by Michael Crabb

I heard him before I saw him.

It was the early spring of 1974. I was sitting in the Green Room, backstage at the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg, having a chat with Maggie Morris Smolenski, a former CBC Television personality who was then the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's director of communications. Suddenly I heard this rather high-pitched voice yelling in the distance. It got louder. "What's that?" I asked, with a note of concern. "Don't worry," said Maggie, "it's just Mr. Spohr."

I had only been writing about dance for a couple of years but already the sound of those two words, "Mister Spohr", had a special resonance. Like the sound of his voice, his legend had preceded him. This was the man who during the previous sixteen years had transformed a once struggling little ballet troupe on the prairies into an international success story, into a company with a rich, varied and often innovative repertoire. This was the man who so inspired his dancers that, regardless of what they were performing or whether it was in Moscow or Moose Jaw, it seemed their very lives depended on the outcome. Where the august National Ballet of Canada in Toronto appeared to me immaculate, stately and impressive, Spohr's RWB was joyful, friendly and fervently communicative.

I jumped to my feet and rushed to the hallway in the hope of a direct sighting. All I got was a glimpse of a tall man, wearing what appeared to be some kind of leisure suit, sandals and a large cap, disappearing through the door that leads to the stage still yelling.

"Is he always yelling?" I asked Maggie. "Not always," she replied. Then, after a pause, "but fairly often."

I was formally introduced later the same day. The yelling had long stopped. The man I met was almost courtly in his greeting, soft-spoken and outwardly shy. His eyes were penetrating. "So, you're from Toronto," he said, rolling out the name with slightly menacing emphasis. "That's nice." A few more courtesies and he was gone. "I hope you're coming to see the show," he said in parting, more in the tone of an order than an observation. Of course I was. Whatever the yelling had been about, its effect was galvanizing. The dancing was terrific.

It was several months later when I picked up the phone to discover Spohr on the other end. "I'm in Toronto. I'm at the Westbury. We never had time to talk when you were in Winnipeg so I thought it would be nice to meet for breakfast some morning so we can have a little chat."

As I later learned, Spohr likes to do business at breakfast. He's an early riser. He's also sharp as a needle first thing in the day. It gives him a tactical advantage over lesser mortals who are still revving up.

Our "chat" was more in the form of a monologue. Spohr ranged widely and circuitously through a bewildering range of topics, all to do with dance and the RWB. Well, not quite all. Arnold Spohr both worries about and neglects his health. He's always taking some remedy or other. At this time he was seriously exploring the benefits of vitamin supplements. He ceremoniously pulled from his pocket a collection of capsules and tablets of various shapes, sizes and colours, all bundled in cling-wrap. In the process of opening this therapeutic treasure trove he accidentally spilled most of its contents onto the floor. Once we had retrieved all fifteen items, he identified each and explained its benefits.

Occasionally Spohr's voice would become impassioned. The words tumbled out so fast that I wondered how he was able to breathe. Little clumps of saliva foamed in the corners of his mouth. Sometimes they would detach. His mood shifted dramatically, according to the subject at hand. His eyes would at one moment shoot darts. The next, they assumed an almost seraphic calm. Spohr chuckled at his own puns, or waited for a reaction to one of his famous and slightly improper double entendres. He also managed to allude to something I'd written about the RWB and with which he clearly disagreed, but he did it indirectly and without malice.

By the end of it all I was bewildered, entranced, mildly intimidated and very much in awe. This was not a man but a force of Nature. Yes, he seemed more than a little crazy, but it was the craziness of an idealist and, I was fairly sure, a manic genius.


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