Arnold Spohr was the sixth child of a German-born Lutheran minister and his Latvian-born wife. He was born in 1923 in Rhein, Sask., but grew up in Winnipeg's North End. He was a talented pianist. He started dancing in his teens, after his sister dragged him to see a ballet.
Tall, handsome and athletic, "Arnie" Spohr joined the fledgling RWB, co-founded in 1939 by Betty Farrally and Gweneth Lloyd, in 1944. He quickly became a leading dancer, despite his late start. "I got roles because they needed me," he recalled.
He was appointed artistic director in 1958 -- the first Canadian to lead a professional Canadian ballet company. The company was a "bloody mess" at the time, he later recalled, and he set out to rebuild it.
Undeterred by Winnipeg's isolation, between 1959 and 1964 Spohr took trips to study teaching methods and choreography in England, the Soviet Union, Asia, Europe, South America and Australia. Insisting that "to be the best, you have to learn from the best," he brought top-flight artists, such as choreographer Agnes de Mille, to Winnipeg. After a 1964 breakthrough at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the troupe burst onto the international stage, earning raves in Paris, the Soviet Union, across Canada and throughout the world.
Spohr led the company from triumph to triumph, working with top choreographers, commissioning Canadian ballets such as The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, mounting full-scale classics such as Swan Lake, establishing the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, and nurturing the career of world-class ballerina Evelyn Hart. In one of Spohr's golden moments, Hart and partner David Peregrine won gold and bronze medals in 1980 at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.
In 1982, Spohr won a Dance Magazine Award for his "enormous contributions" to the growth of dance. He was the first Canadian to receive the award, which had gone to giants such as Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Spohr was a member of the Order of Manitoba and a companion of the Order of Canada. His many honours include honorary doctorates from the universities of Manitoba, Winnipeg and Victoria, the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, the Molson Prize and the Canada Dance Award.
Spohr passed the artistic torch in 1988, the same year the company moved into a new facility on Graham Avenue that he had pushed to have built.
His only surviving blood relative is a nephew, Gregory Spohr.