He wasn’t wearing his trademark cape at the meeting, but David Y. H. Lui was in classic impresario mode as he tried to convince the board of the newly minted Ballet B.C. to premiere the company’s first program in the weeks leading up to the opening of Expo 86. The board was skeptical: Why open ahead of Expo? Why not launch the new ballet company during the busy cultural event?
“I said: ‘Well, think about it this way: we make a mark, they’ll never forget us,’ ” Lui recalled during an interview earlier this year. “ ‘We make a mess, they’ll never forget us either.’ ”
The unforgettable David Y.H. Lui died in Vancouver on Sept. 15 from congenital heart failure. He was 66.
Lui was born in Vancouver on Sept. 28, 1944, and attended Kitsilano High School and the University of British Columbia. His interest in the arts – ballet in particular – started early; he remembered that his mother kept him home from school one day so he could see Margot Fonteyn perform with the Royal Ballet.
Vancouver wasn’t exactly a cultural centre in the early 1970s, but thanks to Lui, it became a frequent stop for world class artists. In 1972, the young upstart established the David Y. H. Lui Dance Spectacular series, and over the years he brought such greats to town as Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, the Joffrey Ballet and even Shirley MacLaine.
“I was this bushy-haired little boy, getting a theatre and, like Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland], putting a show on,” Lui remembered.
From the beginning, he was a showman who delighted in seeing his name on a poster or marquee, an Old World presenter who didn’t seek the spotlight himself, but loved basking in its reflection.
“He would come blustering through the rooms in his cape and he was the impresario, he was the guy, he was making it happen and we all thought: ‘There’s David Y.H.,’ ” said his friend and colleague Brent Belsher.
In 1975, he opened the David Y. H. Lui Theatre on Richards Street (which later became the legendary Richards on Richards). But he couldn’t make a go of it; it closed a few years later.
“That was a big blow to him in his life,” said Lui’s long-time friend and lawyer Denis Walz. “I don’t think David ever quite got over that. I think it was a sad thing he carried with him; his embarrassment at the failure of the theatre.”
But his crowning achievement was to come: It was a dream of Lui’s to build a ballet company, and the opportunity arose in 1985, when it became clear the Pacific Ballet Theatre was in trouble. Given his extensive experience and his golden Rolodex, as he called it, Lui was asked to help.
Together with the Vancouver Ballet Society’s Jean Orr, Lui co-founded Ballet British Columbia.
“He shot for the stars,” says Orr, who remembers Lui as a driven, extremely knowledgeable arts aficionado who could open doors, and who fought for what he believed in, such as where the company would perform.
“He said: ‘If we’re going to have a professional ballet company that’s respected, we’re going to dance in the best theatre in the city and that’s the Queen Elizabeth and we’re not settling for the Playhouse.’ ”
The company premiered on April 11, 1986 – yes, before Expo opened, and yes, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, with a program that included a world premiere by Reid Anderson and Aurora’s Wedding, based on the third act of Sleeping Beauty.
“It was somewhere between great and a mess, leaning towards great,” remembered Lui. “Let’s put it this way: We had inexperienced [ballerinas] running around the stage and nobody fell, so that was a plus.”
Lui remained on the board and during a particularly difficult time in the early 1990s served as general manager pro tem, bringing in John Alleyne as artistic director in 1992, and stepping down the following year.
“When you have a baby,” he said later, “you’ve got to let it go.”
But he never divorced himself completely from Ballet BC. When Jay Rankin took over operations at the troubled company in 2009, following its latest dance with bankruptcy, Lui offered himself up as a mentor, having Rankin over to his apartment to discuss the art form and watch performances on DVD.
“We looked at large classical ballet that made his heart sing,” says Rankin, “and really opened up my eyes, too, to the potential power of these great pieces.”
Lui continued in his post-Ballet BC years to bring some shows to Vancouver – including the Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker – and was always deeply involved in the city’s cultural life.