Brian Macdonald (1928-2014)

December 17, 2014


Brian Ronald Macdonald, born Montreal, Quebec, Canada: May 14, 1928; died Stratford, Ontario, Canada: November 29, 2014.

Brian Macdonald, the veteran Canadian choreographer and director, has died after a long battle with cancer at age 86.


Macdonald earned international acclaim as a choreographer in the 1960s and seventies through his close association with the then much-travelled Royal Winnipeg Ballet. During this fertile period, Macdonald choreographed for many companies on both sides of the Atlantic. Among his most popular works were Aimez-vous Bach?, Time out of Mind, Rose Latulippe and The Shining People of Leonard Cohen. Macdonald was artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet (1964-67), New York’s Harkness Ballet (1967-68) and Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company (1971-72). In Stockholm he met and in 1964 married the then 20-year-old ballerina Annette av Paul. She became Macdonald’s choreographic muse, artistic partner and devoted companion. The couple resettled in Canada where Macdonald became artistic director of Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (1974-77).


Macdonald’s theatricality and musical understanding drew him towards a parallel and equally successful career as an international director of opera and musical theatre, from the late 1970s to the present. He worked extensively as an opera director at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and enjoyed a 17-season long association with Canada’s Stratford Festival where he directed 19 productions, including now legendary and sometimes nationally televised versions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His lively 1982 production of The Mikado later transferred to New York and earned Macdonald two Tony nominations.


Macdonald also had a long association with the dance program of The Banff Centre in Alberta, influentially directing its professional summer program from 1982 to 2002 and mentoring a succession of gifted young artists.


Macdonald, was born into a prosperous Montreal family. Although his business executive father hoped he might become a lawyer, music and theatre captivated Macdonald early on. He was a child actor in Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio dramas and aspired to be a concert pianist. However, a visiting ballet troupe so impressed the lanky Macdonald that, at age 17, he committed himself to dance, studying with two noted Montreal teachers, Gérald Crevier for ballet and modern dance with Elizabeth Leese.


Macdonald and his first wife, ballerina Olivia Wyatt, were charter members of the National Ballet of Canada in 1951 but a serious arm injury forced him to quit two years later. The couple returned to Montreal where their son, Wyatt, was born in 1954. Macdonald resumed studies at McGill University where he directed and performed in a number of musical reviews, notably the satirical My Fur Lady of 1957 that went on to tour Canada. Olivia Wyatt was killed in a 1959 car accident, just as her husband’s choreographic career began to blossom.


Macdonald received virtually every honour his country could bestow. In October, Macdonald returned to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and from his wheelchair supervised yet another revival of his critically acclaimed 1990 production of Madama Butterfly. His curtain call was his last public appearance.

Photo by Terry Manzo.



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