The death last week of Betty Oliphant at 85, coinciding almost to the day of the announcement of the triumphant denouement of Toronto's National Ballet School campaign to build what is to be called the Celia Franca Centre, will have struck a few veterans of the Canadian and international ballet world with a certain sense of seasoned irony if not chagrin.
Oliphant was co-founder with Celia Franca of the National Ballet School, built on the foundation of both Franca's emerging National Ballet Company and Oliphant's own private ballet school. The two women pretty well established the parameters of classical ballet in Canada, although this is not to detract from the pioneering work in Winnipeg and in Montreal. What James Kudelka presides over at the company today, and Mavis Staines at the school, simply would not have existed without them.
These two pioneers -- both strong-willed, quick-tempered, brave and visionary -- eventually had a terrible falling out, which came as no surprise to anyone who observed them closely. The remarkable thing was the way they stayed together during all those formative years as their two interdependent institutions struggled to survive and then make their marks on the city, Canada and the world.
Inside Canada, I think it is fair to say, Franca at the head of the company was the shining symbol of classical ballet and had far greater public recognition than Oliphant. Internationally, however, the opposite was often the case. If you asked many of the great figures of ballet during the late sixties, seventies and early eighties -- Lincoln Kirstein and Erik Bruhn, for example, or Mikhail Baryshnikov and Kirov Ballet establishment leaders -- they would have all cited Oliphant's work at the school as the shining example of excellence.
It was the school, far more than the company, that made an impact internationally, partly because Oliphant worked so hard to provide a comprehensive and highly regarded education program beyond all the grinding technical instruction, and also because she had this unerring, canny eye at auditions of little children. The school was the envy of many ballet establishments around the world and Oliphant's regime their eventual model.
She had a huge emotional and professional impact on her students, and the successful ones all acknowledge it, either willingly or grudgingly, even if some found her embrace psychologically claustrophobic. She exulted in the successes they had. Her pride in Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn in their prime during the exuberant ballet days of the seventies, for example, was typical and very moving, as it was later when four of her students -- Kimberly Glasco, Kevin Pugh, Owen Montague and Martine Lamy -- cleaned up at the 1981 Moscow International Ballet Competition.
With all her students and former students, she never once succumbed to false ambition or unrealistic hopes, but she certainly expected them to push themselves. Her edgy honesty made her enemies -- and won her huge respect. She also fought terrible pain almost every day of her last four decades and the pain often defined her personality -- both the courage and the impatience.
The fiery relationship with Franca was one most sensible people associated with both women tried to steer clear of, which wasn't always possible. You could see the territory both were coming from and trying to protect: Franca, who was stuck with the often horrendous financial realities of the company and the burdens of simultaneously trying to ensure a strong position for the National inside Canada while garnering whatever international respect was possible on limited touring funds; and Oliphant, with all her pride in standards and aspirations for her graduates, ruminating on what she increasingly thought was a company stuck in a second-rate rut of artistic compromise and petulant personality disorders.
Both Kudelka, as artistic director at the company, and Staines, as Oliphant's successor as principal at the school, had difficult times with Oliphant during her retirement years. Although highly honoured for her work at the school -- like Franca, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada -- she often lived with regrets for things she wished she had accomplished or annoyance at things she could no longer effect. She was often in conflict with the two institutions that she cared about more than anything save her family.
She did manage to get her own account of her life out in an autobiography - Miss O: My Life in Dance -- for which Baryshnikov contributed a fulsome introduction and appreciation. The first payment he received in Canada following his dramatic defection from the old Soviet Union in 1974, he gave over to Oliphant as a donation to the school. For him, she was the Canadian balletic lodestone and he always maintained a lively, concerned interest in her well-being, long after she had retired.
When Baryshnikov danced for the last time in Giselle in Italy, he sent her his ballet slippers from the performance (it was in the opera house in Bari). They were powder blue, much scuffed and disfigured from being moulded around his working bunions, a very evocative talisman of the less romantic side to classical ballet.
I know all this because I was the one who conveyed them to her in 1987, back in Toronto after completing research for a book on Baryshnikov and the American Ballet Theatre. She was down in the dumps over something -- I can't remember what it was -- and I had given her no warning of what I had brought for her from Italy. I handed over a paper bag, inside of which the slippers were wrapped in tissue paper. They were pretty ugly, to tell the truth. As soon as she saw them, she said: "They're Misha's, aren't they?" This was a woman who knew her dancers' feet! "They're yours now," I said. "He's never going to dance in Giselle again and he wanted you to have a small symbol from his own life to honour your commitment."
"My commitment?" she asked. "You're kidding." She wasn't incredulous, just overwhelmed. "What about his commitment . . .," but her voice just trailed off and her eyes welled up as she clutched the slippers as if they were the last life preserver on a sinking ship.
She was a very great lady and one of the true pioneers in Canadian ballet. She is also, at long last, out of pain and angry no longer. And, as Baryshnikov understood, her commitment was never in doubt. Not once.
A private family memorial service for Betty Oliphant will take place today.
John Fraser is Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. From 1972 to 1975, he was The Globe and Mail's dance critic.