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David Lui: The man with the flowing cape brought ballet to life in B.C. Add to ...

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.

“Any time we were at David’s apartment, the phone would be ringing non-stop,” recalls Walz. “He had a large dining room table that was always covered with invitations and we used to love to stand there and read through what he was being invited to.”

That table – which sat 10 comfortably – was also the setting for spirited dinner parties, which Lui held frequently, bringing together artists with business leaders, feeding them overdone roast beef and engaging them in conversation that sparked big ideas – and life-long friendships.

Lui had his fingers in many cultural pies over the years. He was a founding member of the B.C. Arts Council. He sat on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts. He founded the cultural program for the Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival. He was involved, initially, in the cultural program for Expo 86. He became a member of the Order of Canada in 2000. “His name is synonymous with outstanding entertainment in Vancouver,” read the citation.

He sat on many boards, including The Dance Centre (now the Scotiabank Dance Centre) and The Dance Foundation.

“He always spoke his mind,” says Mirna Zagar, recalling her interview by the board to become The Dance Centre’s executive director. Lui wanted to know whether Zagar, who is from Croatia, thought her English was good enough, and also whether she was planning to have any more children. “Everyone was mortified,” laughs Zagar. “All the things you’re told not to ask in interviews, he did. I didn’t really mind, of course, but it did take me by surprise.”

In the years ahead – she got the job – she would collaborate frequently with Lui, who was never short of ideas or plans.

“There’s hardly a thing that still exists and is flourishing in the city’s cultural life that David didn’t have some influence or some role – and quite often a significant one – to play.”

During The Dance Centre’s construction, money was running short, so the board decided not to install the canopy the architect Arthur Erickson had envisioned for the rooftop patio.

“Arthur had considered [the canopy] critical and he was upset about that,” remembers Walz. “So David told Arthur: ‘I will raise the money to ensure the canopy goes on.’ ”

Lui wasn’t great at holding on to money himself, but he was a master at persuading others to give – or, as in this case, throwing swishy fundraising events – and with Walz, raised more than $100,000.

A few days after Lui’s 65th birthday in 2009, the canopied patio was renamed the David Y. H. Lui Roof Garden Haven.

Heaven help the person who didn’t include the “Y. H.” in Lui’s name. Not that he would disclose what the initials stood for, even to close friends, who would joke that perhaps it was “Your Highness” or “Yoo Hoo.”

When Walz discovered the truth a few years ago – he saw Lui’s full name printed on his hospital bracelet – Lui became quite upset, recalls Walz (who elected not to share the secret).

Lui had heart trouble for years; Belsher remembers hearing the ticking of Lui’s pacemaker in quiet theatres. And he also suffered from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

He moved into a smaller, more manageable space in the Performing Arts Lodge, but he kept working, often falling asleep at his computer, and was not ready to give up his dream of bringing classical ballet to Vancouver. With Ballet BC focusing on contemporary works, Lui teamed up with Belsher to bring the National Ballet of Cuba to Vancouver next February with Don Quixote.

“We would go to meetings with people and he would say, ‘This might be my last kick at the can,’ ” says Belsher. “And here we are; it’s his last kick at the can.”

Belsher says the shows will go on, and will be dedicated to Lui’s memory.

Friends are heartbroken that Lui did not live to see the performances, but note that meeting legendary Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso in preparation for the tour was an absolute thrill for him.

So was Ballet BC’s 25th anniversary celebration, which he attended with Orr last April. The occasion had him thinking back on the many highlights – and lowlights – of the company he helped found.

“We tried to do everything at Ballet BC,” Lui said shortly before the event. “So we can all go to the big theatre in the sky thinking that we tried, at least. And I don’t think you can ask any more of people.”

David Y. H. Lui leaves his brother, Philip, and sister-in-law, Ping.

A celebration of his life will be held on Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. at The Playhouse.

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