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Anna Wyman in her studio, c. 1974.

Courtesy of Dance Collection Danse

In the theatre, watching dance she had made, Anna Wyman would wonder, “How did I think of this? Where does it come from?” One of Canada’s leading modern dance choreographers, Ms. Wyman dug deep into herself – pushing the art form to imaginative, theatrical heights, pushing the dancers to be strong and confident onstage, pushing everyone’s creativity to the limit.

Ms. Wyman could be a demanding taskmaster, as hard on herself as on her dancers and creative team. Yet her ambitious vision turned her small Vancouver company into a major force in the national dance scene, and built it into a flagship Canadian company that toured the world in the 1970s and 1980s.

By 1990, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre’s once-generous support from the Canada Council for the Arts had dried up and the company was forced to fold. For the next three decades, Ms. Wyman dedicated herself to her Anna Wyman School of Dance Arts, in West Vancouver, with equal passion and single-mindedness. She remained creatively involved almost until her death on July 11 at North Vancouver’s Lions Gate Hospital, following a heart attack, at age 92. She leaves her two children, Gabrielle Capewell and Trevor Wyman; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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Pierre Des Marais, a former company dancer, remembers when Ms. Wyman’s Here at the Eye of the Hurricane was voted one of the top three entries at the International Young Choreographers’ Competition in Cologne in 1973. “There were companies from all over Europe, looking down on us, these dancers from Vancouver,” he says. After their win, not only was a marked change evident in the attitude of those other groups, but more importantly, “it sparked a change in the imaginations of the dancers in our company. We felt, wow, we can compete with the best of them.”

Born Anna Margaretta Schalk on April 29, 1928, in Graz, Austria, Ms. Wyman was an only child. During the Second World War, her father was conscripted into the German army. “He went to work one day and just didn’t come back,” she said once. “We didn’t see him for a long time.” Alois Schalk had grown up on a farm, studied to become a shoe designer and then moved into textiles. Her mother, Margaretta (née Fladnitzer), was known for her beautiful arms and hands that artists wanted to paint. Margaretta loved opera and was a talented, though untrained, singer.

Anna began ballet classes at Graz Opera House at age four, and was often onstage in the children’s ballet. Her parents supported her desire to dance as long as she kept up schoolwork. In her mid-teens, she became a soloist with the Graz Opera Ballet, happily immersing herself onstage in the grand sets and rich visual and musical colours of Aida one night, Carmen the next.

In 1952, she moved to London, where she had two children with her first husband. She studied Rudolf von Laban’s movement theories, a major influence on early European modern dance, and taught creative dance in private schools.

Laban’s ideas about creative improvisation were evident in the first work she presented in Vancouver, where she settled in 1967 with her children and second husband, Max Wyman, who was just starting out as an arts journalist. At the Vancouver Art Gallery’s noon-hour series, Process and Product, Ms. Wyman’s presentations would often begin with her asking an audience member to choose a painting on which to improvise, then asking someone else to choose the dancers.

Her young group, which became a regular at the art gallery, was sent on a tour around British Columbia by the Jeunesses Musicales concert series. Mr. Wyman travelled with them, pitching in to do stage managing and lighting. “We had two big vans and nine dancers,” he recalls. “It was quite wonderful barnstorming all over the province. Anna’s stuff was lively and accessible, audiences loved it.”

Mr. Wyman credits his insider look at the nuts and bolts of dance as important to his growth as a dance critic. The couple separated in 1974.

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Though shy in private life, Ms. Wyman commanded respect in the studio, and was tireless in developing the dancers’ technique. “You wouldn’t dare let her down,” says former company member Linda Arkelian. Ms. Wyman’s insistence on high technical standards paid off: Her work was admired for its clean polished lines.

Her choreography was set to everything from traditional orchestral scores to contemporary experimentalists. For Klee Wyck: A Ballet for Emily – honouring West Coast painter Emily Carr for International Women’s Year in 1975 – she commissioned a score from popular singer-songwriter Ann Mortifee.

Ms. Wyman favoured a strong theatricality for her contemporary vision. There were props, film, lasers and costumes hand-painted by local artists. Ms. Arkelian recalls the extravagant dress she wore for Maskerade, “made up of bolts and bolts of cloth embellished with gold. Anna said, ‘You deserve to feel like a goddess.’”

Adastra was praised by Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Times in 1985 as an “excellent piece of stage magic.” Ms. Kisselgoff described how the piece of undulating fabric stretched across the stage at the beginning “rises to create a wall as masked creatures creep out from under the waves and engage in inventive shapes, tumbling and dives.”

This intense theatricality earned comparison to American Alwin Nikolais, who was sometimes accused of dehumanizing the dancers in favour of special effects. Mr. Des Marais (now executive director for Montreal’s Danse Danse series) describes Ms. Wyman’s work as having more soul. “It was not just a display of technology,” he says, adding that she started with the dancers and the choreography, “then added layers after that.”

Desiree Zurowski and Trevor Wyman of Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.

Courtesy of Dance Collection Danse

Ms. Wyman chose her dancers carefully. She found Desiree Zurowski when she observed a class at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where Ms. Zurowski was training. It was 1985, and, Ms. Zurowski says, “I knew exactly who her company was and the work they did. They were famous by then.” As the first modern dance company to tour Canada in 1975, and the first one from the West to tour China in 1980, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre was often in the news.

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By 1990, however, battling rumours of a drop in artistic standards, the company lost crucial Canada Council funds, leading to its demise. “The one comment I have to make about that,” Ms. Zurowski says, “is that I remember being at the Playhouse doing three nights and they were all sold out.”

Ms. Wyman threw herself into her School of Dance Arts, which she ran with her husband, Neil Christopher Wortley, a former dancer with Anna Wyman Dance Theatre. Mr. Wortley died in 2017 at the age of 70. Though she hadn’t taught classes for several years, Ms. Wyman continued to offer artistic leadership from her home until the school was sold on July 1, 2020.

Ms. Wyman's husband, Neil Christopher Wortley, of the Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.

Courtesy of Dance Collection Danse

Kirsten Andersen, Ms. Wyman’s granddaughter and a former member of Toronto Dance Theatre and Compagnie Marie Chouinard, is proud to be a third-generation contemporary dancer. Her mother and father (Gabrielle Capewell and Jerry Andersen) performed with Anna Wyman Dance Theatre before she was born. Growing up, she often watched the company, including her aunt and uncle (Desiree Zurowski and Trevor Wyman), rehearse in the studio and then transform into “magical creatures” onstage.

Ms. Andersen says her grandmother could be intimidating, and was strict over things such as table manners. But she received Ms. Wyman’s full support when she had to leave the family to move east for her career. “Your art is important to you,” Ms. Wyman told her, “and no matter what, you have to do it.”

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