David Adams: In Memorium

Personal reflections on the passing of an historic figure

On the morning of October 24 2007, David Adams, the first principal male dancer of the National Ballet of Canada, fell into a coma. He’d had his second stroke in early September of this year, so his condition was not good. He was joined by his wife Meridith, who played his beloved Faure’s Requiem, and their daughter Emily, who spent time holding her father and crying. In this company, David quietly slipped away.

It was over. Canada’s first international male dancer was gone. Exit stage left, with the characteristic David Adams combination of dignity and affection.

Over the past week, David’s life has been re-introduced to the Canadian arts audiences. For those who haven’t been watching, it’s worth mentioning a few key points again.

David had, at the age of 19 in 1947, secured his parents’ permission and departed Canada to study in England. He shortly left the school to tour with the Metropolitan Ballet, partnering with Celia Franca in Dances from Galanta and tag teaming with the great Eric Bruhn in Nijinsky’s Spectre de La Rose. Returning to Canada in 1949, David joined forces with Celia Franca to form the National Ballet of Canada, frequently appearing in the fledgeling CBC Television arts productions. His appetite for challenging life’s experiences and defying expectations became well-established.

In 1961, this time defying retirement, David returned to Europe to dance with Galina Samsova (among many others) and choreograph for London’s Festival Ballet. He won, with Samsova, the Gold Medal at Il Festival De La Opera for their performance in Giselle. After Festival came the Royal Ballet under Kenneth MacMillan (a major figure in 20th century ballet), where he taught as well as performed.

David toured from Japan to Jerusalem, from Scotland to Argentina. His passion, integrity and vitality inspired several generations of youngsters into, if not a career in ballet, then a love of dance and theatre.

David’s career will likely be well represented by his sister-in-law Miriam Adams and others among his colleagues. On behalf, I hope, of his many, many students, I offer this reflection upon David as a very special part of our lives.

I had seen David twice since his stroke. The first time, in Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital, he’d been alert and playful, if not always aware of the date and his condition. The second time, in Stony Plain’s Westview Health Centre a day before his death, I was not even sure if he knew who I was. The thought of his passionate spirit bound by a body and mind which were no longer under his control was frightening.

David was teaching at MacEwan College when I first started taking his evening classes in 1987. At almost 60, the man was an inspiration: fit, well-spoken and physically more than competent. None of the students in this adult class ever expected to dance in a professional ballet company, yet David never let us feel that we were a waste of his time. Reflecting years later, he called those classes among the best of his life, free of the forced attendance of children who had no love of ballet and devoid of professional company politics.

As a consequence, his students loved him. David made us want to excel, even as amateurs, simply by being David. His was the way of the carrot, not the stick, and the carrot was always his approval – not something to be granted lightly! He never singled out anyone for negative comments, but his “listen up hearts and flowers” was the preamble to, among other things, a group correction that was usually funny and often historical as well as instructive.

The fact that he was dedicated to the art of theatre over and above any kind of administrative or bureaucratic attitude didn’t hurt his reputation with students at all.

Coming from a background which involved eight full-length performances a week for up to 48 weeks a year, David was, as he often said, “the arch enemy of syllabus” in teaching. Ballet was performance, and performance was stagecraft and theatre for him. Character and vitality must be part of your work or you were a mere technician. This attitude also infused his teaching, which was stagecraft and theatre of a very high order.

Treating us with respect, David was able to challenge us and be playful at the same time. Even in the day time dance program at MacEwan, he would mix up the regular exercise with a Commedia dell’arte-inspired “silly step number one” that would have us in stitches – or knots, anyway.

When he handed out the discipline, the world turned dark, but no less theatric. A distracted discussion during group rehearsal at Valerie Lee’s Alberta Theatre Arts Centre was interrupted by the sound of David’s Italian men’s wallet dropping to the floor and spewing its contents. He looked at us all in turn, then quietly informed us that he would work with us again once we had all apologized in person. Ah, the heartfelt dismay! The grovelling! The power that man had!

He was at the same time history, legend, and an extremely compelling reality.

Damn it, I used to dream of hearing his voice and looking up with the utmost respect to say “yes, Dad?”

The feeling of arms-length respect that one felt around David in the studio carried over into his private life. When I invited myself to his home to inquire about working with him on his memoirs, he carefully admitted that this “might be appropriate.”

Fortunately, once I had made my way to his lovely acreage outside Stony Plain, David became much more open. In addition to his photographs, press clippings and memorabilia, he introduced me to his non-ballet interests: his passion for art, architecture and technology. He had a taste for Art Nouveau and Japanese prints. He had books of classical buildings, many of which he’d gone out of his way to visit in his travels.

Here was the other side of the very public performer who had been Peer Gynt (pronounced Peer Goont in eastern Europe, as he explained the night before he died) and the Snow Maiden’s husband for thousands of balletomanes in the ’60s.

David spoke of his collaborations with his brother Lawrence to rebuild some of the more arcane inventions of Nicola Tesla. He showed me the sound system he’d used to edit music for the Alberta Ballet and later Edmonton’s Festival Ballet. He spoke of the stereo speakers he’d built which had “blown the ears off” the salesmen for whom he’d demonstrated.

When I couldn’t make it out to Stony Plain to write and photograph David’s life, we’d spend time on the phone, arguing politics and history. He confessed his dismay at the present state of the world, and we turned to arguing the conflicting evidence for the existence of Atlantis and the viability of Tesla’s inventions. As his body, that amazing instrument that allowed him to perform classical ballet for over 50 years, finally failed him in the studio, his mind took up the slack.

He was quite thrilled when Veronica Tennant called him for permission to use CBC footage of him in her production of Dancer’s Story. He had hopes of continuing work, begun with his brother Lawrence, on the art of stagecraft. Sadly, further work was not to be.

David called me shortly after his first stroke, confessing to me a profound dismay in his inability to trust his mind and body. Typically conscientious, he parked his car permanently. I became an occasional chauffeur as well as a sometime student and collaborator. It was with pride that I slipped out of work to drive him to the Edmonton Art Gallery to attend the Alberta Dance Alliance’s announcement of his prominent inclusion in their new website.

A very high point in those final years was Adrienne Clarkson’s and John Raulston Saul’s visit in September of 2005 to personally present the Order of Canada. Ms. Clarkson was charming and deferential to David, speaking almost in awe of watching him with his first wife Lois Smith dancing in Toronto in the ’50s. It was, in my mind, most appropriate that she should be the one to recognize this great man, and very touching that she came in person to present the award.

The O.C. came two years before he died. It was late, but fortunately it came in time.

Despite these events, and occasional appearances in Edmonton (perhaps the most personal being my wedding), David had withdrawn from public and dance life over the past five years. He had touched thousands over the years with his passion and uncompromising dedication; his charm and his sometimes wicked humour. Meridith and Emily became the last close contacts of his amazing life, and I consider it a privilege to have been, if at a distance, part of this special circle.

Gunnar Blodgett
October 25-27, 2007