We’ve been out conquering the world,” says Arnold Spohr, director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, “but we haven’t conquered Winnipeg. It’s a challenge.” It won’t, of course, be the first challenge the company has faced since Gwenneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally had the nerve to start it all in 1939, in a town where folks thought a “barre” was a fancy way to say saloon. Now Canada’s oldest and bravest ballet company is dancing into its 40th season under the banner 40 Years Strong. Fade-in theme song: And what do you get? Another year older, and deeper in debt. The fact is, the birthday roses have a little frostbite this season. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has a depressing deficit of $303,000, a spiral in subscriptions from a high of over 11,000 to a little over 5,000, and management has a splitting headache—Director Spohr and General Manager Edward Reger have been an oil-and-water mixture for some time now. Nobody is saying the RWB’s days are numbered. But it looks like a mid-life crisis instead of one of those harvest anniversaries.
Money worries have curtailed travel-
ling; in the pastdecade, thecompanyhas toured Europe, Australia, South America, the Caribbean, Cuba, Mexico and Israel—374 cities in all, most of which responded with good reviews. This year, but for a brief fall tour to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Ontario, they will restrict themselves to their most demanding audience, at home in Winnipeg. “We have had much warmer receptions outside Winnipeg,” says Spohr, “but many artists find it hard to penetrate audiences here. The answer is to find
something that excites them and to stay close to them.”
Accordingly, the new season clings to the tried and true—Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, Brian Macdonald’s Ai mez-vous Bach?and Paddy Stone’s Hands. Unlike the old days when half a dozen new works were introduced each year, this season only two debuts are scheduled: Les Sylphides, choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, and a new as-yet-unnamed piece by Salvatore Aiello.
But while people may criticize the ballet for sticking to hardy annuals such as Neumeier’s Nutcracker, no one disputes the glorious past that this season also celebrates. With its tightly knit ensemble of 25, it has always been the country’s most versatile company; given the obstacles facing them, it has often had to be. Choreographer Paddy Stone, who was 16 when he joined the company, recalls how they used to almost drag men off the streets to get them involved. A man might as well slip into a ballgown as put on leotards back then.
For the past 20 years the company’s Svengali has been the 51-year-old Spohr, who joined as a dancer in 1945. The son of a Lutheran minister, Spohr is an impassioned disciple of dance with a quicksilver temperament—a combination that has endeared him to many and driven a few weaker souls away. Spohr rants and raves regularly, although he seems to get from his dancers exactly what he wants: their best. As dancer Bonnie Wyckoff put it: “He challenges our resourcefulness, but he is also capable of inhibiting dancers, destroying their self-confidence, even driving them out of the company.”
Last season Spohr made it clear he was tired and wanted a break from the day-to-day operational demands. A long-simmering dispute with manager Reger didn’t help buoy his spirits. Finally, to ease the pressure, Spohr came up with a scheme for passing on control to a new triumvirate. The board acquiesced, partially. Though Spohr is still firmly in the driver’s seat he now has three associate directors to assist him. Ever a dedicated professional, he’s clearly doing his best to revive sagging spirits in the company. Nevertheless, the effects of the deficit and the dispute resonate right down through the ranks.
The attitude of many RWB workers towards General Manager Reger is one of barely restrained hostility. Said one: “Right now I’d say we’re operating in spite of management rather than because of it. The attitude here is that we’ll all sit tight.”
Not surprisingly, Spohr is vague about the feud with Reger. “Good people are hard to get and they cost a lot,” he says. “Eventually I’m sure we’ll get the right person, an experienced person. We have to work as a team and to do that you need people who’re generous
and unselfish, who put the company first.”
The future tense is deliberate. But for the time being Spohr has dug in, and no longer talks of retirement. “I expect I’ll be here for the rest of my lifetime, even if not as a director. The past 20 years have been difficult but very rewarding. I have no regrets. I still feel the company has a good future and the search for new talent will go on.”
And in a sense, Spohr has seen it all before. When he took over in 1958, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet had a bad case of fallen arches. A disastrous fire in 1954 had all but wiped out the company and the original founders had moved away; there was a dangerous break in continuity, something Spohr has achieved and is determined to carry on. Deficits have come and gone as well; in 1974 suppliers began to cut off credit when the debts crept up to the $300,000 mark. In those days the provincial government came to the rescue but that particular pantry is looking bare in 1978. Spohr, with his usual lift-thine-eyes positivism, hopes that hard times will mean a more supportive local audience.
Another RWB member concurs: “We’re trimming our sails and counting paper clips, but lean times can be good. At least they pro-
vide a short, sharp, shock and make you focus on what it is you’re doing and where you want to be going. For too long we’ve coasted on past successes.
“Money is important but we can survive without it,” Spohr says (to almost audible moans from the wardrobe department). “The main thing is to have the spirit and the determination. Beautiful sets and costumes help, but they alone do not a good company make. I believe life begins at 40, or I like to think it does.”
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