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Guts & glory

Artistic director Arnold Spohr's passionate drive and vision put RWB on the map

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Arnold Spohr, the homegrown arts legend who led the Royal Winnipeg Ballet from obscurity to international acclaim, was remembered Monday as a stubborn visionary who poured his lifeblood into his beloved company.

Spohr, who was artistic director of RWB for a remarkable 30 years -- 1958 to 1988 -- and held the title artistic director emeritus, died of chronic kidney disease early Monday at the Tuxedo Villa nursing home.

He was 86 and had been incapacitated for several years, said choreographer Stephanie Ballard, a close friend who was Spohr's caregiver.

"It was time," Ballard said. "He passed away very peacefully."

André Lewis, current artistic director of RWB, said in a statement that Spohr was "absolutely instrumental" in taking the company to international prominence. "He put his heart and soul into realizing that vision," Lewis said. "We at the RWB are humbled and proud to carry on his legacy."

"He was a giant," Ballard said. "There was no one like him. He gave Canadian dance an identity."

Dance journalist Michael Crabb, author of the 2002 Spohr biography An Instinct for Success, called him "a volcanic force for good in Canadian dance."

"And it wasn't just Canada," Crabb said. "Wherever you went and the subject of ballet came up -- Russia, Cuba, Australia -- people would ask, 'What about that wonderful man in Winnipeg?' "

The ambitious Spohr, a North End product of immigrant parents, was a genius at international networking. With a relentless drive to get the company seen and build its reputation, he transformed RWB into one of the most widely toured ballet companies in the world. RWB was lauded in dance capitals like Moscow and New York for its unique freshness, vitality and charm.

"Winnipeg is known everywhere because of our company, not because of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers... or the Winnipeg Jets," Spohr said in 1977. "They know us in South America, Australia, Japan."

Spohr was a choreographer in his early years at the helm, but later left that mostly to others. He fostered many choreographic careers, taking chances on young up-and-comers such as the now-distinguished Brian Macdonald.

Macdonald remembers Spohr hounding the fledgling Canada Council for the Arts for financial support when the funding body's antennae were pointed East.

"He had a Teutonic stubbornness that served him well," Macdonald, 81, said. "The RWB wouldn't be here today if it weren't for Arnold and Kathleen Richardson. Arnold was the anchor."

Richardson, a longtime benefactor of the company who championed Spohr when others said a "local boy" couldn't handle the leadership, said in a statement Monday that she felt relief that Spohr has been released.

"His death gives us back the real Arnold," she said. "He lives in our memories as he truly was during all those years with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet."

In the studio as a rehearsal director, coach and teacher, Spohr was known for relentlessly pushing his dancers. New York dance critic Walter Terry described him as "one of the greatest ballet directors I have ever watched at work."

Spohr, who never married, was often described as obsessive, uncompromising and mercurial. By his own admission, he could be a tyrant. He would blow up at a dancer, then later apologize profusely. "I won't allow anything but the highest standards," he declared in 1977.

He weathered internal conflict, mass resignations of dancers and financial strife. In the 1970s, he said he had "quit the RWB two million and a half times," but always ended up staying out of loyalty to the company, which he described as a family. He was offered jobs in London, Europe and the U.S., but turned them down.

Every person in the RWB organization called him "Mr. Spohr." He would affectionately call the dancers "honey lamb" or "snooky."

After he retired, Spohr kept an office in the RWB building and continued to mentor, inspire, teach and advise.

"I am blessed," he told the Free Press in 2003. "And to think I was just this shnook from Winnipeg."

A private funeral will be held in the coming days. Memorial events in Winnipeg and Toronto are expected to be held soon.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2010 C1

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