Brian Macdonald | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Brian Macdonald

Brian Ronald Macdonald, dancer, choreographer, director (born 14 May 1928 in Montréal, QC; died 29 November 2014 in Stratford, ON).

Brian Macdonald

Brian Ronald Macdonald, dancer, choreographer, director (born 14 May 1928 in Montréal, QC; died 29 November 2014 in Stratford, ON). In a 50-year career Macdonald became one of the most prolific and internationally renowned directors and choreographers Canada has ever produced. As a maker of dances, his range extended from jazzy show dancing to abstract neo-classical ballets set to often challenging contemporary scores. As a stage director he worked on comedy reviews, musical theatre, operettas and opera. Acknowledged to be a driven and demanding man, Macdonald was an exponent and advocate of Canadian excellence in the performing arts. Throughout his career, Macdonald was a staunch cultural nationalist and champion of Canadian creativity, deliberately choosing Canadian artistic collaborators for his various projects.

Macdonald began his performing career as a child radio actor in Montréal. Initially he hoped to be a pianist, but in 1945 began dance training with the leading Montréal teachers, Elizabeth Leese (see Modern Dance) and Gerald Crevier (see Ballet). Concurrently, he took a BA degree in English at McGill University (194347), where he also choreographed and performed in the university's Red and White revues. He worked as music critic for The Montreal Herald (194749). Having attended Celia Franca's first summer school in Toronto, he became an original member of the National Ballet of Canada but was forced to quit dancing in 1953 because of a severe arm injury. He continued his dance studies in Montréal and began choreographing for CBC-TV. In 1956, he founded the short-lived Montreal Theatre Ballet with a commitment to staging works to Canadian music. In 1957, Macdonald directed and performed in McGill's now legendary satirical revue, My Fur Lady.

In 1958, Macdonald began a continuing relationship with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, for which he choreographed many works, including The Darkling (1958), Les Whoops De Doo (1959) and in 1966 the first Canadian evening-length ballet, Rose Latulippe, to music by Canadian Harry Freedman, one of Macdonald's most frequent musical collaborators. Among other notable Macdonald-Freedman collaborations are The Shining People of Leonard Cohen (1970) and Roméo et Juliette (1975).

During the 1960s and 1970s Macdonald established an international reputation choreographing for many companies. He was artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet (196467), where he met his second wife, the ballerina Annette av Paul, New York's Harkness Ballet (196768), Israel's Batsheva Dance Theatre (197172) and Les Grands ballets canadiens (197477), where he was also resident choreographer (198090). Among his ballets during this period were the popular Time Out of Mind (Joffrey Ballet, 1962), Canto Indio (Harkness, 1966), and for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Tam Ti Delam to music of Gilles Vigneault (1974), Lignes et Pointes with Brydon Paige (1976), Double Quartet (1978) to music of another favourite Canadian composer, R. Murray Schafer, Fête Carignan/Hangman's Reel (1978) and Adieu Robert Schumann (1979). Macdonald also choreographed several works for Les Ballets jazz de Montréal, who celebrated this association with a special all-Macdonald "homage" program in Montréal in May 1995.

Although Macdonald continued to choreograph, during the 1980s he became increasingly acclaimed as a director of opera and musicals. He had directed his first opera, Mozart's Cosí fan tutte, for the National Arts Centre in 1972 and had great success with a later NAC production of Massenet's Cendrillon (1979), which was subsequently staged in San Francisco, Washington, New York and Paris. From these early successes Macdonald has gone on to direct operas in Toronto, Milan, Sydney and London. His 1990 production of Madama Butterfly for the Canadian Opera Company enjoyed wide success and frequent revivals.

As an associate director of Ontario's Stratford Festival, Macdonald directed 19 productions of operettas and musicals over a 16-year period. His stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, many of them later televised, had particular success, including Iolanthe, The Gondoliers, The Mikado (which toured across Canada and to London and New York) and The Pirates of Penzance. His Stratford staging of the musical Gypsy was partly inspired by the legendary stripper Lily St Cyr, whom he had known during his early days in revues and cabaret in Montréal. His later Stratford stagings included The Boyfriend (1995) and The Music Man (1996). He lived in Stratford for many years.

Macdonald was director of the summer dance program at the Banff Centre for Continuing Education from 1982 to 2001. He successfully revamped the program to create a separate professional training stream, leading to an annual series of Banff Festival performances. These featured revivals of his own works, as well as those by other established choreographers, particularly George Balanchine, and by winners of the Clifford E. Lee Choreographic Award. From 1996 to 1998 Macdonald served as senior artistic advisor at the National Arts Centre, where he directed Benjamin Britten's opera The Prodigal Son in the summer of 1997 and restaged his production of The Mikado.

Later television productions of his work include the 1997 Bravo! performance/documentary Lost Gods, featuring two combined ballets to the first and fifth string quartets of R. Murray Schafer. Macdonald was awarded the Paris International Gold Star for choreography in 1964 and the Molson Prize in 1983. He became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967. In October 2001, he became the inaugural winner of the $50,000 Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

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