Closeup/Dance

The artist struggles on

Arnold Spohr made Winnipeg famous. It didn’t reciprocate

John Ayre November 14 1977
Closeup/Dance

The artist struggles on

Arnold Spohr made Winnipeg famous. It didn’t reciprocate

John Ayre November 14 1977

The artist struggles on

Closeup/Dance

Arnold Spohr made Winnipeg famous. It didn’t reciprocate

John Ayre

The office of Arnold Spohr, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, is the farthest point inside the RWB complex from the bleak entranceway on Portage Avenue. Whatever that means symbolically, it’s a damned hard climb. Up several flights of stairs, through windowless corridors, past crowded rehearsal halls, up another flight of steps along a gallery and, finally, the office. In tune with the rest of the building, a

divvied-up ex-furniture emporium, with banging pipes, creaky floors and headache-inducing fluorescent lights, Spohr’s command post looks like the backstreet office of a failed B-movie producer, right down to the clichéd director’s chair with his name on it. There’s a tiny window, one of the very few in the building, a bouncy floor which magnifies the sounds of dancers rehearsing below, a huge heating duct which makes a crude right-angle turn right over his desk and a tacky green drape in a cornerwhichservesashiscloset. Theinevitable “Best to you, Arnold eight-by-10 glossies cover virtually three walls,

Spohr himself was sitting behind the desk in a blue denim leisure suit with a large toothpaste stain on his right lapel, The man himself wanted to be friendly and up-beat, reinstating all the Arnold Spohr myths of gentleness and charity. Showing me around his office, he reverently explained each of the important photos on the walls and then drew his green closet drape aside to reveal a stack of Christmas presents he’s already bought for company members. “Then on Valentine’s Day,” he explained with childlike enthusiasm, “I exchange cards with friends like Bonnie [Wyckoff, a principal dancer].” With wide fluttery eyes, he confirmed that, yes, he once turned up at a company party as the Jolly Green Giant, rather effectively exploiting his six-footthree frame. But though he glories in the role of the big indulgent, sometimes silly, brother, there were pressing, nearly catastrophic problems that soon sent him back to his desk. They quickly corroded the sentimentality and replaced it with a certain sourness bordering on hysteria.

The first was a critical injury list which made the company, a mere day before their eastern Canada tour, look more ready for Napoleon’s Moscow retreat than a zesty cultural invasion of the eastern heartland. One star had a serious, as yet undiagnosed back injury. Another, barely 32, had just suffered such an excruciating attack of arthritis, he didn’t know whether he would walk properly again, let alone dance; yet another a severe heel inflamation. On top of it, two Australian principal dancers, still suffering shock from a single desolate Winnipeg winter, were heading home to the cozy subtropics.

Then there is the nagging aggravation that his company and his reputation are unfairly ignored in his own country. After all, wasn’t his company Canada’s bestknown cultural export, celebrated the past decade in Leningrad, Moscow, Prague, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Washington, DC, if somewhat neglected in Canadian cities? Was this not the company which introduced the work of a hot new Argentine choreographer, Oscar Araiz, who currently has prominent New York directors like Robert Joffrey scrambling up to Winnipeg, for heaven’s sakes, to see all the excitement? Spohr leafed through a company promotion kit to make sure every Xeroxed tribute was present. But though he earlier denied there was any personality cult around the Royal Winnipeg, he suddenly discovered a grevious gap in the kit. There was no photo of Arnold Spohr, no crisp, immortalizing eight-by-10 glossy of himself. He picked up the phone immediately to summon up a new one.

When it didn’t arrive in a quarter hour, he phoned again, impatient and peevish this time. “You better get cracking, is all 1 can say.” In a few minutes, there was a knock on the door and a beleaguered assistant brought in the offending item. Spohr nodded gravely. Then, as if stricken with a collapse of ego, he casually passed it across the desk. The print was still sticky from developing and marred by a couple of bad negative scratches. The photo was litto take 15 years off his appearance. Even then, in his mid-fifties, Spohr is remarkably well-preserved, his hair healthy and intact with a nice sheen from artificial hair coloring.

For a man as routinely honest as Arnold Spohr, this exhibition of flaming Zsa Zsa Gabor ire in the midst of wider companyconcerns was a minor offense. It nicely underlined his exasperation at his continued obscurity. Artistic directors in this country, after all, usually British, have a way of arriving in a blaze of publicity to take over orchestras, opera, ballet and drama companies. Winnipeg-loyalist, Arnold Spohr, 30 years leading figure of the Royal Winnipeg, authentic North End alumnus, Canadian-born prodigy of German and Latvian parents, early winner of the Molson Prize and Order of Canada, is virtually unknown in his own country. Yet in international ballet circles, he is much admired as a director who has probably done more with the ballet art on fewer dollars than anyone anywhere in the past quarter century. If anything is happening out there, he is often the first to know. He must, in order to grab young choreographers and dancers before they become too expensive for his financially undernourished company.

Spohr is particularly adept at scrimping, at working his skeleton staff ragged, expecting all-hours dedication to the company. He notes with approval that his newgeneral manager, 28-year-old Ed Reger, sometimes works until dawn in his office. To save money, his production managers have pioneered new lightweight equipment and packing techniques to get all their sets, lights and cables into a single transport truck (the National Ballet sometimes uses eight). As for himself, Spohr long gave up everything for the ballet and owned virtually nothing until recently when he bought a Florida condominium apartment. Beneath the Jolly Green Giant sentimentality, he has a fierce Teutonic sense of order. “Arnold,” says Brian Macdonald, his counterpart at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, “is the kind of man who has his Christmas cards (600 or so) written by October and mailed on the first of December. He chooses the next year’s cards by March and they’re written again by the first of October. It helps to have someone like that in the arts in this country.”

All this heavy monastic dedication has also taken its toll. With an appropriate, though unintentional, wave toward a nearby cache of multicolored heart pills, he exclaimed, “I’ve had three collapses and a heart attack. I’m not just sitting around wiggling a pencil all day long. Yet there are politicians here who think we’re bums, parasites who’re not paying our own way.”

Although company members admit that Spohr sometimes exaggerates his health problems, there are enough aggravations in hometown Winnipeg to send anyone’s blood pressure soaring. Some local politicians, it seems, still don’t like ballet. In one budgetary meeting early this year, a councillor suggested the city throw all its money for the arts onto the council room floor and let the company managers fight for it like dogs, RWB manager, Ed Reger, a sturdy sixmile-a-day jogger, relished the idea.

Spohr, however, was not amused. The company’s grievances are so obvious, they shouldn’t be treated so lightly. The RWB, for example, was promised a new headquarters in the Centennial Centre, which opened nine years ago. But because other theatrical companies were faced with extinction if they didn’t receive space, Spohr charitably, perhaps stupidly, gave up the RWB allocation. Since 1972, they’ve occupied the furniture store on Portage and suffered sweltering summer rehearsals with primitive air-conditioning which lamely stirs up the stale air already trapped in the building. The lease on the store is running out in 1979 and Spohr naturally would like to see some action on a new place.

The Secretary of State has agreed to put up much of the capital but won’t budge until the local and provincial governments put up their own small share. This kind of formula financing has worked perfectly for Vancouver’s Orpheum and Niagara-onthe-Lake’s Festival Theatre, but in Winnipeg the politicians plead austerity, indifference or act with bald philistinism. Their attitude recalls their celebrated predecessor, David Mulligan, who made Canadian arts history by trying to obstruct a mere $2,000 grant to the ballet in a 1956 Winnipeg council meeting. “The Royal Winnipeg,” he pronounced, “was nothing but a bunch of galloping galloots. Which would do more good, the ballet or a school for retarded children?”

Even today Mulligan’s crude red-neck posturing rankles Spohr because his spirit is still so much alive. “If they don’t like what we do, that’s fine, but they don’t have to use all our great accolades and reviews for their own publicity. Yet what’s the first thing you see? ‘Winnipeg, Manitoba— Home of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.’ Why don’t they use the Blue Bombers losing all the games you can imagine? Why don’t they use the Jets?”

The company is so poor it has had trouble raising the necessary $ 132,000 for a week’s stint in New York. The RWB has been circling New York, the world’s dance capital, for more than a decade but has never made it into Manhattan itself. Spohr was privately desperate to go because it would finally establish the upper limit of his life’s work. For themselves, the dancers find it galling to see the National Ballet jetting down to New York from Toronto every summer to dance at the Metropolitan Opera House with Nureyev while they slog it out in one-night stands via Greyhound in Middle America in such places as Marion, Ohio, and Tarrytown, New York.

In any case, there is a maddening frustration when both the New York dance scene and the Royal Winnipeg are eager, but unable to get together. New York dance fans have developed an interest in the choreography of Oscar Araiz whom Spohr discovered in Brazil in 1974. Other artistic directors—for instance, Robert Joffrey—will simply move in and slice up Araiz’ repertoire. When time became critical in July, Ed Reger announced that the RWB would perform at the Uris Theatre on Broadway in October, money or not. Finally in August he canceled this and to Spohr’s delight booked the company for March into the City Centre, the showcase for two important American dance groups, the Joffrey and Alvin Ailey companies.

Despite such happy reversals as this, Spohr sometimes keenly confesses he’d like to resign. Artistic directors, of course, are celebrated for using resignation threats to scare up money or remove disagreeable administrators. Spohr is no exception but when he talks of resigning there’s an undeniably rhapsodic tone in his voice. “I’d leave the whole bloody business, go into coaching, teaching and making a fortune. I’d teach only 20 hours a week, be picked up at the airport in a limousine like a star, given all kinds of money and go home for six months. I’ve bought this place, a condominium in Fort Lauderdale. It’s French chateau style, overlooking a canal. Trees just sway back and forth. No highrises around, no trains going by. The Atlantic is only five minutes away. Someday I’m going down there for a good solid rest.” Then in a drastic change of mood, he later unsaid it, breathlessly swearing, “I'll be loyal to the end of time.” He chuckled self-consciously. “Sounds like a pop tune doesn’t it?”

Spohr was born in Rhein, Saskatchewan, near the Manitoba border sometime between 1920 (likely) and 1929 (very unlikely) depending on the reference text. “No one’s guessed my age, ever'' he cheerfully elaborates. His father, a German Lutheran pastor, moved to the North End to take over a parish when Spohr was still quite young.

He was a gifted athlete, playing basketball and baseball. His sister dragged him off to piano Jessons “with 15 minutes practice time and sprained fingers from baseball.” Despite early resistance, he became his father’s choirmaster and organist and eventually a minor league concert pianist. After a Winnipeg performance of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo left Spohr exultant, his brother Richard, a sometime New York model and actor, pushed him (“I was shy”) to go see Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally who created the Winnipeg Ballet School in 1938 and the Winnipeg Ballet Club in 1939. Appraising his size, strength, coordination and musical background, they grabbed him and never let go. From 1945 to 1954 Spohr was one of the company’s leading dancers, popular among his partners for his strength and confidence on stage. Because the Winnipeg Ballet was still largely amateur, he supported himself by teaching piano.

In the early Fifties, the company established professional status, a royal charter in 1953 and the beginnings of some attracfive engagements including Washington, DC, with guest star Alicia Markova, Britain’s pre-Fonteyn superstar. Later, in 1954, a devastating fire wiped out the company’s entire wardrobe, sets, choreographic notes and archives. For a year the ballet didn’t exist. Spohr went to London to study and crowned his dancing career with a Christmas program Where the Rainbow Ends in the Coliseum, partnering Alicia Markova.

He returned after a year to care for his dying mother and taught ballet at the company’s school. The Royal Winnipeg was back in business but the disputes surrounding successive American directors, Ruthanna Boris and Benjamin Harkarvy, were so bitter they made headline news. Harkarvy quit just before the end of the 1957 season in February. Logically the company, which never had a very solid financial foundation outside of judicious Richardson family donations, should have collapsed for good. A harried delegation of board members including Kathleen Richardson decided to try one last gamble—Arnold Spohr. They marched into one of his classes and nicely asked him if he would at least finish off the season. Concealing his own ambivalence and fear, Spohr created an effect which was magically sedative on the wildly unhappy company. A newspaper photo shows him, light-colored hair, long nose, face of mildness, bent down adjusting the ankle of a dancer in a line of thick-thighed corps de ballet girls. This obviously was no Bolshoi Ballet but he was trying his best. The headline of a review days later reads GLITTER BACK AS SPOHR SAVES SHOW.

Essentially he has been doing the same ever since. As he constantly reminds people, it hasn’t been easy. At the start he worked 18 hours a day building up files on dance notation and generally reorganizing every bit of the chaos he inherited. He regularly flew to Denmark and eventually Russia to study technique.

He was the first director to use guest artists from the Soviet Union (the Kirov’s Makarov and Moiseyeva in 1960 and the Bolshoi’s Khokhlov and Karelskaya in 1961) to force his dancers to keep sight of high performing standards. He orchestrated an invitation to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1964 which was the company’s big break. The New York critics saw them there for the first time and highly praised them. In 1968, amid student riots, the company and its prima ballerina Christine Hennessy each won first place medals in the Paris International Dance Festival. “We got 12 out of 12 raves there and we had dancers who couldn’t even do a double pirouette.”

Yet even with the peaks, most everything has remained the same: second-rate dancers who somehow looked good on stage, lack of money and proper facilities, a crazy mix of one-act classical and contemporary ballets and hard one-night stands usually in small-town America and Canada between the big European, South American and Australian dates. With its quality of dancers, the starvation-look costumes and often weak choreography, it’s not possible, logically, to have the kind of success the company has enjoyed. If you strip down all the variables you usually end with only one to explain it, Arnold Spohr’s direction. Spohr believes that, however good or bad a dancer may be, he must understand at the depths of his being why he is dancing a role. In rehearsals, he dives into everyone’s cerebral space and builds from the inside out.

Spohr's own mind is a vegetable salad of

crazy metaphors. When he’s rehearsing a new ballet, he “motivates” his dancers by firing a machine-gun spray of images at them. “1 have to find an image so that the dancers can get the shape or life of a step. In rehearsing John Neumeier’s Twilight, I might try a beautiful description of a sunset which may have nothing to do specifically with the step, but which gives the exact texture of the step.” At the same time, he goes a little berserk. Says Bonnie Wyckoff: “It’s sheer madness to see. He pushes people this way and that and says anything that comes into his head related to what we’re doing. Out of maybe three or four dozen ideas, everybody picks up one or other of them and uses it. He allows people to be themselves, to find a movement that they feel instinctively, rather than sticking something on them superficially they don’t feel at all.”

Unfortunately, this takes time and when the company suffers inevitable epidemics of injuries and resignations, Spohr is like a lonely giant on a fast crumbling sand castle. When important dancers leave for bigger companies or climates where the winter doesn't last half the year, he has to spend precious time scouting across North America and sometimes Europe for replacements. He then has to reeducate them. Without resources or time, he has never built up a solid school like the National Ballet that would feed new homegrown stars into the company. One of his onerous duties is running the ballet summer session at Banff School of Fine Arts to recruit new dancers, at one time almost all Americans, into the company. Unable to develop a star such as Karen Kain from scratch, he has to settle for amplifying what already exists in a dancer.

His record for developing choreographers is more impressive. While most artistic directors are fond of wailing about the famine of choreographers around the world, Spohr consistently beats the odds and finds them before anyone else while they are still fresh and their fees low. The Royal Winnipeg could write a solid little promotion booklet on the young, now famous choreographers he has helped to develop—among them Eliot Feld. John Neumeier, Oscar Araiz and two of only three internationally known Canadian choreographers, Brian Macdonald and Norbert Vesak. He keeps pulling them out of nowhere, each time embarrassing the National Ballet which used to insist there was no talent in the realm.

A major problem with the contemporary work of Araiz and Spohr’s previous wonderboy, John Neumeier, is that it has advanced the company possibly too far beyond the tastes of Winnipeg. The company has lost its wide base in its own hometown and the federal government is often loath to hand out its own large grants without some consistent show of local support and popularity. While the new work may drive young audiences to wild cheering and send creative shock waves all the way to New York, there may still be a tenacious tutu addiction among local fans. The company acknowledges a major problem and is inching carefully backward and viewing the landscape. It plans to haul out old versions of Swan Lake and Les Sylphides for local production.

At the same time, they haven’t forgotten New York and, as they head south to raid the world’s dance capital, Arnold Spohr and the Royal Winnipeg will once again reestablish their traditional balance: all equations do not always have to end in the bleak zero of conservatism and permanent exile.