Arnold Spohr: Dancer and inspirational ballet director who worked with Fonteyn, Markova and Baryshnikov

Arnold Spohr was a man of many tales, some as tall as he, others rooted in fact. One of his favourites concerned the day he almost dropped the celebrated ballerina Alicia Markova. The year was 1956. Spohr, a Canadian, was acquainting himself with the British ballet scene and had secured a cavalier's role in that once popular Christmas entertainment, Where the Rainbow Ends. On the morning in question Spohr's contact lenses had inadvertently been flushed down the toilet. Later, as Markova – the Spirit of the Lake – hurtled towards him from the wings of the London Coliseum all the hapless myopic could perceive was an expanding blur of white tutu. On contact, Spohr somehow managed to elevate Markova into an approximation of the intended overhead pose but her subsequent rebuke haunted him: "Never put your hand on my crotch in public again."

Spohr survived his brush with ignominy to become artistic director of Canada's oldest dance company, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB), transforming it during his 30-year tenure from a struggling prairie troupe into an extraordinarily successful international touring company. Markova, who at Spohr's behest travelled to Winnipeg to stage Les Sylphides, was among the many ballet luminaries who gladly lent their support.

The handsome, sports-loving, piano-playing Spohr – youngest of four sons of a fiery Lutheran minister – was an improbable latecomer to ballet. In 1942, one of his three sisters convinced Spohr to escort her to see the visiting Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Although thrilled by the experience, it was another two years before he began training with the British-born RWB founders, Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally.

Lloyd soon found good use for Spohr in the fledgling company. With accurate modesty he never claimed to have been a great dancer but he certainly cut a dash on stage, had a flair for acting and was an adept partner. In 1951 he also began choreographing to encouraging notices, but his true life's work lay ahead.

In 1958, with scheduled performances only weeks away, the RWB was left in the lurch by one of Lloyd and Farrally's successors. Spohr stepped in to save the day, was rewarded with the artistic directorship and immediately set about revitalising the foundering company.

Preserving Lloyd's populist programming approach – something to please every taste – Spohr used stern love to shape his troupe into a formidably communicative dancing ensemble. He became equally skilled at persuading his sometimes reluctant board of directors to think big.

Spohr invited the ballet world's best teachers, including Vera Volkova, to work with his company. By keeping it small – rarely more than 25 dancers – he forged the RWB into an agile, affordable bus-and-truck touring company. It crisscrossed North America and by 1965 had made the first of several visits to London. Paris, Leningrad and Moscow soon followed and by the mid-1970s, after tours through South America and Australia, the RWB became one of the world's most travelled dance troupes and Canada's pre-eminent cultural ambassador.

Spohr was fortunate in his timing. He could not have foreseen the "Ballet Boom" triggered by Rudolf Nureyev's 1961 defection but had positioned the RWB admirably to take full advantage of it. He spiced his programming with dazzling guest artists such as Fonteyn, and later Baryshnikov. He also took big programming risks with innovative work without sacrificing the RWB's audience-friendly reputation.

Although he considered himself a fine teacher Spohr was most effective as an artistic coach, director and ballet master. The irascible choreographer Agnes de Mille, entrusting one of her works to his supervision, was astonished to find it looked better when she returned. The respected American critic Walter Terry wrote that Spohr was "one of the greatest ballet directors I have ever watched at work." Spohr, through a combination of crazed antics, suggestive imagery and occasional invective, inspired his dancers to perform beyond themselves.

There was a personal toll. Spohr drove himself to the point of physical collapse and although he had devoted friends chose not to forge any intimate domestic partnership, instead pouring his heart and soul into the RWB. When finally coaxed into retirement at age 65 it meant that Spohr, anxious for some continuing role, sometimes felt adrift. As his successors struggled to adapt to post-Ballet Boom realities, Spohr fretted from the wings, believing he could set things right. Eager for engagement he accepted an invitation to work with the Toronto-based Ballet Jörgen where his shrewdly canny theatrical instincts and eye for detail soon put a professional polish on the small touring company. Spohr also continued to coach dancers privately and would happily mentor any who sought his help. One of his later protégées, Peter Quanz, in 2007 became the first Canadian to choreograph for the Kirov Ballet.

Spohr earned just about every honour and award his country could bestow. One citation described him as "the best-loved man in Canadian dance." It was not an exaggeration.

Michael Crabb

Arnold Theodore Spohr, ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer, director: born Rhein, Saskatchewan 26 December 1923; Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director 1958-88; associate artistic director, Ballet Jörgen 1992-2002; Order of Canada (Officer, 1970, promoted to Companion 2003); Governor General's Performing Arts Award 1998; Order of Manitoba 2000; died Winnipeg 12 April 2010.

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