In 1966, a 42-year-old newly remarried Yoné Young moved to Calgary. She had spent years touring Europe and North America and studied in New York under a whirlwind of contemporary dance mentors, including Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and Gertrude Schurr, who were all defining the emerging genre.
But now she was in a much different city. While Calgary was experimenting with new forms of theatre, it had developed very little experimental dance. So, Young decided to give it a crash course in contemporary dance that she felt it needed.
She would speak of Calgary disparagingly and the lack of avant-garde dance during that time: "Nothing was going on. Oh yes, there were a couple of old ballet teachers doing some miserable things. But if I expected New York it would be ridiculous."
Young, who died in Calgary on July 17 of lymphoma at the age of 86, imported a school of dance that was more earthy and less formally gestural than the jazz and ballet forms that could be found at the time. Her dances were expressionist, often putting out social commentary, performed by barefoot dancers who would be inspired to express what was inside them and instructed to refrain from smiling. During a photo shoot, she stopped a photographer from trying to elicit a smile from her dancers. "They aren't about to break into a soft-shoe routine," she said.
Her students were keen, her audiences growing and affluent, and her university welcoming. As a professor in the drama department at the University of Calgary, she began to lay down the foundation for what would years later become a full-fledged dance department.
But there was one thing missing: arts funding. In 1970, the Canada Council was awarding about a million dollars a year for dance, essentially to three dance companies that all performed ballets. A laughable $900 remained from that budget for anyone wanting to run a professional company west of Winnipeg, according to "Dancing in the Canadian Wasteland", an academic paper written by Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn.
There was just so much pioneering a pioneer like Young could do, and after using Trudeau-era summer employment grants and church basement studios as ersatz arts subsidies for her companies, she decided in the mid-70s to leave dance entirely. She began a new career as a visual artist. It left her Calgary dance minions gobsmacked. They never thought Young would abandon a genre that she had built up locally and so steadfastly protected from being diluted by other forms of dance.
She chose to create art on her own rather than with a corral of dancers. She had always been comfortable drawing and over the years had sketched out numerous choreographies. Now, her tableaus would be confined to two dimensions. "She did what was best for her and to stop her artistic spirit from withering away," said Doolittle, a professor of dance at the University of Lethbridge and a student of Young's before the career switch.
She left dance for visual arts but the work on framed canvases or church windows was fluid and moved as uniquely, emotionally and whimsically as the art that audiences had seen from her or her dancers on stage.
Born Yoné Kvietys on August 21, 1924 in Kaunas, Lithuania, she was the older of two daughters of Stasys and Stefanija (née Buivydas) Kvietys. Her father worked as a steelworker and labourer, and her mother a homemaker.
She loved the arts from a young age and her parents enrolled her in after-school music and dance classes. She ate those lessons up. While she enjoyed ballet, she was keen to experiment. In the early 1940s, she took part in early European contemporary dance and moved to Hamburg, where she trained at one of the schools that had been founded by Rudolf von Laban, a visionary in movement analysis.
Kvietys toured Germany as a soloist and got involved in as much dance as was possible during a time when bombs were falling all over the country. "Despite the war, she put on shows wherever and whenever she could," said her son Saulius Urbonas, who added that his mother, no fan of Hitler, at one point spat at a company of Nazi soldiers but, luckily, was not taken seriously.
In 1948, she was living as a refugee in a post-war U.S.-run camp in Germany. Her father managed to get her and members of her family onto a crowded cargo ship, with all of them eventually landing in Toronto.
There, she worked with influential ballet master Boris Volkoff and, not long after, moved to Montreal, where she immediately got a teaching job at McGill University. She also ran a company and began to dance in several cities, including New York and Chicago and made appearances on CBC television.
In Montreal, she began a relationship with Giliaras Urbonas, another Lithuanian. Speaking to Kvietys' father at a party, the young man found out they had both been held in adjacent prison cells years earlier: Stasys Kvietys taken prisoner by the Red Army, politically active Urbonas arrested by the Communists.
Yoné Kvietys eventually moved back to Toronto, where she again got another teaching job, this time at the University of Toronto and, in 1956, gave birth to her only son. She lived common law with Urbonas, something rare at the time, especially in their neighbourhood full of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants.
Her son remembers her not being much of a homemaker or a cook. "She was a boiler of meats," he laughs. "Her artistic expression did not lend itself to the culinary arts." Nevertheless, there were grandparents, aunts and uncles to take care of him in the crowded house.
He remembers his mother taking him to dance rehearsals, as he watched her employ various objects in her dances, from plastic sheets to soccer balls to 10-metre scarves.
Like her, her common-law husband was an anti-communist and started the magazine Speak Up, which documented some of the mistreatment taking place behind the then Iron Curtain. The two broke up in 1966 and she soon met and married Ray Young, a senior geologist with Texaco, and settled in Calgary with him and her then 10-year-old son.
Most adapt to a new community; Young seemed to want Calgary to adapt to her. She became an importer of contemporary dance, which was experiencing a golden age in New York. She would read magazine profiles of rising dance stars like Twyla Tharp, Steve Paxton and Anna Halprin. In 1969, she brought in Charles Weidman for a residency. He was another person under whom she had studied. Known for both humorous and carnal dances, he was a godfather of contemporary dance and Young convinced him to come to Calgary.
Young refused to hatch any plans with those in the university's athletics department who were game to get dance more legitimized as an academic program. She knew they would never go for the types of dance like hers, which could parody pop culture or take on death and illness, or liberally use stomping to get their artistic points across.
Her marriage to Roy Young ended in the late 70s at around the same time that her second vocation began.
After leaving dance, she enrolled in art school and did not go on about her earlier success. For inspiration, she often drew on the animal world, especially cats and coyotes, as well as all things celestial, and ran with themes that were constantly percolating. She used paints, stained glass and mixed media and developed a style that was very luminescent, with strong lines and a good dose of humour. She found galleries that aligned well with her style, at one point got her work on a U.S. stamp and sold out multiple shows for the next few decades for works that now hang in numerous corporate offices in Alberta and beyond.
Romana Kaspar-Kraft of the Collectors' Gallery in Calgary, which exhibited her work four times, said Young's paintings always sold very well. In describing them, she said much of it exuded joy, all showed no hesitation, had a graphic sensibility, with her lines displaying that same confidence she always had.
She waved off criticism and knew how she wanted her work hung. She once complained to a gallery director about the location chosen for her work to be shown. The director told her to take it or leave it. She decided to leave with all her works and they all sold out from her home studio.
Young leaves her sister Dalia, her son, Saulius, his wife Barbara and their daughter Nijole.
Special to The Globe and Mail