bad. Then we talked about what would happen if we got married. We got married on a Friday and he was supposed to go back on a Wednesday.”
How old were you?
“I was eighteen. He was twenty. It was 1981. We didn’t tell anyone. There was a party on the Tuesday right before he was supposed to go… he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened because they would have gone crazy. The next day… I can’t remember exactly, but we got together and Ben [the Houston Ballet director] went to look for him but he wasn’t there. Everything just sort of fell apart. Finally they [Ben and Claire, the directors of the dance school] found us. We had stupidly gone out grocery shopping, and a couple of the dancers who were playing hooky were out sunbathing and saw us. Ben called all the dancers to find out where Li was and they told him where we were. The directors showed up and they were screaming at us and told Li that he had to go back [to China], he couldn’t stay. They were calling me all sorts of names, what a horrible person I was, and then he said, ‘The only way you can solve this problem is to go to the consulate’.
“We went to the consulate around five o’clock and had a lawyer with us… My friend Everett Dillworths and his wife Laurie along with Dillworth’s brother came to help us. Ben and Claire came as well. [The Chinese Consulate] wanted to just talk to Li and me, but Ben and Claire said no and came in with us. The lawyer came with us too and said we had to sign some papers because there were things we needed to have written down. The consulate kept saying the same thing to Li over and over in Chinese, and I asked Li what they were saying. They said, “What [I] was doing was wrong and he needed to go back”.
I said, “Let’s leave [the consulate], there’s no point in staying,” but when I got up, these guys came busting through the door, threw Li up against a wall, and dragged him out.”
In Cunxin’s autobiography it states that he was held for twenty-one hours during which he was threatened to be killed. What was your experience while this was happening?
“Yes, Li was held but we didn’t leave. For a while they were courteous to us, our lawyer was there and he did what he could do. We sat in separate rooms because Ben and Claire were so mad at us they wouldn’t talk with us. So Laurie, Dillworth, Dillworth’s brother, and I sat in a room. They ordered food and we ate. After a while it began to get obvious that Li wasn’t getting let out. [The consulate] told us to go but we wouldn’t leave Li. Our lawyer had to leave but we were stuck there all night until the next day. We didn’t know what was going on outside because we were stuck inside. It was very frightening… we tried to be goofy and keep the humor going because it was so tense.”
How did everyone manage to get out?
“The lawyer that we had called the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. and explained what was going on. Talking to the Embassy did not work, so the lawyer called the Vice President at the time… George Bush. That ended up forcing the consulate to let us go… we were all sitting together in this one room and Li finally walked to us through the door. We walk outside through these huge heavy doors that went up to the ceiling and outside there are hundreds of reporters, cameras flashing, and there was a car waiting for us that we got into. We drive away and we’re being followed—we realize that it’s the FBI because they were camped outside the building trying to make sure that nobody took Li. At that point, he was considered an American citizen because that’s what it was like back then… if you get married you’re considered a citizen, I think the process is different now.”
Because this became a huge scandal with tons of media coverage, what was living life in the spotlight like?
“What I found most difficult was the reporters. They didn’t write what I said, they made stuff up, and mangled my words. I would read something and say, ‘I never said this’, but now it’s in print. The other thing was I didn’t like all the limelight. We were on TV and on Good Morning America and I really didn’t like all that attention, which I think [Li] did. It made me reassess what I wanted as far as a career goes, I wanted a career but I wanted a quieter career. I wanted to dance, but I didn’t feel the need to be in front of the spotlight like that… it wasn’t something I could handle.”
Do you believe your experience was sensationalized by the media?
“Oh, absolutely. [Li and I] were called a couple weeks after the incident and were asked if we wanted to make it into a movie. I was so done, I thought, ‘I don’t even want to deal with that’. We didn’t consider it at that point, making our story into a movie. It would have been sensationalized even more, there would have been a lot of money from it, but it was too much to handle already.”
What was your reaction when Li wrote his autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer in 2003 so long after all this happening?
“Shock. It was so bizarre. My mother had gone online to find out what he was doing ad she came into the room and told me, ‘I’m not sure how you’re going to take this, but Li wrote a book.’ I was completely in shock, because, as much as it was a story of his life, the things that he wrote were about us too. It was weird to have a piece of your life publicized like that.”
How do you think Li handled what he wrote about you two? Do you believe it was close to the truth or do you believe he neglected your side?
“He definitely didn’t consider my side, but it was also his interpretation. He took what he remembered, all we can remember are the high points and emotional aspects of things, and that doesn’t consider the whole picture it only looks at a specific point. If I could read it to you now I could address certain things that were ridiculous, but I think in a way it was his way of culminating the whole relationship by putting it into his own package. But it definitely wasn’t both sides of the story. It wasn’t the right picture, but it was a picture.”
So then came the movie [in 2010]. It was directed by Samuel Goldwyn Productions and Amanda Schull was cast to play your character. Obviously there are physical discrepancies between you two. She has blue eyes, blonde hair, you have brown hair, brown eyes. The character of Li and of the other people involved are almost identical to their real life counterparts. Do you have thoughts on this?
“I actually emailed the guy who was writing the script because I was really dismayed by the fact that she didn’t look anything like me. He said, ‘Oh, they don’t ever stick to that sort of thing,’ I was over the whole incident at that point, but I thought they were trying to have the two characters [Elizabeth Mackey and Li’s future wife Mary] look different, I have brown hair brown eyes, she has brown hair blue eyes. I think they wanted to have a difference between the two characters and Americanize the girl who played me versus the girl who played Mary who is supposed to be Australian. I think they wanted to have two altogether different views.”
As far as your real life marriage to Li which lasted two years, what was it like being married to him?
“Well, we were together for probably eight or nine months and at one point, Ben, who was the director of the company, he was so angry with me because the company had started to go to China and have an international relationship with the country but now [due to the incident] there was going to be no exchange of students, that was being shut down. He was angry, but not at Li. He couldn’t be angry at Li because [Ben thought] Li was so innocent, so Ben was angry at me… I don’t know what the whole situation was like in his head but he was always so angry with me.
“Right before Christmas, Ben told Li to tell me that I was never going to be taken into the ballet company, and I should just go have babies. I was nineteen at that point, and I wanted a ballet career. I wanted to dance, I wasn’t there to waste my time. I thought Ben would eventually take me into the Houston Ballet but he refused. I left and went back to my old school to regroup my life and at that point Li and I felt like [our marriage] was falling apart. We didn’t know how, as children, to keep the relationship going because we were nineteen and twenty-one. Marriage just wasn’t comprehensible for us at that time. We couldn’t keep the relationship with the distance between us and also due to not having been together that long.”
How long did you remain in the ballet world before you finally left?
“I retired when I was twenty-eight… But I still did guest performances and I taught, probably until I was thirty-three and [my son] Dakota was born. To answer your question I left being in a company when I was twenty-eight.”
Do you think the remainder of your ballet career was marked by the experience you had when you were eighteen?
“Yes, because I didn’t want the big life anymore, and I’m not sure if that would have been as true had I come upon the spotlight more slowly rather than having it thrown in my face at eighteen. It was just so glaring and uncomfortable. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it if the road had been different, but also I don’t know if I would have been that [famous] of a dancer anyway. I believe I had a very fulfilling career given what I did go through, I enjoyed my career, and in the end it was a healthy one.”
For more information…
New York Times article, published 1981: http://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/02/us/chinese-dancer-and-bride-tell-of-love-and-a-scare.html