Life sentence with the ballet


RICHARD O’HAGAN December 7 1957

Life sentence with the ballet


RICHARD O’HAGAN December 7 1957


Life sentence with the ballet


Canada’s foremost dancers live out of a suitcase,

see their child only occasionally and sometimes exist on unemployment insurance.

“But we’re ballet dancers,” they say, “and we can’t afford to compromise”

Six years ago David Adams and his wife Lois Smith politely turned aside the overtures of a New York theatrical agent who assured them they could earn a thousand dollars a week on television as a tails-and-evening-gown dance team. They elected, instead, the relative austerity of a career in Canadian ballet and this year, though they have achieved an international reputation, they will do well if their combined earnings total five thousand dollars.

As leading dancers of the National Ballet of Canada, Adams, born thirty years ago in Winnipeg, the son of a mechanic, and Miss Smith, the twenty-eight-year-old daughter of a Vancouver shoemaker, are reconciled, with a wry , kind of cheerfulness, to working in an art whose material rewards are slight at best.

Their dedication to ballet not only keeps them hard-pressed financially but has forced them, because of the precarious and nomadic lives they must lead, to give up at least temporarily the normal pleasures of raising their only child, a daughter, Janine Dariel. Now approaching her seventh birthday, she stays with grandparents in Vancouver. Lois and David spend a month or two with her every summer.

During the seven or eight months of the year they are either rehearsing or performing, the Adams draw the National Ballet’s top money— sixty dollars a week. The rest of the time they supplement their resources by filling the few engagements, such as dance recitals, that allow them to remain loyal to ballet in its pure form. They collect unemployment insurance to see them over the rougher spots.

The bright future forecast by the agent who approached them, contract in hand, following a performance at the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand show in 1951 would presumably have made this kind of tenuous living unthinkable. But they took less than fifteen minutes to convince him they were not interested. They have no regrets about it. even though it has meant some sacrifice as well as a good deal

of improvisation in their day - to - day living.

Lois, who is an expert seamstress, helps balance the budget by making many of her own clothes, suits and coats included. For David she makes slacks and shirts.

Sometimes they combine their auxiliary talents in the interests of home improvement. David made the wooden frame for the low wide chesterfield in their living room. Lois made thc^ slipcovers. David’s woodworking hobby got a

boost recently from an unexpected source. His

favorite uncle arrived

To live on ballet’s rewards means learning bow to “do it yourself” with a saw and sewing machine

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“What I say,” said the director, “is that those kids have guts”

in Toronto on a visit from England and gave the Adams a belated wedding present—a healthy cheque. What to do with the money posed no problem for them. They bought a circular saw, for $64.95.

The marital rapport that enables the Adams to invest in a circular saw as if it were a dining-room table carries over, with the same salubrious effect, into their careers. As probably the only leading ballet dancers, in the Western world at any rate, who are husband and wife, their marriage is very close to an absolute fusion of public and private lives.

“We’re together all the time,” says David, “at home, on stage, in dressing rooms, on buses. Our marriage is really a twenty-four-hour proposition.”

They’ve been apart only three times since they’ve been married — twice in 1951 when David came east to Toronto alone from Winnipeg for dance recitals, and once, later, when Lois traveled home alone to Vancouver from Toronto. She went by herself because there wasn't enough money for both of them to make the trip.

Although David occasionally dances with other ballerinas, Lois has never danced with anyone but her husband. She came close once. On New Year’s Day, 1956, the National Ballet presented the Nutcracker Suite in a Toronto theatre for an audience of underprivileged children. Part of it was to be carried by the U. S. television program, Wide, Wide World.

Camera rehearsal was held on New Year’s morning. Lois arrived at the theatre alone and distraught. David, she reported anxiously, had a virus and was terribly ill. He had collapsed in the bathroom at home as they were preparing to leave. “I'd better rehearse with the understudy,” she said to Celia Franca, the company’s artistic director and a former Sadler’s Wells ballerina.

She did rehearse with the understudy, but when it came time for the actual performance she danced with her husband. David had pulled himself out of bed and arrived at the theatre, dangerously weak and bathed in perspiration but determined to go on. At one point he had to lift Lois to his shoulders and “when l did,” Adams recalls, “1 saw stars.” Celia Franca later punctuated an account of the Adams’ chins-up performance with the exclamation, “What 1 want to say is that those kids have guts.”

The Adams think of themselves in less heroic terms though ballet dancing is hard work. Lois loses an average of three pounds each performance; David loses from three to five pounds and has lost as many as ten. Both are usually back to their normal weight in less than a day.

They talk of “condition” as a prize fighter might. During the summer when the ballet company is inactive they spend an hour and a half a day doing their “class,” a series of exercises that keeps the muscles toned and responsive. They scrupulously avoid physical strain. Swimming is the only sport they permit themselves.

Lois continued dancing until two months before the birth of her baby and the day before she went to the hospital was still doing formal ballet exercises. She was dancing again two weeks after the baby was born and in another two weeks took part in a showr in the ball-

room of the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg. Neither Lois nor David diets although he once waged an epic struggle against excess weight.

The battleground was England in the spring of 1947. Fresh from the Winnipeg Ballet (not yet the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), he had arrived in London the previous October and enrolled at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School as a scholarship student.

This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Before long he was a supernumerary in Sadler’s Wells productions at Covent Garden. He did notice one day that he had gained some weight, hut it was nothing to worry about, he quickly decided. The pounds kept going on. He had weighed less than a hundred and sixty when he left Canada. He now weighed a hundred and seventy-five. He became a little concerned but the Sadler’s Wells junior company was preparing for a tour of the provinces and he was much too busy to let a few extra pounds upset him.

Then suddenly he began to balloon. The scales now read two hundred

pounds. One day at rehearsal the director called him aside and informed him, rather stiffly, that he could join the company on tour but, because of his avoirdupois, he would be of no service thereafter. Adams gave his notice .immediately and left.

Next day he auditioned for a company called the International Ballet and, somewhat to his surprise, was accepted. His spirits rose. Half an hour before curtain time on the night of his first performance he was handed his costume. He couldn't get into it. He was brought another, and another. Same story. He didn't go on.

The director was sympathetic. “I like your work,” he said. “We'll be glad to have you anytime, but you must lose weight.”

Through a frantic training program Adams trimmed himself to his original hundred and sixty in two months. This involved eight hours of strenuous exercises six days a week. He had to do it by exercise because this was at a time of stringent postwar rationing in England and the foods associated with reducing diets just weren’t available. He could only get one egg a week, a few ounces of meat, and almost no fresh fruit, so he had to keep on eating potatoes and bread, although in smaller amounts. He was constantly thirsty because. while exercising so vigorously, he cut his intake of liquid to two glasses

of water a day. When it was all over he had lost forty pounds.

Today, ten years later. Adams’ weight hovers between a hundred and seventyfive and a hundred and eighty pounds, evenly distributed over his six-foot frame. His frank wholesome features, topped by a shock of sandy hair, combine with broad shoulders, narrow waist and well-muscled legs to give him the appearance of a college halfback. “One of the few males in ballet who is not a lad, but a big man,” wrote a U. S. critic with satisfaction.

The status of the male dancer in the public domain is not generally an agreeable one. He may be thought of as sissy, effeminate or worse. Most parents, especially fathers, do not look on ballet as a proud calling for their sons. Though his attitude has long since changed. Charles Adams was not favorably impressed when nine-year-old David became a student of ballet in Winnipeg. But Mrs. Adams felt that nothing but good could come of it.

David was a quiet child, frail and undersized, but he had straight legs, carried himself well and showed a certain grace in doing basic ballet exercises for the first time. And whatever it might indicate, Mrs. Adams told his teachers, he was fascinated by Fred Astaire movies.

Since the class conducted by Gwenyth Lloyd and Betty Farrally needed boys, the Adams were not charged a fee for their son’s lessons. This was true later too—dance instruction cost David and his parents next to nothing.

The tousled-haired youngster took to ballet from the start. But it did not earn him much respect among his schoolmates. “Here comes the ballet dancer,” they would shout and light out after him. “But I could usually run faster than most of them,” he says with a smile, “and eventually they left me alone.”

Ballet remained his consuming passion even though teachers began warning that almost nightly rehearsals were affecting his progress. But school was not really of much interest to him and at fifteen he left. For a brief period he was an apprentice sheet-metal worker. Then his father, a mechanic foreman at the bus garage, helped him get part-time work with the Winnipeg Electric, the city’s transportation utility.

But all the while he continued his ballet studies. His development as a dancer is illustrated, he thinks, by the way he matured in a work called Finishing School, then a fixture in the Winnipeg Ballet’s repertoire. “I started off as the valet de chambre who showed the young lady to her room when she arrived at the school,” said Adams. “In another production I was one of her brothers. Finally, I was the school’s dancing master. It took me six years, but I made it.”

Shortly after this achievement, Adams left for England on the Sadler’s Wells scholarship. He returned just over two years later, in November 1948, to rejoin the Winnipeg Ballet as soloist. The next summer he went to Vancouver to dance in the Theatre Under The Stars production of Song of Norway. His partner was Lois Smith. She looked much the same as she does today with a pale oval face that draws its classic quality from a fine aquiline nose and greygreen eyes, large and luminous. Her long

brunette hair is still worn in a smooth chignon. She is five feet four and a half inches tall, weighs a hundred and ten pounds, has high square shoulders and long slender legs.

Lois is the only daughter of William Smith, a short sturdy man who has been an active gymnast all his life and, though nearing his sixty-fifth birthday and retirement, still does an occasional handstand. “I must have inherited whatever co-ordination I have from him,” Lois says.

Her older brother Bill paid for her first ballet lessons, begun when she was ten. They continued on a one-a-week basis for six months, stopping only when Bill, who worked with his father at the shoe factory, found that he couldn't afford them any longer. She didn’t start taking lessons again until she was fifteen, considered in dancing a rather late age. But she was filled with resolution and she had a goal—to be a member of the chorus at Vancouver’s Theatre Under The Stars. She succeeded just under a year later, and though she made two off-season road-company tours—one in Song of Norway, the other in Oklahoma!—she spent all her summers at Theatre Under The Stars. Then she met David. They fell in love.

That winter they both stayed in Vancouver, studying and doing dance recitals. In the early spring they went south and joined the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company as solo dancers. It was presenting such operettas as The Chocolate Soldier and Rose Marie. They had made up their minds to get married and not long after arriving in California set the date—May 13, 1950.

The judge was a bleached blonde

The ceremony was performed in the Los Angeles Court House by a woman whom they remember with vividness because she was a bleached blonde, because she was only four and a half feet tall and because her name was Adams —Judge Ida May Adams. Since it was a Saturday they still had a matinee as well as an evening show to do before they were free to leave for Catalina Island and a two-day honeymoon. They were back in time for Monday night’s performance.

After six months of light opera they returned to Vancouver for a month and then on to Winnipeg where, in April 1951, their daughter was born. Late that summer they were featured at the Canadian National Exhibition. Their performance prompted the TV offer from the New York agent. They refused and three weeks later were in a dingy Toronto rehearsal hall—charter members of the National Ballet of Canada.

Rehearsals are still held in the same hall. The company is larger now and its operations more complex. The annual U. S.-Canadian tour is longer,

which means that when the phone is disconnected and the apartment locked, the Adams can expect to be away four months, carrying culture to the outposts of the continent.

The one-night stand is a rigorous institution. In the Adams’ case it runs something like this: Up at 6, breakfast at 7, on the bus and away by 8: next town, check into hotel around 4, after light snack go to theatre (which may be auditorium, movie house or hockey arena), size up the stage, do a series of warm-up exercises, put make-up on; performance, leave theatre between 1 1.30 and 12, have supper, go to bed between 1.30 and 2. Next day the same thing all over again.

After this kind of schedule the Adams

are grateful to get home. In the last seven years they have had eight different addresses. They are now establishing what they hope will be a more permanent abode. It is a comfortable five-room flat on the second floor of a red-brick house in a modest section of west Toronto. They share it with David’s twenty-yearold brother, Lawrence, who has followed closely in David’s footsteps and now also is a dancer in the National Ballet.

In the hallway at the top of the stairs leading to the apartment are three framed photographs of Lois and David in dance positions. The long grey living room is dominated from an elevated corner position by a sculpture of Lois. On the living-room wall arc two prints of Degas ballerinas.

At the rear of their flat is a large, split-level room that serves as a combination studio-workshop. On one side is a work bench with electric drill, electric soldering iron and the usual chisels, pliers, screwdrivers and hammers. Standing proudly in the centre of the floor is the circular saw.

A multi-section wall cabinet is given over to camera equipment, film, stacks of technical magazines and books on architecture, mathematics and astronomy. A long brown telescope with a four-inch lens sits on a tripod in the upper level of the studio. While Adams’ brother is really the amateur astronomist, Lois and David often join him in a session of star gazing.

When he isn’t absorbed in astral or technological matters, Adams devotes his spare time to projects relating to his art. One of his plans is to encourage the establishment of an archives of the dance. “Not just Canadian though,” he says. “It would have to be international, with records, pictures, Pavlova’s shoes—anything we could get.” He is also convinced that an account of the beginnings and development of ballet in Canada must be set down, and has made a tentative start on it himself.

His creative record already includes the choreography for five ballets and one pas de deux and one pas de trois—ballets in miniature that feature two or three dancers and run eight to ten minutes. He is now thinking out the details of a full-length ballet that will involve a good deal of sword play. With guidance only from a book called Fencing With The Foil, David and his brother spend many evenings in the studio thrusting and parrying with pieces of wood. They are now looking for a pair of foils and when they get the time will take formal instruction. “Fencing,” David explains, “is something a dancer should know. It gives poise and confidence.”

The Adams are firmly committed to ballet, its propagation and advancement. Their standards are high. They have not done any variety dancing on television or anywhere else for more than three years.

“It’s not,” says Lois, “that we’re snobs or that we can’t use the money, but there are other people to do that sort of thing.”

“Ballet,” adds David, “is on the ground floor in this country and we can’t afford to compromise. We’re ballet dancers, that’s the important thing.” if


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