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A young Karen Kain hid in the school’s toilet stalls to escape Celia Franca’s painful training. | photo: courtesy National Ballet

A young Karen Kain hid in the school’s toilet stalls to escape Celia Franca’s painful training. | photo: courtesy National Ballet

People

dancer, choreographer, teacher, visionary Celia Franca 1921-2007

by Frances Rooney | March 3, 2008

A man would have been called hard headed, focused, larger than life, terrifying, adored. In an article written by Paul Gessell, Celia Franca was called “two words ... Both rhyme with rich.” Later, she was also called hard headed, focused, larger than life, terrifying, adored.

Eventually, she became a “Canadian cultural icon.”

After World War Two, ballet was starting to take hold in Canada. Former dancers in various towns and cities were training aspiring young dancers. Women taught dancers in Vancouver who then joined Russian ballet troupes. In Toronto, Russian émigré Boris Volkoff was teaching ballet.

In 1950, when a group of ballet enthusiasts went looking to hire someone to establish a professional company in Toronto, they did a very Canadian thing: they looked elsewhere. At the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London, they offered the job to a 29-year-old dancer and choreographer. Rumour soon began to circulate that the founder of Sadler's Wells recommended this particular dancer for the job because she was so difficult to work with. Canada was far away.

Celia Franks was the daughter of a Jewish immigrant tailor. He discouraged her from dancing because there was no money in it. At 14, she got a job in a chorus line, took her pay home to her father, and never looked back. By 1950, she was Celia Franca, ballerina.

She took the job in Canada.

“It was one continual fight,” she said in an interview captured on the DVD, Tour de Force. The fight was “for money, for support, for approval.” In another interview, she commented, “I think I was destined to run a ballet company and push people around.”

She fought, she worked, she pushed, and she was the tour de force behind the establishment of the National Ballet of Canada.

That first year, she got financial support for the new company from Eaton’s. As part of the deal, she worked as a file clerk in the company office. In 1951, the National Ballet gave its first performance. Franca put together a core group of Canadian dancers, brought people in from beyond Canada, fostered the training of dancers and dance teachers. In 1959, with Betty Oliphant, Franca began the National Ballet School.

The road was not easy. Nor was she easy. Franca was at the least a no-nonsense leader. Often she was also terrifying. A young Karen Kain hid in the school’s toilet stalls to escape Franca’s painful training.

Ballet requires that dancers start with a specific body build. From there, they must train more rigorously than professional athletes. They must also live with daunting personal and professional discipline. Ballet dancers suffer from more physical injuries than football or hockey players. They must be tough – in mind, body and spirit.

In his book, Only Entertainment, Richard Dyer wrote:

Classical ballet has been one of the few areas, until very recently, where women were encouraged, indeed required, to develop their muscles, stamina and power, yet all in the service of the opposite feminine ideal. It is male choreographers who have designed … steps and roles and in the process have constructed an image of woman as the epitome of delicacy, femininity at its most debilitating. Held aloft like feathers by the ballerinos, incarnating the souls of swans and sprites, billowing across the stage on tippy-toes ... The reality of the production of this image is its own exact contrary – sinew and sweat, muscles and strength are the actual stock in trade of the female ballet dancer.

And the toughest of all, despite her look of delicate femininity, was Celia Franca. When asked, “Have you ever thought, that’s it, I’ve had it?” she replied, “Many times, at least once a year ... All it takes is a couple of good performances to put you right back up on your feet again ... I’m so glad I chose this profession ... It was a marvelous profession to take up.” (“Remembering Celia Franca,” CBC Archives.)

In the 60s, the National Ballet became world famous and began to perform abroad. In 1967, Franca became the first dancer to receive the Order of Canada. International stars worked with the company, including Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. (Baryhnikov defected from the Soviet Union in a carefully planned escape after a National Ballet performance in Toronto.)

But Franca’s relationship with the board of the National Ballet deteriorated. In 1974, she resigned. In 1978, with Merilee Hodgins , she co-founded The School of Dance in Ottawa. And the next year she established the Celia Franca Foundation, which assists dancers, choreographers, researchers and dance teachers in training.

At her 80th birthday party in 2001, colleagues, students, friends and former enemies gathered at the National Arts Centre to celebrate this dancer / choreographer / administrator / powerhouse. A year later – after many years of estrangement – the National Ballet invited her to choreograph a production of Judgment of Paris.

Because of Celia Franca's work, ballet and the all-important teaching of teachers of ballet have found a strong and vibrant place in Canadian culture. After her death on February 19, 2007, Globe and Mail dance critic Paula Citron wrote, “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.”

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