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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Artistic Autocrat

The creator of Canada’s National Ballet was charming and ruthless

Sarah Jennings

The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca

Carol Bishop-Gwyn

Cormorant Books

423 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781770860438

Dance historian Carol Bishop-Gwyn has selected a fascinating personality to write about in her choice of the classical dance czarina Celia Franca, whose ruthless dedication led to the creation of one of Canada’s most esteemed arts companies, The National Ballet of Canada. This is a portrait of one of the most crucial figures in our post-war artistic and cultural development, when a wave of sophisticated immigrants, mostly European and many British, arrived in Canada to cultivate Canada’s tentative artistic life.

The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca starts off slowly as Bishop-Gwyn sets out in copious detail aspects of Franca’s ancestry and early life. Some of these facts will be important in the later tale, such as Franca’s Jewish origins, her attachment to marriage, her early experience with television at the BBC (which will come in handy later) and, above all, her indoctrination in and adherence to the British school of classical ballet. As a dancer and choreographer, especially for early BBC television, Franca had made a mark. But when it became evident that she would not achieve first-rank stardom as a dancer at London’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet, she accepted the chance to seek her fortune elsewhere when Canada came calling for advice.

Fortunately, once Franca arrives in Canada in 1950, the story really gets going. Fifties Toronto is well drawn and presented as Franca would have seen it. An earlier 1940s description by modernist painter Wyndham Lewis of Toronto as “a sanctimonious icebox” was still accurate: “Men-only pubs and taverns … intentionally grungy,” “fine dining was rare and mainly dry; no wine or spirits were served on Sunday.” To Franca, who enjoyed drink and came from the convivial and cosmopolitan world of London, it must have been a shock.

Toronto had “an excellent university, a good orchestra, a museum with totem poles and dinosaurs.” Ballet had gained a foothold but was trailing behind the other performing arts, states Bishop-Gwyn. Dancers who wanted a full-time professional career mostly had to leave Canada. Toronto had its schools of dance and there was clearly an audience for the art form, as demonstrated by excellent attendance at tours that played the city, including successful engagements by Sadler’s Wells, Franca’s original base.

Inspired by the 1949 creation of the arts–investigating federal Massey Commission, balletomanes in Toronto felt “the time has come when Toronto needs, wants and is willing to support a company.” Hence the invitation to Celia Franca to come to Canada to see what could be done. The author documents meticulously the many players and vying interests that led to her recruitment, as well as the well-heeled, socially prominent, mostly Protestant Rosedale matrons who spearheaded the project that they expected their wealthy husbands to support. “The desire for a national ballet company was ardent.”

It was soon clear that Celia Franca, initially brought in as an artistic consultant to see if such a company was viable, would take on the challenge of creating a “national” dance company for Canada, and she would do it her way. This autocratic streak plays throughout Franca’s story in the high drama of events in the ensuing decades.

Franca’s exhaustive efforts to browbeat the good Toronto burghers into finding the money to create a professional dance company make for some stirring reading.

There was no organized government funding for the arts in those early years. The Canada Council was still in the embryonic stage, although Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent’s government was trying to find ways to fund it. The audaciousness of Franca’s commitment to create a professional ballet company and ultimately drive it to international standards is amazing. Her exhaustive efforts, using all her charms and wiles, to browbeat the good Toronto burghers into finding the money to do it make for some stirring reading. While today funding the arts is its own industry, at the time it was Franca’s singular determination, along with her experience, sophistication and exotic good looks (referred to often by the author) that got results. There were epic, even blood-curdling, boardroom battles as well as artistic ones.

Important relations within the burgeoning dance community are documented, sometimes re–documented, as many of Bishop-Gwyn’s stories have been written about elsewhere, including in memoirs by some of the protagonists themselves. At times she is tentative about the conclusions she draws from her findings, although she does not back down in retelling the story of the complicated relationship between Franca and fellow English woman Betty Oliphant, the latter a key figure with Franca in the creation of The National Ballet Company and the National Ballet School. Their early close partnership and friendly working relations eventually evolved into intense rivalry and mean-spirited bitterness with all the pettiness that such situations provide. The ultimate cruel breakdown between the two, caused by Franca at a gala performance, when she accidentally or on purpose failed to mention Oliphant when thanking all those involved in the company’s creation, is fully recounted by Bishop-Gwyn, despite her evident affection for her subject.

Similarly, Bishop-Gwyn recounts other episodes during the Franca regime, including the arrival of the explosive dance star Rudolf Nureyev into the company’s life. Franca signed a controversial contract with the American impresario Sol Hurok that took the National Ballet on tour with the Russian dancer and concluded with a much sought-after three-week engagement at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. The arrangement entailed the company shouldering the costs when Nureyev was not dancing, but also meant it would play to sold-out houses when he was. Although artistic director, Franca was, most unusually, often sidelined by the dancer’s demands. One critic described the company as “the parsley around the salmon of Rudolf Nureyev.” Franca later said “she had ‘sold the company’ in order to ensure that it would survive.” The tumultuous Nureyev connection gave remarkable opportunities to up and coming dancers such as Karen Kain, but the tempestuous Russian’s devious ways caused dissension and ultimately his presence was not seen as furthering the real work of the ballet troupe. Franca’s final, abortive attempt to maintain control by appointing her own successor in David Haber, when it was decided she should retire from the company, is also described, although the injured party in this instance was the well-meaning Haber.

The author’s repeated accounts of Franca’s ruthlessness, her willingness to exploit and then dispose of people and friends, even husbands, when they no longer served her purposes, along with her opportunism and her own needs for personal admiration and celebrity are all included. Bishop-Gwyn describes a woman who worked behind a mask that she never let drop until the very last days of her life.

There is no mistaking the massive contribution that her work and that of her colleagues contributed to dance in Canada. Yet Franca is described as a driven person, who needed the attention and notoriety of her work, but craved respectability through marriage and social stability.

She once declared her philosophy to her recalcitrant board: “the theatre is all a gamble and if you don’t gamble you’re through.” Her view paid off, as witnessed by The National Ballet of Canada, which we still have today. But a quote from the great Danish-born dancer Erik Bruhn, who worked with the National Ballet and was for a time, after Franca, its artistic director, perhaps pinpoints what drove this artist. In a typewritten letter to Franca, he wrote that “perfection may be just an idea, or even a profound belief, and unfortunately still for a lot of people a depressing disillusion, but if we fail to take this responsibility, we fail not only the ones who are to follow us, we have simply failed the life that was given us.” In a handwritten postscript he told her “this is what I believe you have done for yourself and your company, may they all and all of us keep trying to live up to it.”

Franca herself understood this unstoppable drive for perfection. It speaks to the uniqueness of artists. As in no other kind of life, artists are compelled by some force to pursue their ideals, regardless of the price to themselves and those around them. This account of Franca’s life makes the point.

Franca’s career brought her every accolade, including membership in the Order of Canada. After she had left the National Ballet, it gave her opportunities to travel and teach in China and in Ottawa, where she became part of Ottawa’s School of Dance. Only on occasion did she return to the National Ballet, usually to help one of its causes or celebrate an occasion. The best years of expression for her strong and often divisive character were gone. In her last public appearance, in her eighties, by now in a wheelchair, she was driven by limousine to Toronto to celebrate the world premiere of the film Celia Franca: Tour de Force, created by one of her former leading ballerinas, now a film maker, Veronica Tennant. Whilst she “basked in the admiration and respect” she received at the event, her parting remark as she prepared to be driven away said it all: “This is the last time. You won’t be asking me to do this again.”

The Pursuit of Perfection joins a growing collection of recent volumes documenting our cultural and artistic affairs. They are a welcome addition to Canadian writing. The recent mini boom includes stories of individual artists, such as this book about Franca, as well as histories of arts organizations and the support players who laid down the foundations for our current artistic life. A range of scribes have tackled these histories, relying often on the living memories of those still around to tell the tale. One example is another dance writer, James Neufeld, and his recently updated history of the National Ballet, Passion to Dance, republished last year. Others, focusing on the individual artist, are Walter Pitman with his fine biography of composer and seminal arts figure Louis Applebaum, and Neufeld again with his recent biography of the magnificent, although now less-known soprano Lois Marshall, who, despite being disabled from childhood with infantile paralysis, took her beautiful voice onto the world stage and by doing so brought reflected glory to Canada. These books generally do not look back in nostalgia but try to sketch out “how we got from there to here” in the arts in Canada. This new portrait of Franca adds to this work, which is slowly mapping out the contours of our cultural life.

The writers of these tomes face a dilemma. Unlike the large numbers of authors who write about a war or politics from many angles, there is likely to be only one, or at least fewer versions, of the history these arts writers are relating. The issue is whether to encompass everything known about the subject by including finer details down to the fare served at lunches or dinners to embellish the sense of historical accuracy. This is often attractive to the in-crowd and Bishop-Gwyn frequently chooses that direction. Alternatively, is it better to shape and select the material to appeal more to general readers and avoid wearing them out with too many details? It is certain that the story of Canada’s arts contains some ripping good tales and more Canadians should know them. This argues for the latter.

Sarah Jennings is a political and cultural writer in Ottawa and the author of Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre.