During a meeting between King Alfonso of Spain and Sergei Diaghilev, the famed impresario of the Ballets Russes, in 1916, the King interrogated Mr. Diaghilev about his role with the troupe, "You don't dance. You don't direct. You don't play the piano. What is it that you do?"
Mr. Diaghilev's often-quoted response was hyperbole, suggesting that he and the King shared a similar nobility. "Your Majesty, I am like you. I don't work, I don't do anything, but I am indispensable."
Impresario Uriel Luft, who died on March 28, in Magog, Que., after battling pneumonia, was also considered indispensable, but he never would have been accused of doing nothing. He was a tireless promoter, organizing tours for artists that brought them recognition abroad. Mr. Luft and his wife, Ludmilla Chiriaeff, who founded Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, together nurtured the Montreal troupe into an acclaimed international dance company.
Uriel George Luft was born into German-Jewish family in Berlin on Aug. 24, 1933, the son of the former Regina Epstein and Armin Luft. The rise of nazism prompted Regina and Armin, a successful lawyer, to plot their escape along with Uriel and their daughter, Hella. They moved to Vienna and then to France, trying to keep one step ahead of their oppressors. But according to Katia Mead, Uriel's daughter, the family was denounced in a Monaco hotel by a member of its staff. Although Uriel and his father and sister managed to elude the authorities, his mother and grandmother did not. The two women were shipped back to Germany and sent to Auschwitz, where they perished.
Armin's connections and wealth gave him the opportunity to leave occupied France to seek treatment for tuberculosis in Davos, Switzerland – a safe haven. But he had to rely on the humanity of 17-year-old Aimée Stauffer-Stitelmann to save his children.
She helped the Luft family in 1942, when she crossed into France to pick up Hella, 7, and Uriel, 9, in Annemasse and then smuggled them across the border into neutral Switzerland.
Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann told The New York Times in 2004 that she hid the children from the border guards, encouraging them to hide behind a door before clandestinely hurrying them onto a train. Once on board, she concealed them beneath her seat. When they arrived in Geneva, she recalled transferring the siblings to a man on a bicycle. After that, Uriel and his sister were moved from family to family before finally being reunited with their father.
In the same Times article, Mr. Luft was also quoted: "I don't want to dramatize this – life is dramatic enough – but today, read the newspapers and you will see so much to lose faith in human beings. Today, more than ever, we need heroes, and Aimée is a hero of the best kind."
In total, Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann helped 15 to 20 Jewish children escape into her native Switzerland to flee from the Nazis.
Following the war, Mr. Luft lived in Paris before moving to Montreal in 1957. Initially, he worked as an actor and his best-known role was in the 1961 Disney feature Nikki, Wild Dog of the North, set in the Canadian Rockies. Mr. Luft played the part of the Indigenous hunter, Makoki, in a story about a dog separated from its owner.
In 1958, the 25-year-old Mr. Luft responded to an employment ad placed by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, which was looking to hire a lighting technician. Although he had no experience, his charm and confidence earned him the job. He and Ms. Chiriaeff soon become lovers and eventually married. They spent 20 years together and had two children, Ludmilla and Katia.
Ms. Chiriaeff, a Latvian-born Russian and an iconic dancer and choreographer, is considered Quebec's godmother of ballet. Along with Gweneth Lloyd of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Celia Franca of the National Ballet of Canada, Ms. Chiriaeff was part of the country's ballet nobility.
During Mr. Luft's tenure with Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, he ascended to the position of general manager and became known as the charismatic pragmatist who helped realize Ms. Chiriaeff's vision.
In an interview, Vincent Warren, a lead dancer with the troupe from 1961 to 1979, recalled how members of the dance company would refer to the duo as "the empress and Rasputin."
"She was the inspiration, and he was her support," he said.
During Mr. Warren's time with the troupe, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens was showered with critical acclaim and the company doubled in size from 15 to 30 dancers, he said.
By the mid-1970s, Mr. Luft was hired as the director of dance programming, arts and culture for the Montreal Olympics. During the Games, he organized 100 dance performances in the city, bringing in performers from all across Canada.
After the Olympics, Mr. Luft worked as the director of Quebec's nine conservatories of music and drama and in 1978, he also co-founded the artists agency Specdici. At the agency, he was instrumental in promoting emerging dance companies, including La La La Human Steps, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal and dancer-choreographer Margie Gillis, to an international audience.
In an interview, Ms. Gillis remarked about Mr. Luft's loyalty and how generous he was with his time. "He took me under his wing and helped advance my career. Before he began representing me, I had a bit of a 'wild child' reputation." Ms. Gillis said the impresario helped to cultivate her image and bring her to the next level.
During this period, Mr. Luft was also instrumental in the creation of CINARS, a not-for-profit organization that organizes international performing arts conferences in Montreal, with a mission to promote and support the export of Canada's performing arts.
Alain Paré, the founder and executive director of CINARS, told Le Devoir that Mr. Luft was a skilled communicator who had a profound impact on Canada's performing arts scene. "He spoke 12 languages. … I'm not exaggerating. While travelling with him in Japan and Korea, he could communicate in those languages the way you and I are speaking now."
Mr. Luft also co-founded Atmo Productions in 1984, which was responsible for organizing national and international dance tours. Simultaneously, he played a key role in the creation of the modern dance series Danse! in Montreal and Dance! in Toronto.
Katia Mead, Mr. Luft's daughter, noted that her father's narrow escape from the Nazis, thanks to Ms. Stauffer-Stitelmann, inspired him to repay others with kindness. She said that he was generous to a fault and she recalled how he once loaned a stranger $10,000 after speaking to him at a garage sale.
"He was selling a stereo that my father was interested in. … But by the end of the conversation when my father learned that he was selling his possessions for school or some art-related project, [Mr. Luft] agreed to lend the man the money." Ms. Mead noted that initially there was a repayment plan in place. "But I don't how much of that money was ever returned to him."
In 2009, Mr. Luft received the National Arts Centre Award for Distinguished Contribution to Touring, in recognition of his lifetime achievement as an agent and dance promoter.
Uriel Luft leaves his partner, Toshiro Tsubokura; sister, Hella; two children, Katia Mead and Ludmilla Luft Ivanovic; and six grandchildren.