Grant Strate trained as a lawyer, but before he could practise he gave up the bar to take up the barre. This was always his little joke.
Mr. Strate ended up raising that particular barre very high, so to speak, establishing an elevated standard for dance in Canada, first as a dancer, then as a choreographer and finally as an academic.
"Grant Strate was a towering presence in Canadian dance," says celebrated contemporary dancer Peggy Baker, one of many dance artists in this country who owe their careers to his inspired teaching and guidance.
"His contributions were profound and crucial, and his legacy will continue to move our art form forward for generations to come."
Mr. Strate came late to the art form on which he would leave an indelible mark. He became a dancer at the relatively advanced age of 23, after first joining the National Ballet of Canada as a charter member in 1951.
But whatever Mr. Strate might have lacked in early training, he more than made up for in brainpower. Intellectual depth would became a key characteristic of his own choreography. It was also something he strove to nurture in the dancers under his tutelage at university dance programs in Toronto and Vancouver.
Mr. Strate died Feb. 9 at home in Vancouver after a brief battle with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. He was 87. His protégé and friend, the Chinese-born dancer and choreographer Wen Wei Wang, was by his side.
His passing is being felt by dance artists with a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, a testament to the breadth of his influence.
"Grant was remarkable and affected many, many people," says Jennifer Mascall, one of the first graduates of York University's dance program, who went on to found her company, Mascall Dance, in Vancouver. Mr. Strate sat on her company's board for eight years.
"He was a lovely person, very low key and so instrumental in starting things up, says Vanessa Harwood, the former National Ballet principal dancer whom Mr. Strate had hand-picked, when she was just 17, to dance a leading role in his 1966 ballet Triptych set to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
"I always found him so curious, energetic and supportive, says the Bharatanatyam dancer, Lata Pada. "He was truly an iconic Canadian and dance in Canada will always hold a very special place for him in its dance history."
In recognition of his devotion to dance in this country, Mr. Strate received the Jean A. Chalmers Award for Creativity in Dance in 1993 and was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1994. He also earned the Governor-General's Performing Arts Award in 1996, and an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Simon Fraser University in 1999.
Mr. Strate's introduction to dance came purely by chance. He was born a Mormon in Cardston, Alta., near Lethbridge, on Dec. 7, 1927, to Mabel (née Wilson) and Albert Strate. During the Depression, Albert worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and one day had a customer who couldn't pay him. Instead, the woman, a dance school owner, offered free tap-dance lessons for his son and daughter. Young Grant was six years old at the time.
There were no other dance lessons until university, when Mr. Strate took some modern dance and theatre classes on campus at the University of Alberta.
At that time, he began dabbling in choreography, mostly delving into weighty subjects such as war and peace and the relationship of man to the universe.
A chance encounter with National Ballet founder Celia Franca during a company tour of Edmonton led him to show the former British dancer what he had been up to. She was impressed by his ideas.
On impulse, she asked him to join her company in Toronto. Just as impulsively, Mr. Strate, a newly minted lawyer with zero ballet training, accepted.
"I told her my feelings about ballet. I also expressed my belief that ballet was unintellectual and escapist," he told a reporter in 1969.
"I suppose it was pretty nervy of me; after all, my only real training was a few classes in modern dance at the university. I had never studied formal ballet because I was pretty certain I hated it and I had never even seen a professional ballet," he continued, adding that "ballet frustrates me. But the law would have frustrated me more."
Given his ambivalence about ballet, it's no wonder that after five "agonizing" years of training, he turned to choreography, seeing it as a more accessible outlet for his intellect. Mr. Strate served as the National Ballet's first resident choreographer, from 1964 to 1970. He created 20 works for the company, including 1964's celebrated House of Atreus.
Inspired by ancient Greek tragedy, the work featured an original score by Canadian composer Harry Somers and costumes by Canadian painter Harold Town. Critics heralded it as establishing a distinctly Canadian dance aesthetic.
"The House of Atreus is important because it is a completely indigenous work," wrote Herbert Whittaker in The Globe and Mail on the occasion of the work's April 22, 1964, premiere in Toronto. The highly influential theatre and dance critic called "Grant Strate's House of Atreus … the most important new work in the history of the National Ballet of Canada."
The opening cast included early Canadian ballet stars Lois Smith and Earl Kraul, Mr. Strate's companion until Mr. Kraul's death in Vancouver on Dec. 23, 1999.
The National Ballet was an illustrious company, the elite of Canadian dance at the time, but Mr. Strate felt more at home in modern dance. In 1970, he left the company to establish Canada's first degree program in dance as the founding chair of the dance department at Toronto's York University. A master's degree program followed six years later, another first for Canada.
Mr. Strate's goal was the creation of "a thinking dancer." It was a radical concept even to those who wanted to support it.
"In 1965 I had seen Grant perform character roles in the National Ballet's production of [John] Cranko's Romeo and Juliet, and I remember thinking this can't be real, this conversation in which he was explaining his vision and goals for the new program at York," remembers Selma Odom, who was a 27-year-old dance historian who had just started teaching at the University of Michigan when Mr. Strate asked her to join the faculty, in 1972.
"I had never spoken with a professional ballet dancer face-to-face, and here was one talking enthusiastically about dance theory as well as practice. … Needless to say I was quick to follow up when he suggested I apply for a position at York."
Mr. Strate was himself a gifted teacher of dance who had taught at the Julliard School in New York, the Laban Centre in London and, later in life, at the Beijing Dance Academy in China. When starting York's dance program, he called on his international colleagues to help him out. Among the program's first guest teachers were Antony Tudor, then-choreographer in residence of American Ballet Theatre in New York, and Robert Cohan, the Martha Graham-trained dancer who was the founding director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, in England.
Lured by such names, talent came from across the country to audition for the York program.
Graduates include Toronto Dance Theatre director and choreographer Christopher House, Dancemakers co-founders Marcy Radler and Andréa Ciel Smith (their 1974 company was made up mostly of York grads), and the independent choreographer and dancer Denise Fujiwara.
At York, Mr. Strate had also initiated training in the nascent field of dance therapy, which was pioneering in its day.
"People continually ask me what we are training all these young dancers for. They think dance is a tiny, isolated field," said Mr. Strate in a 1971 interview. "But with this training our students can do anything."
It was a belief he took with him when he moved to Vancouver in 1980 to become the director of the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. He continued to teach ballet classes there until he was 80.
His contribution to dance on the West Coast was profound. Mr. Strate was a visionary who worked behind the scenes to create the Scotiabank Dance Centre which opened in downtown Vancouver in 2001.
"I don't think there would have been a Dance Centre without the energy of Grant Strate driving it forward," says David MacIntyre, a composer and professor at the Simon Fraser School for the Contemporary Arts.
"He refused to take no for an answer. He was feisty and fearless and he believed in the power of art to change people, that it was not just a frill for public entertainment."
Tall, with a lanky build, Mr. Strate had blue eyes that twinkled and a shock of wiry hair that prompted a comparison with Marcel Marceau, the celebrated French mime artist. Except Mr. Strate liked to talk, and talk deeply about dance, an art form he tirelessly fought for as a subject worthy of intellectual inquiry.
"Grant was a passionate and eloquent advocate, activist and catalyst for dance," says Vancouver dancer and choreographer Karen Rose.
"There were times when he really had to fight, with his amazing intellect and wit of course, for dance to be accepted and respected as a discipline in the university. And even when it was implemented, he had to continue to fight for its equality and security, something we tend to take for granted right now."
Former dancer-turned-teacher John Ottmann recalls how Mr. Strate loved to be in the studio around dancers and choreographers at work. "Grant was so generous with his time and energy, and I am honoured to be on the list of people he invited to his house to visit, eat, talk and share."
Mr. Strate's funeral in Vancouver on Feb. 16 was standing-room only.
Mary-Elizabeth Manley, currently an associate professor in York's dance department, was among those in attendance.
"We knew Grant as our mentor, our sounding board, our wise counsellor, our hero, our muse," Ms. Manley says.
"Though devastated that we can no longer lean on the man who spurred us on to enliven dance in our various communities, we can embrace his spirit and move forward as bold and feisty advocates for dance, just as Grant was driven to act throughout his long and celebrated life."
To submit an I Remember: firstname.lastname@example.org
Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.