Celia Franca, the founder of the National Ballet Company of Canada,died this morning at The Ottawa Hospital. She was 85.
"Celia was more than the National Ballet's founder. She was its presiding spirit, its most stalwart supporter and the embodiment of its ideals and values," former prima ballerina Karen Kain, now the company's artistic director, said in a statement. "She inspired generations of dancers by her example and her devotion to the art of ballet. And most importantly, she made us believe in ourselves and that no goal was ever out of reach. She will be missed by everyone who cares about ballet."
Speaking of Ms. Franca this morning, former prime ballerina Veronica Tennant remembered her droll humour and the fact that she was no-nonsense person who was clear and upfront. "She was complicated, and she had this vision of excellence that she willed us to become and we did. We rose to this demanding, visionary force." Her legacy, according to Ms. Tennant, goes way beyond dance. "Her gift to us was her life and it shaped and transformed generations of us, and it goes beyond dance."
"She was a feisty lady, a difficult personality, but she is one of the pioneers of ballet in this country and that significance can not be taken away," said Paula Citron, the Globe and Mail's dance critic. "Who knew when she was sent to us by Ninette de Valois [of the Sadler's Wells Ballet in England in 1951]that she had this acumen, but Ninette knew and it was a brilliant stroke," said Ms. Citron. "Celia was never just a dancer, she had balls and like all remarkable women she was an eccentric. She wasn't a saint, but she was damn interesting."
Celia Franca, the second child and only daughter of a ladies tailor, was born in London, England, after the First World War. She wanted to dance from the time she was a child. She told a story about gripping her mother's hand after having been taken to the cinema as "just a tiny tot" and saying: "I want to go on the stage, I want to go on the stage." Shortly afterward at a reception for her aunt's wedding, little Celia, then 4, began dancing around the tables when the band started playing. The bandleader told her mother to organize ballet lessons. "He was probably joking," Ms. Franca said in an interview in her Ottawa apartment in 2004, "but I heard this, and I had never heard the word ballet before."
Eventually, her mother followed the bandleader's advice and took Celia to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London's east end, where she was admitted to study music, dance, theatre and elocution, along with a heavy dose of self discipline and a respect for excellence. She won a scholarship in dancing at 6 and another in piano when she was 11, the same year she was awarded a fellowship to the Royal Academy of Dance.
Her father despaired that she would ever be able to support herself through dancing, a skepticism that brought out the Franca steel, the same determination she would call upon so many times during her two decade tenure with the National Ballet of Canada. Having heard about Spread it Abroad, a musical starring Dorothy Dickson, Hermione Gingold and Michael Wilding that was bound for the Saville Theatre in London's West End, she showed up at the auditions for chorus girls, although she scarcely looked the part, since she was wearing her school uniform, carrying her ballet costume and slippers in a bag over her shoulder, and with her straight dark hair cut in bangs across her forehead.
The directors were looking for tap dancers, a skill she had never been taught. Undaunted, she told the pianist to play the same music as the previous applicant had requested - Jerome Kern's I Won't Dance, from the 1933 musical Roberta - and "I just improvised." She got the job and at one point demonstrated her teaching skills when was asked to coach one of the principal dancers, who'd been given a little dance number to execute.
Years later she asked the choreographer why he'd hired "a plain girl" like her. "By the time you came on for your audition," she remembered him saying, "I was tired of looking at all of these dyed blonde-haired girls and I had decided just to watch the foot work." Her father "was surprised and quietly appreciative of the fact that I was bringing home £3 a week and adding them to the coffers," she said.
She made her debut in the corps de ballet in Mars in the Planets at the Mercury Theatre in 1936, the same year she joined the Ballet Rambert, (now Rambert Dance Company). Founded in 1926, it is the oldest dance company in Britain. She was a soloist and the company's leading dramatic dancer when she joined the Three Arts Ballet in 1939, although she continued to dance for Rambert in their Lunchtime Ballets during the Blitz.
In 1941 she became a member of Ninette de Valois's Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet), where she excelled as a dramatic ballerina in roles such as the queen in Hamlet, the prostitute in Miracle in the Gorbals, the queen of the Wilis in Giselle, the spider in The Spider's Banquet and Prelude in Les Sylphides.
Nevertheless, her father was still naysaying ballet as a career choice. Her mother "dragged" him to a performance at Sadler's Wells. The ballet was a big success and Ms. Franca had 18 curtain calls. Her father kept nudging the person next to him and saying, "she's my daughter, she's my daughter," or so Ms. Franca's mother reported. "Finally he was proud of me," Ms. Franca said more than 60 years later. "Eighteen curtain calls, he thought that was a bit of all right."
Ms. Franca danced with Ninette De Valois all through the war and was the company's leading dramatic ballerina. Her performance of the queen of the Wilis in Giselle was acclaimed. In an interview with CBC Radio in 1974, she reminisced about performing during the Blitz. When the German planes were spotted over London, the management would hold air raid warning signs above the orchestra pit. "It was always so satisfying to find that nobody in that audience ever got up to go to the shelter," she said. "I can remember saying at that time that I am so glad to have chosen this profession because all you can do is give pleasure to people. You can't kill anybody by dancing on the stage."
In 1946 she joined Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet as a choreographer and achieved acclaim by creating the ballet Khadra in an Oriental setting to music by Jean Sibelius. The next year she presented Bailemos in a Spanish motif and joined the Ballet Jooss for its last tour of the European continent, teaching ballet in exchange for training in modern dance. Then she joined the short-lived Metropolitan Ballet Company as a soloist and ballet mistress. It was there that she began choreographing for television, creating the first two ballets - Eve of St. Agnes and Dance of Salome - that were ever commissioned by the BBC.
In 1950, a group of Canadian balletomanes (Eileen Woods, Sydney Mulqueen and Pearl Whitehead) sent an envoy to England to ask Ms. de Valois's advice on starting a Canadian classical company. She urged them to speak with Ms. Franca. There have been some suggestions that Ms. de Valois may have seen an opportunity to rid herself of a potential rival with a powerful personality and formidable teaching skills. Nevertheless, Ms. de Valois praised Ms. Franca as "probably the finest dramatic dancer the 'Wells' ever had."
Consequently, Ms. Franca was invited to be a guest at the Third Annual Canadian Ballet Festival that November and to consider becoming producer, director and ballet mistress of a professional, if, as yet, non-existent, company. By February of 1951, Ms. Franca had stepped up to the plate and was back in Toronto to establish what has become the National Ballet Company of Canada. She was 29. A determined woman who thrived on challenges, she got a job as a file clerk at Eaton's to support herself while she forged an alliance with Betty Oliphant (a British war bride, who, in 1949, had become one of the founding members of the Canadian Dance Teachers Association), launched a national audition tour, recruited and trained dancers, staged some Promenade Concerts, organized a summer school, and whipped her uneven but enthusiastic new company into shape for its opening, a scant nine months later, on Nov. 12, 1951 at Toronto's Eaton Auditorium. The program included Les Sylphides, Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor and the second act of Coppélia with Ms. Franca dancing the part of Swanhilda. Other principal dancers were Irene Apiné, Lois Smith, David Adams and Jury Gotshalks.
In the company's second season, Ms. Franca hired Ms. Oliphant as ballet mistress, the beginning of a long professional association that survived until they had a very public falling out in 1975. Ms. Franca trained her dancers by her own example and in the annual summer school sessions, but she longed for a more intensive training program and argued for the creation of permanent ballet school at the 1958 annual general meeting. She was supported by the late Eddie Goodman, who had been dragooned onto the board and had chaired the management committee (which usually meant staving off creditors and hitting up his friends for financial contributions) since the ballet's founding. "Without Eddie Goodman, there would be no National Ballet [Company]today," she said in 2004.
From the beginning he recognized that the school and the company should be separate entities, although they were linked through the working relationship between Ms. Oliphant as the school's principal and Ms. Franca as the founding director of the school and founder of the company. A year later, the two women pressed Mr. Goodman to arrange a scholarship for Ms. Tennant, a promising but impecunious. During her tenure, Ms. Franca brought in guest artists, including Lynn Seymour, Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev, whose $400,000 Romeo and Juliet in 1972 threatened to bankrupt the company, but took it to higher artistic standards and greater prominence at home and in the United States. She relied on the classics, put Jacques Offenbach in the repertoire at least partly because she thought his cancan music would draw in men who wouldn't normally attend the ballet, called upon her contemporaries (Antony Tudor and John Cranko) and even created ballets herself (Cinderella and the venerable The Nutcracker). In 1973, she and Mr. Bruhn collaborated on the National Ballet's current production of Les Sylphides.
Ms. Franca leapt from one financial crisis to another and admitted that she could be a "tyrant." But throughout her time as artistic director, she stressed the importance of developing Canadian choreography, taking more than 30 Canadian ballets into the repertoire and starting the National Ballet's Choreographic Workshops. She served on the jury of the 5th International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1970 and in the same capacity at the 2nd International Ballet Competition in Moscow three years later. She also took the company across Canada and the United States, to Mexico, Japan and Europe, simultaneously creating a strong international reputation and seeing that the company remained worthy of its fame. Performing in London, her old jeté ground was the highlight, at least for Ms. Franca, who said it meant that "we have been accepted as an established ballet company and we don't have to run around proving it."
After more than 20 years at the helm, she decided to share the artistic directorship with David Haber for the 1973-74 season, and then to step down, although she insisted later that she had merely wanted a sabbatical. Ms. Franca had built a company that could boast home grown and trained dancers of the international calibre of Ms. Kain, Ms. Tennant and Frank Augustyn. She had not created a choreographer of equal merit - a point U.S. critic Clive Barnes made pointedly in 1971 when he opined that "the company needs a choreographer as badly as the Sahara needs rain" and complained that it lacked a "genuine creative spark." In retrospect it is obvious that the spark was there in James Kudelka, who arrived at the ballet school as an 11-year-old boy with huge glasses, danced as a member of the company, left to expand his choreographic opportunities and then returned as artistic director from 1996 to 2005 - a tenure that saw him mount several of his own ballets, including The Contract, An Italian Straw Hat, The Actress and The Firebird, as well as new interpretations of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Cinderella. He is now resident choreographer.
With Ms. Franca gone, Ms. Oliphant quarrelled with Mr. Haber and resigned her position as associate director, which led to Mr. Haber's departure from the company and a major rift between the two pinnacles of Canadian ballet. "She's responsible for the Haber business," Ms. Franca told The Globe in an interview in 1976, adding that she and Ms. Oliphant "don't talk to one another."
Ms. Franca stepped back into the breach temporarily as artistic director and then stayed on as a teacher and coach. Generally, she held her tongue until after Ms. Oliphant's death in July, 2004. "Betty became jealous of my position," is the way Ms. Franca explained it in Celia Franca: Tour de Force, a 2006 documentary made by Ms. Tennant and producer Neil Bregman. "She wanted to be the big queen bee and I had made her as big a queen bee as I possibly could. I made her director of the National Ballet School and that was as much as I was prepared to do for Betty."
By the time Alexander Grant became artistic director in 1976, Ms. Franca had moved to Ottawa with her third husband James Morton, a clarinetist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and announced plans to write her memoirs. (Ms. Franca had married dancer Leo Kersley, a conscientious objector, in London about the time the Second World War broke out. Although they divorced in the late 1940s, they became reacquainted after his second wife and her third husband died and spoke on the telephone every week, according to Ms. Tennant. Ms. Tennant's brief second husband was to Bert Anderson, who worked in the box office at the Eaton's auditorium. He died about 15 months ago.) She returned the next year to dance Lady Capulet to Mr. Augustyn's and Ms. Kain's Romeo and Juliet, a gala performance that Mr. Cranko set to music by Serge Prokofiev. In 1978, the People's Republic of China invited her to teach and give lecture demonstrations in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Bejing, in a tour so successful she was asked back again two years later. Although she continued to live in Ottawa, where she was in demand as a coach and teacher and as co-artistic director of the School of Dance, she returned to the National Ballet to produce a 35th Anniversary Gala Performance at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre in 1986, and to stage Judgment of Paris in 2002.
In 1974, she received the Molson Prize; in 1979, the Annual Award of the International Society of Arts Administrators in New York; and in 1986, the Canadian Conference of the Arts' Diplôme d'honneur. In 1984, she was honoured at a gala at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
In 1967, Miss Franca was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1985, a Companion. In 1987, she received the St. George's Society of Toronto Award and that same year was among the first to be honoured with the Order of Ontario. She has served as a member of the board of governors of York University, the board of directors of the Canada Council and the Board of Directors of the Canada Dance Festival Society.
The National Arts Centre threw a splendid 85th birthday party for Ms. Franca in June in Ottawa. The National Ballet School dedicated part of its new facility as the Celia Franca Ballet Centre. Karen Kain, who succeeded Mr. Kudelka as artistic director of the NBC, dedicated the 2005-06 season, the company's first as a principal tenant in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, to Ms. Franca. In August, Ms. Franca made a final appearance in Toronto, looking elegant as she was arrived in a wheelchair at the Carlu, the contemporary equivalent of the Eaton auditorium for a screening of Celia Franca: Tour de Force, which airs on Bravo tonight.
Celia Franca was born in London, England, on June 25, 1921. She died in hospital in Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2007. She was 85. Predeceased by her second and third husbands, she is survived by her first husband Leo Kersley and her brother and his family in Australia.