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David Adams

Virile, bravura ballet dancer

David Adams, ballet dancer, choreographer and director: born Winnipeg, Manitoba 16 November 1928; OC 2004; married 1950 Lois Smith (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1980 Meredith Wood (one daughter); died Stony Plain, Alberta 24 October 2007.

David Adams became Canada's first male dance star in an era when the notion of men in tights was still highly suspect, an achievement attributable to his unassailable virility, athleticism and masculine good looks. Although as a teenager he performed briefly in London in the late 1940s, it was with the National Ballet of Canada that Adams established his reputation as a virile, bravura classical dancer and outstandingly strong partner. Tall, possessed of natural poise, yet faintly aloof, Adams won the heart of many a ballet fan.

He was fortunate in his timing. When he returned to Canada from his first sojourn in England there were no fully professional companies to join. Adams had to piece together a career dancing and choreographing in musical theatre and revues. He and his young wife Lois Smith had already established a marketable partnership when the British dancer Celia Franca arrived in Canada in 1951 to establish the soi-disant "National" Ballet. The two had danced together in London with the Metropolitan Ballet and Franca urged Adams to move to Toronto to join her fledgling troupe.

He resisted until Franca also agreed, sight unseen, to hire Smith as well. Although she was trained in ballet, Smith's experience was limited to musical theatre, but Franca took her anyway. It proved to be a spectacularly smart decision. Smith soon emerged to become the National Ballet of Canada's prima ballerina and forged a partnership with Adams whose magical chemistry, according to veteran fans of the company, has never been surpassed. Long before ballet hit its popular "boom" era, Adams and Smith managed to captivate audiences across Canada and on tour throughout the United States. In 1956, they starred in the National Ballet's first television production, a Franca staging of Swan Lake.

Adams was a breathtakingly athletic partner – he later gained the nickname "forklift" – and a compelling dance-actor, equally adept in the classics and contemporary works. As a choreographer he also contributed several works to the National Ballet's repertoire, from classical showpieces in the grand manner to more experimental contemporary works with commissioned scores from Canadian composers.

Adams might have stayed with the National Ballet longer had it not been complications in his private life that saw him leave for England in 1961 with a fellow company dancer – not Lois Smith. He became a leading member of London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet) until 1969, appeared in pantomime at the Palladium and in a couple of Ken Russell television films before in 1970 joining the Royal Ballet where he made the transition from danseur noble to character dancer. He subsequently directed the company's touring offshoot, Ballet For All, until another romantic rupture occasioned his return to Canada in 1978.

Adams returned to the open prairie of his childhood, this time to its western extreme in Alberta. He worked briefly with then Edmonton-based Alberta Ballet, taught for many years at a local college and from 1994 until 1996 directed the semi-professional Edmonton Festival Ballet with which he made his last appearance as a character dancer.

By the time Adams returned to Canada the country's dance scene had matured and expanded. After so long abroad, Adams, who never lacked a healthy quotient of amour propre, found himself in many ways an outsider. His star had long faded and, increasingly plagued by a bad back and other ailments, Adams settled into a mildly cantankerous and professionally embittered old age. His spirits were buoyed, however, by his appointment in 2004 to the Order of Canada. It was long overdue national recognition of Adams' huge contribution to professional Canadian ballet in its earliest years. The National Ballet subsequently honoured him during a tour stop in Edmonton. Adams's widow says he died at peace with the world, "with no hard feelings".

Michael Crabb