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Ballet star Lawrence Gradus was a dance trailblazer

Lawrence Gradus in a Les Grands Ballets production of Carmina Burana.

Jack Mitchell

As Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday, Mr. President to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962, Lawrence Gradus was standing behind the curtain with other members of Jerome Robbins's Ballets U.S.A. dance troupe, which was also on the program that night.

Mr. Gradus, who died of prostate cancer in Ottawa on Jan. 7, 2014, rose from humble beginnings to become a brilliant dancer and choreographer with a wide-ranging career that saw him cross paths with some of the most celebrated performers of his day.

As a dancer with the American Ballet Theater, for example, performing in I Can Get it For You Wholesale, Mr. Gradus taught a young Barbra Streisand tap-dance steps backstage, only to be interrupted by her mother dropping off a tub of chicken soup.

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In 1967, Canada claimed him when he accepted an invitation to dance at Expo 67. He went on to found the influential Montreal-based contemporary dance company Entre-Six, and later worked with Ottawa's Theatre Ballet of Canada.

Born in the Bronx in 1936 to Anna and Julius Gradus, a beautician and an electrician, respectively, it was almost as though Lawrence leaped from the womb into a dance routine. By age seven, he was enrolled in tap lessons and his father built him a sturdy stage that was cushioned to stifle sound so as not to disturb the Katz family in the apartment downstairs. Summer holidays were spent at his grandparents' farm in rural Connecticut, where Lawrence fashioned wings out of chicken feathers and danced for an audience of cousins.

He was a gutsy kid and nothing curbed his ambition, not even the risk of being tossed out of the Broadway musicals and dance performances he sneaked into during intermissions, hiding between the seats.

"I was jettisoned by express subway from the Bronx into this more sophisticated world," he wrote, "a world of European and American artists, novices and stars alike in a dance soup."

He studied at the Ballet Russe School and then the American Ballet Theatre School on a scholarship. His teachers were Russian immigrants, including the famed ballet mistress Valentina Pereyaslavec.

In 1961, he became a soloist with Jerome Robbins's Ballets U.S.A., performing around the world, and returned after a couple of years to rejoin American Ballet Theatre in Manhattan.

During Expo 67, in Montreal, he accepted an offer to dance a modern tap routine on a Maurice Chevalier show and never looked back.

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In 1974, after a handful of years dancing with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Mr. Gradus co-founded the dance company Entre-Six with Jacqueline Lemieux, who later became his wife.

"Entre-Six was doing something different," said dance critic Amy Bowring. "In the mid-1970s in Canada there were virtually no small touring ballet companies … [The company] performed over 80 shows across Canada in its first season."

Toronto choreographer Danny Grossman said Mr. Gradus's background in classical theatre, as well as in Broadway shows, added substantial entertainment value and poetry to his productions.

In 1975, he received the Jean A. Chalmers Choreographic Award for his productions.

With Entre-Six, he took on bold, new repertoire and embarked on a fresh kind of touring, Canadian style; to Tuktoyaktuk, for instance, where dancers were welcomed by Inuit snowmobilers towing a string of sleds. The company dined on caribou stew and deer meat, then danced en pointe in a local school. An improvised stage was built with rubberized mats laced together by duct tape.

"[Gradus] piled into a van with a less-than-road-worthy trailer attached," wrote Ms. Bowring in The Dance Current. He once asked his dancers to climb out and dig them out of the snow, she added.

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"He did a lot for this dance company by bringing interesting modern works," said Mr. Grossman. "Much to the chagrin, I think, of people who wanted it to be more traditional ballet. But we in the modern world respected Larry very much for that."

Entre-Six disbanded after Jacqueline Lemieux's early death from cancer in 1979. Grief-stricken, Mr. Gradus moved to Ottawa, at the request of Celia Franca, to become founding director of her newly formed Theatre Ballet of Canada.

A decade later, he moved to Toronto with his new wife, Carol Weiner, to set off on his own.

He taught and choreographed for the National Ballet of Canada's outreach program, the Danny Grossman Dance Theatre, Ryerson University and other places.

One of Mr. Grossman's favourite collaborations with Mr. Gradus was Blessed the Beast, in 1992, featuring Adam and Eve in a primordial garden amid a throng of wise animals.

"Larry … tackled it extremely musically," Mr. Grossman said. "I swear it was more successful because I knew when to leave the room and let him work!"

Always shy and a bit humble, Mr. Gradus wrote of his creative process: "Some of my dances were born fully formed, others have been sketches to be filled in, still others have been a big mistake right from the beginning."

Mr. Gradus leaves his wife, Carol Weiner, sister Sheila Cooper, brother Warren and stepdaughter Gabrielle Lopez.

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