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Brian MacDonald, choreographer, and Mme. Ludmilla Chiriaeff, founder and artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, discuss rehearsals for Carmina Burana in Toronto, May 1973.The Canadian Press

The opening night party for the Stratford Festival's 1996 production of The Music Man was packed with actors, artists, musicians and dancers, and if not for the height of him, the show's director, Brian Macdonald, might have disappeared into the crowd.

But there he was, standing 6 feet 2 inches and wearing his trademark thick black glasses – a literal giant in a room crawling with little people jostling to have their photograph taken.

The Broadway musical was the last production Mr. Macdonald would direct at Stratford, as he had decided to seek out other creative challenges. At the party, Mr. Macdonald grinned, content that his 17 seasons with the festival, which produced 19 shows, among them critically acclaimed productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, would end in triumph.

Marisa McIntyre, a 13-year-old who had a part in the show, loudly declared her admiration for the real music man in their midst: "I like how he works. He doesn't talk a lot," she said motioning to Mr. Macdonald. "He just does it."

The young thespian's words serve neatly to summarize the career of a prodigiously talented director and choreographer who died of bone cancer at his home in Stratford, Ont., on Nov. 29. He was 86. Predeceased by his first wife, Olivia Wyatt, Mr. Macdonald leaves his wife of 50 years, the former Annette av Paul, and a son, Wyatt, from his first marriage.

Throughout his long and varied career, Mr. Macdonald really did just do it, overcoming adversities such as the untimely death of his first wife and his own physical afflictions as he scaled the peaks of Canada's arts and culture scene. He produced a dizzying array of work, winning many accolades, including a Governor-General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2008 and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. He was also a Companion of the Order of Canada.

As a choreographer, he borrowed from a wide range of dance vocabularies, from classical to contemporary, including jazz. He employed this eclectic approach for one of his most celebrated works, Time Out of Mind, set to a score by American composer Paul Creston and originally created for the Joffrey Ballet in New York in 1963.

Subsequently danced by the Harkness Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, La Scala Theatre Ballet and Alberta Ballet, among other companies, the work is frenetic and characterized by flowing dance movements.

"A spectacular showpiece," wrote Allen Hughes, a critic for The New York Times, following its premiere.

Even an old adversary such as Stratford's former artistic director Richard Monette held him in high esteem: "He's unique in Canada, this man," the former actor said before his own death in 2008.

Mr. Macdonald leaves behind a legacy as towering as he was in life. He will be remembered for having revived musical theatre in Canada and for helping put Canadian dance and choreography on the international map.

"Having shared 50 creative years with Brian, I saw a man whose elixir was music until the end," says Annette Macdonald, his widow.

The Stratford Festival will dedicate its 2015 production of Carousel to Mr. Macdonald in addition to staging a memorial for him on May 3.

Ballet Joergen, for its part, paid tribute to him in its performance of The Nutcracker at Hamilton Place on Dec. 6, the day of his funeral. Company teacher and rehearsal coach Svea Eklof-Grey, who worked with Mr. Macdonald in productions by the Alberta Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, said, "Brian Macdonald was a choreographer with deep insight into music, a passion for movement and a great respect for dance and the dance artists who helped him push the art form forward."

Ms. Eklof-Grey went on to say, "Brian could be a very exacting and demanding taskmaster, but that is the path to greatness in the classical ballet world." Ambitious and demanding, Mr. Macdonald was a perfectionist – sometimes to a fault.

The only thing ever to halt his forward-motion drive was bone cancer, which took away his ability to walk and eventually took his life.

As recently as October, Mr. Macdonald willed himself to stand up from his wheelchair for the opening night curtain calls that followed the Canadian Opera Company revival of his 1990 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

"The affection and warmth he showed the artists was extraordinary to behold," artistic director Alexander Neef said in a statement. "His Madama Butterfly will be his legacy to the COC."

But dance was undeniably his first love, and it remained a life-long obsession.

Born in Montreal on May 14, 1928, Brian Ronald Macdonald was the second son of Ian, a Scot who had been a sales manager of the Dominion Glass Co., and the former Mabel Lee, who was Irish. He received his first taste of show business while working as a child actor for CBC Radio and went on to study piano. Mr. Macdonald's parents expected him to become a lawyer, but a chance encounter made him consider a life in dance.

"I was studying dance in Canada. I had seen American Ballet Theatre. But then the Ballets Russes came to Montreal. They needed a rehearsal studio and my teacher asked if she could use the gymnasium at the university. I got it," Mr. Macdonald said in a 1998 interview.

"I went there to see the company in rehearsal. They were just starting Concerto Barocco [the 1941 George Balanchine ballet]. One of the girls was in high heels, I'll never forget. I watched this exquisite ballet of point and counterpoint and I walked out later into the sunshine and said, 'That's it. I have to be a choreographer.' I was 17. And when you talk about moments where the sky's on fire and a heavenly voice speaks to you, it was that kind of moment. I started to take my dance studies very seriously after that."

Mr. Macdonald was the first to admit that he was limited as a dancer; he simply started his dance studies too late, in 1945, at the age of 17, with the leading Montreal teachers Elizabeth Leese and Gérald Crevier.

But he was born with long legs on a lanky frame. And he was hugely musical. This put him in great stead with Celia Franca, the pioneering founder of the National Ballet of Canada, who hired him just as she was starting the company in 1951.

After breaking his arm at a Montreal nightclub in 1953, however, which left him with three dead fingers on his left hand, Mr. Macdonald was forced to quit dancing and returned to McGill University, where he studied English and voice – training that came in handy when he became a director of opera.

He scored his first stage hit with a 1957 musical revue called My Fur Lady.

"A theatrical giant among men, Brian walked very tall," said James Domville, a member of the show's production staff who went on to become commissioner of the National Film Board. "I have lost a friend, former partner, colleague and mentor who set me on my future course and thereby changed my life."

Mr. Macdonald's chief collaborator on My Fur Lady was his first wife, the Canadian ballerina Olivia Wyatt, who was killed in a car accident in 1959.

Her death became, as Mr. Macdonald later said, "the added thrust to whatever creativity I had."

He was a widower with a five-year-old son and he turned to choreography as a way of keeping busy, eventually creating works for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

He was a proud Canadian and often chose other Canadians to work with, among them the composer R. Murray Schafer with whom he was close, the late contralto Maureen Forrester and costume designer François Barbeau.

"He always managed to have Canadian content for everything he did for Les Grands," recalls Vincent Warren, a former star dancer with the Montreal company. "He created our signature work, Tam ti Delam, to music by [Quebec composer] Gilles Vigneault, and we toured it for many years. It was very difficult, technically, but also very happy, very popular."

For the RWB, Mr. Macdonald, the company's first resident choreographer, created Rose Latulippe to an original score by Harry Freedman in 1966. Canada's first full-length ballet, Rose Latulippe was also the first full-length colour production filmed by the CBC, says Richard Rutherford, who joined the company as a dancer in 1957 and left as associate artistic director in 1977.

"I watched it again on video the other day," Mr. Rutherford says. "Over all, the company looked wonderful, the acting was superb and the choreography has held up, most definitely."

Mr. Rutherford also performed in Mr. Macdonald's ballet Aimez-Vous Bach?, which the RWB toured extensively "from Flin Flon to Moscow."

"At first the Russians didn't know what to make of us. They were polite," Mr. Rutherford recalls. "But by the time we finished the tour we had standing ovations, gifts on the stage and people wanting to touch us. It was all because of Brian Macdonald."

Mr. Macdonald also served as artistic director of several international dance ensembles. During his time with the Royal Swedish Ballet (1964-67), he met Swedish ballerina Annette av Paul, whom he married in 1964, eventually bringing her to Canada, where she became his muse and a leading dancer at Les Grands Ballets. He also worked with the Harkness Ballet in New York (1967-68), and Israel's Batsheva Dance Company (1971-72).

On Broadway, he directed Maggie Flynn, a 1968 musical set during the New York draft riots of 1863, and starring Shirley Jones of The Partridge Family fame.

But Mr. Macdonald, who also created jokey ballets such as 1959's Les Whoops De Doo, also had his detractors.

Arlene Croce of The New Yorker in 1974 called Mr. Macdonald possibly the worst choreographer in the world; George Gelles of the Washington Evening Star said he was vulgar.

But the acclaim his work received far outweighed the bad reviews.

His production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, originally created for the Stratford Festival in 1982, earned Mr. Macdonald Tony Award nominations for best choreography and best direction of a musical when it played in New York in 1987.

Mr. Macdonald, whose tastes included both high- and low-brow, choreographed half-time shows for the Grey Cup and also the cheesy finale to the 1985 Canada-United States Shamrock Summit that had Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan sing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Mr. Macdonald's last major work of choreography was Requiem 9/11, his response to the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001. Set to Verdi's Requiem, it had its world premiere performance at the National Arts Centre in 2002.

"Brian Macdonald saw no necessary or exclusive distinction between 'high art' and popular entertainment," observes veteran Canadian dance critic Michael Crabb, who knew him for 40 years, and was sometimes on the receiving end of his prickly personality.

"He wasn't interested in playing to the cognoscenti. He aimed to touch as many people as possible. In the best sense, he was a theatrical showman."

For more than 45 years, Mr. Macdonald also worked at the Banff Centre in Alberta, where he nurtured the next generation of Canadian dance artists.

"Brian connected us to Balanchine and plunged us into the creations of our contemporaries – an essential part of my growth and understanding of the craft of choreography," says Crystal Pite, a past recipient of the Banff-administered Clifford E. Lee Award for choreography, who today is a renowned dance artist.

Also from the Banff program is former RWB dancer Johnny Wright who went on to play the male lead in Dirty Dancing in London's West End. Mr. Macdonald, he says, picked up the phone and made the right introductions for him, just doing whatever he needed to do to get the job done.

"You will be missed," wrote Mr. Wright in a tribute on Facebook. "But your teachings remain embedded in myself, along with many other 'disciples' who were fortunate enough to work and learn from you, who continue to remember and pass on your lessons to future aspiring artists."

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