It was 1993 and Karen Kain was in a bind. The National Ballet of Canada’s prima ballerina had signed a contract with publishers McClelland & Stewart to write her autobiography and, being aware of her limitations – “I knew how to dance my feelings,” she recalled, but not how to write them down – she had been collaborating on the book with The Globe and Mail’s senior arts writer, Stephen Godfrey. Then Mr. Godfrey died unexpectedly that year, before they had finished a final draft.
To complete the book, Ms. Kain needed another collaborator, one with the same breadth and depth of knowledge about the Canadian dance world as Mr. Godfrey and, most importantly, one with the skill to shape her thoughts and feelings into engaging prose. She found that perfect combination, and more, in Penelope Reed Doob.
Prof. Reed Doob, who died on March 11 in Toronto at the age of 73 from complications due to Parkinson’s disease, must have seemed a daunting co-author. In addition to being one of Canada’s leading dance critics, whose reviews appeared in The Globe and other publications, she was a brilliant York University professor with degrees from Harvard and Stanford who had previously penned significant books on medieval and classical literature.
Yet, as Ms. Kain discovered, she also had the sensitivity and empathy that allowed her to put herself in the ballerina’s pointe shoes.
“She was able to really understand me,” Ms. Kain said admiringly of Prof. Reed Doob. “She was perceptive and intuitive and compassionate. Even though she was so highly educated and such an intelligent woman, she didn’t just live in her head, she also lived in her heart.”
Born on Aug. 16, 1943, Penelope Billings Reed was an old-stock New Englander who grew up in Providence, where her parents, Thomas L. and Betsy Reed, taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. Summers were spent at Camp Pemigewassett, a boys’ camp in New Hampshire co-founded by her paternal grandfather, Dr. Dudley Reed. Young Penelope loved the camp. Over the years she would return regularly to stage its traditional Gilbert and Sullivan production – a job she inherited from her mother – and served on its board of directors.
After graduating from Providence’s Lincoln School, she majored in English literature at Harvard University, where she also took theatre and dance classes and was heavily involved in its theatrical productions. At the same time, she spent her summers doing medical research at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire – an experience she would draw upon years later when she became involved in efforts to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.
“She had many quite different interests,” recalled her first husband, the distinguished criminologist Anthony Doob, “and in each of these areas, she immersed herself completely.”
She met him at Harvard and they both went west to pursue their graduate studies at Stanford University, in California. It was there, under the influence of noted Chaucerian scholar V.A. Kolve, that she threw herself passionately into medieval literary studies. Her PhD dissertation became her first book, Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Medieval Literature. Prof. Kolve, her supervisor, remembered her affectionately as “a formidable student, with a fresh, original mind.”
The young medievalist was also a striking physical presence on campus. Tall and classically beautiful, with the graceful bearing of a dancer, she often wore floor-length gowns and dramatic, meticulously applied makeup. Prof. Kolve described her as a “Russian princess, of an earlier time.” She maintained that elegance throughout her life; Prof. Doob said her York students used to wait breathlessly to see what sort of stunning ensemble she would wear to class.
She and Prof. Doob were married in 1966 and moved to Canada in 1968 when he landed a job at the University of Toronto. After finishing her doctorate in 1969, Prof. Reed Doob was hired as an assistant professor of English at York’s Glendon College – the start of a long and distinguished career at the university.
Prof. Reed Doob had always loved dancing, but it was during her summers doing literary research in London that she became hopelessly infatuated with ballet, repeatedly attending performances at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells. “One summer, [Rudolf] Nureyev and [Margot] Fonteyn were both guest artists there and I found it really wonderful to watch them work,” she said in a 2011 online interview for the archive Dance Collection Danse. “By the end of the summer, I decided that I wanted to write about dance.”
She began by contributing to York Dance Review, but soon her writing found a wider audience. She reviewed for The Globe and Mail and, from 1976 to 1979, hosted a CBC radio program, The Dance, in which she interviewed such international stars as Sir Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier and Erik Bruhn. She also championed young Canadian artists, among them dancer-choreographer James Kudelka.
“She was always there in the background, writing about my work and helping me,” said Mr. Kudelka, both early on and later, in the 1990s, when he became the National Ballet’s artistic director. Prof. Reed Doob wrote biographies and synopses for the company and closely observed the conception and rehearsals of new works. “She took dance very seriously,” Mr. Kudelka said, noting that she had a rich appreciation of it as an art form. “She made me feel like it wasn’t just a lot of beautiful young people being very athletic and aerobic.”
As a critic, Prof. Reed Doob considered herself a softie: someone who could be counted on to find something positive to say even if a work was terrible. But Ms. Kain, whose succeeded Mr. Kudelka as the National’s artistic director, said that wasn’t entirely the case: “She was never mean, she was never dismissive, but she was highly critical – she had her likes and dislikes. But she managed to criticize while still being incredibly supportive.”
In the late 1980s, as the AIDS crisis devastated the dance community, Prof. Reed Doob decided it was time to return to her medical background. She became a part-time research associate at Toronto Western Hospital’s HIV clinic and, taking a leave of absence from York, co-founded Reed McFadden, a medical-research company.
“I wanted to help save lives,” Prof. Reed Doob told Dance Collection Danse. “However, I eventually wondered what I was keeping people alive for. I thought that dance was one reason why people should enjoy life.”
Consequently, she returned to York in 1994, where she remained until her retirement in 2014. Apart from her teaching – which included English, dance and women’s studies – she was chair of the Department of Dance from 2001 to 2006 and held several other senior administrative positions. Along with Nebuchadnezzar’s Children and Ms. Kain’s autobiography, Movement Never Lies, she also wrote another major literary study, The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages.
Prof. Reed Doob and her husband split up in 1973 but remained on good terms. She married again in 1985, to York University law professor Graham Parker. Their marriage lasted seven years. Prof. Parker died in 2000.
After her retirement and despite the increasing effects of Parkinson’s, which had been diagnosed in 2009, Prof. Reed Doob continued to attend dance performances faithfully. She spent her final days in palliative care at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
Along with Prof. Reed Doob’s fierce intellect and underlying compassion, Ms. Kain and others also remember her great, earthy sense of humour. She had, Prof. Kolve said, “a raucous laugh from the depths, incongruous with the rest [of her personality] and wholly delightful. Penelope took herself very seriously – except when she didn’t.”
Prof. Reed Doob leaves her brother, Thomas L. Reed Jr.; sister-in-law, Dorothy; niece, Abigail; nephew, Daniel; and first husband, Anthony Doob.
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