By MARTIN MORROW
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 11, 2017
He was a gifted dancer with a gripping stage presence, a stunningly beautiful young man who drew comparisons to Rudolf Nureyev. He danced for Igor Stravinsky, had a love affair with the American poet Frank O'Hara and played the title role in the landmark rock ballet of The Who's Tommy.
In his later years, Vincent Warren loved to reminisce about what he called his "hour of glory," as a dancer with New York's Metropolitan Opera Ballet and then, most famously, with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal.
"He had an incredible memory," dancer-turned-filmmaker Marie Brodeur said of Mr. Warren, who passed away on Oct. 25 in Montreal from bone cancer at the age of 79. Ms. Brodeur became his close friend in recent years and chronicled his rich life in an award-winning documentary, A Man of Dance. "He was a real name-dropper," she added, recalling Mr. Warren's anecdotes about everyone from Maurice Béjart to Andy Warhol. "But it wasn't done to boost himself, it was just the life he had lived."
Wherever he went, the young Mr. Warren melted hearts. "He was very handsome," said the distinguished dancer and teacher Annette av Paul, sounding like a girl again as she remembered the years they danced together in Les Grands Ballets during the 1970s. He was Albrecht to her Giselle, she was the Acid Queen to his Tommy and, most powerfully, the pair were Robert and Clara Schumann in Adieu Robert Schumann, the R. Murray Schafer-Brian Macdonald work about the tortured composer.
In that role, his final one for Les Grands Ballets, "Vincent's dramatic power onstage was breathtaking," Ms. av Paul recalled.
In his 70s, Mr. Warren, stout and bearded, with a silver mane in place of his once dark, flowing locks, would look at photographs of himself in his prime and inevitably utter, in mock dismay, "Ach! What happened?" "That was a running joke with him," Ms. Brodeur said, laughing. "I think I must have heard him say that 2,000 times."
What happened, in fact, is that Mr. Warren aged from a glorious young dancer into a formidable scholar and a beloved teacher, whose most significant legacy is the Bibliothèque de la danse Vincent-Warren, the largest dance library in Canada, built mostly from his own acquisitions and housed in Montreal's École supérieure de ballet du Québec.
"His second career was fully dedicated to preserving the memory of dance," said Alain Dancyger, longtime executive director of Les Grands Ballets. "He had a major impact on Les Grands, certainly, but also on the study of dance itself."
As a man, he was as generous with his time and knowledge as he was with his books, and even in old age he still won hearts. "You couldn't not love Vincent," Ms. Brodeur said. "He was so cultured and elegant. He was a mix of Renaissance man and old Southern charm."
Born Aug. 31, 1938, in Jacksonville, Fla., Vincent de Paul Warren was the youngest child in a family of 14. His father, Francis Warren, a justice of the peace, came from English stock, while his mother, Agnes (née Stanley), a nurse, was of Norwegian descent. "Vincent was, from childhood, the most caring person that we knew," his brother Fritz Warren fondly recalled. Vincent, in turn, remembered his brothers as being "football stars" in their youth, and six of them - including his fraternal twin, Denis - later pursued careers in the U.S. armed forces. Vincent's athletic prowess would find a different outlet.
The seeds of his future career were sown when, at the age of 10, he saw the classic 1948 ballet film The Red Shoes. He became obsessed with the movie and, by extension, with ballet itself. At 11, he enrolled in classes with Betty Hyatt Ogilvie, who had danced for George Balanchine, and by 18 he was in New York, a scholarship student at the American Ballet Theatre School. He received a second scholarship to study at the Metropolitan Opera's ballet school, then at 19, in 1957, he won a place in the company's corps. He danced with the Met until 1959, followed by a stint with the Santa Fe Opera Ballet, where the elderly Stravinsky was a guest conductor.
During his time in New York, Mr. Warren also explored contemporary dance, becoming involved with the experimental Judson Church movement, and met Mr. O'Hara, leading poet of the postwar New York School and the love of his life. Mr. Warren served as Mr. O'Hara's muse, inspiring his poems, while in turn Mr. O'Hara introduced him to his circle of artist friends, including Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
Their relationship continued after Mr. Warren accepted a position in Montreal with Les Grands Ballets. He was drawn there by Ludmilla Chiriaeff, the ballet's founder and artistic director. "He fell in love with her artistic spirit," Ms. Brodeur said. He danced in many Chiriaeff creations, from Bagatelle (Jeux d'Arlequin) in 1962 to the 1976 solo Artère. During that time, he also appeared with Margaret Mercier in the Oscar-nominated short film Pas de deux by the legendary animator Norman McLaren.
Although a striking dancer, Mr. Warren admitted he often coasted on his good looks and Met credentials. That changed in 1966, when Mr. O'Hara was killed in a jeep accident on New York's Fire Island. His lover's death devastated him, but it was also the turning point that pushed him to become a serious artist.
Not long after, Mr. Warren and Les Grands Ballets enjoyed a popular triumph with Tommy, a balletic version of the Who's seminal rock opera, created by the company's resident choreographer, Fernand Nault. The production, which premiered in 1970, played on Broadway and toured extensively, bringing a new, youthful audience to ballet. "I remember smelling marijuana from the stage," Mr. Warren recalled in A Man of Dance.
Mr. Nault further capitalized on Mr. Warren's beatific beauty with the religious Cérémonie, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.
However, it was Mr. Nault's successor, Brian Macdonald, who gave Mr. Warren the artistic challenges he needed. At Les Grands Ballets, Mr. Macdonald created roles for him in several works, including the immensely popular Quebec folk piece, Tam Ti Delam, but the choreographer and the principal dancer did not initially get along.
"Early on, Vincent thought Brian didn't like him," recalled Ms. av Paul, Mr. Macdonald's widow, "and I think Brian was sometimes impatient because Vincent was a little bit lazy.
But that changed." Their collaboration reached an apex in 1979 with Adieu Robert Schumann. The moving piece, choreographed by Mr. Macdonald to Mr. Schafer's vocal work, had Mr. Warren and Ms. av Paul dancing the roles of young Robert and Clara, while the great contralto Maureen Forrester sang the plangent narrative as an older Clara Schumann.
It was also Mr. Warren's adieu to dancing, his farewell performance after 18 years with Les Grands Ballets. At 40, he embarked on a new phase in his life and career. He turned to teaching, giving ballet classes at Les Grands' affiliated school, the École supérieure, and, at Ms. Chiriaeff's urging, also taking over the course in dance history. It was a perfect fit: Even though he had no academic degree, Mr. Warren's voluminous reading on dance, begun as a boy, had made him a fount of knowledge that he delighted in sharing with students.
"Everything I know about the history of dance, I know because of Vincent," said one of his former students, Les Grands Ballets' first soloist, Jean-Sébastien Couture.
"And I know all of it in French with an American accent," he added jokingly. (Mr. Warren became fluent in the first language of his adopted province but never shed his Floridian roots.)
"He really had a way of making the dancers from history come alive," added Ms. av Paul, who watched him teach. "They were like friends to him."
Mr. Warren's interests weren't confined to ballet, either. Beginning with the Judson Church troupe in New York and continuing through his performances with Jeanne Renaud's pioneering Montreal company, Le Groupe de la Place Royale, Mr. Warren remained a devotee of modern and contemporary dance.
Later in life, he also studied Indian classical dance and was invited to lecture in India.
It was while teaching dance history that Mr. Warren began building up the school's tiny library. In 1979, it had about 250 books, but Mr. Warren, an avid, lifelong collector, quickly began to donate his own volumes, along with prints, figurines and other dance memorabilia. Today, the library - renamed in his honour in 2010 - holds more than 27,000 titles.
"He kept buying things and bringing them to the library until the last month" of his life, said Marie-Josée Lecours, his former student and assistant, who succeeded him as head librarian when he retired in 2008. "His passion for the books and his love of everything related to dance was just overwhelming."
His apartment, on Jeanne-Mance Street in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, was also a shrine to dance, as well as a temporary home for visiting dancers and a second classroom. "As students, we used to go there at the end of the year, eat pizza and watch ballets on VHS," Ms. Lecours said.
Over the years, Mr. Warren received many awards. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2004 and, this past spring, to the Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec. In 2012, Ms. Brodeur decided that Mr. Warren's achievements also needed to be captured on film. She spent three years with him shooting A Man of Dance. In 2016, it premiered at FIFA, Montreal's international festival of art films, and won the prize for best Canadian feature.
By then, Mr. Warren was quietly battling cancer. The last time Ms. av Paul saw him was at a tea party given for him in Montreal a few weeks before his death. "He came dressed in a white suit and a beautiful tie," she said. "He knew he was not going to live for much longer, but it was a lovely gathering with all his old friends."
Mr. Warren leaves three brothers, Stanley, George (Fritz) and Denis Warren, and a sister, Anne Warren Montgomery, as well as 43 nieces and nephews, and their children.
A commemorative event in Mr. Warren's honour will be held at École supérieure de ballet du Québec in Montreal on Nov. 17. A Man of Dance is currently touring Canada.
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Vincent Warren, who danced with New York's Metropolitan Opera Ballet and then, most famously, with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, is remembered as someone who was 'so cultured and elegant. He was a mix of Renaissance man and old Southern charm.'