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'Celia Franca: Tour de Force'

A New DVD From Canada

Reviewed by Leland Windreich

December 2006

Before 1950 the only really professional ballet in Canada existed as an import, with the European touring companies that offered short seasons in the major cities.  In Winnipeg, Englishwomen Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally established a ballet club in 1938 and operated their “beer and skittles” prairie troupe on a shoestring.  In Vancouver, the Texan June Roper organized the B.C. School of Dancing in 1933, training talented students as exports for the Ballet Russe companies and offering elaborate recitals and revues for an appreciative home audience.  In Toronto, Russian émigré Boris Volkoff had an active ballet school in 1931 and a small performing unit which had been invited to dance at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

One of the shortcomings of this otherwise illuminating discussion of the life and career of an Englishwoman who founded the National Ballet of Canada is the implication that nothing had happened in Canada’s dance world before Celia Franca was imported from Britain. She arrived to complete a feasibility study of the prospects of having a successful ballet establishment.  If there were no economically viable companies in the land, there were at least ballet schools in most of the major cities. Well-trained dancers were available for Franca’s pool from the Maritime Provinces (where she recruited the Latvian-trained Irene Apinee and Jury Gotshalks) to the West Coast (where Lois Smith and David Adams had studied with teachers from the Ballets Russes). Even though Franca herself implies on the film that she had come to a land short of talent, it becomes clear that she was able to find more than a nucleus of competent performers when she started up the company in 1951.  In focusing on Franca’s story, the documentary also neglects to indicate that in Toronto Boris Volkoff was totally ignored in the search for talent and that he and his efforts soon faded into history.  What Franca was able to accomplish, however, was a unification of diverse ballet styles and a clear path to professionalism for those taken into the company with minimal education in ballet. That in itself was no mean feat.

Sound Ventures Productions has issued this lively 2-disc set in tribute to the remarkable woman who made ballet an institution in her adopted country. In a 48-minute documentary shown on CBC in October, the program starts with still photgraphs of young Celia Franks (Franca), daughter of an emigrant Jewish tailor in London, who experienced an early obsession with dance when, at age three, she announced her intention to go on stage. Her pragmatic father told her that there was no money to be made in the theatre for a woman, but she was indulged with ballet lessons and passed an audition for a London musical comedy at age 14, proudly turning her earnings over to her amazed parents.

Franca was allowed into the company of Marie Rambert with great reluctance, as the temperamental director refused to work personally with a “chorus girl “and passed her training on to a colleague named Antony Tudor.  As a result of what Franca later regarded as an act of providence, she was exposed fully to the talents of one of  England’s emerging great choreographers at the peak of his creativity, learning from him the scope and depth of dramatic dancing, as well as some remarkable ballet roles that served her into her Canadian years.

Later, with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, Franca rose into solo parts, largely on the basis of her grasp of expressionistic dance, and was rewarded with important associations with the emerging elite of British ballet.  She also learned the choreography for most of the works in the classical repertoire, largely by rote, and she showed early talents as a teacher.  Ninette de Valois, company director, turned over the responsibility of a company school to Franca and made use of her gifts as an organizer and entrepreneur.   She also let Franca dabble in choreography.  When the three Toronto talent scouts arrived in London looking for a leader, de Valois did not hesitate to recommend Franca as the most likely prospect she knew.

In later years some of Franca’s critics suggested that de Valois found her abrasive and threatening, and that de Valois recommended her in order to dispatch the young dancer to a faraway foreign post. In any event, Franca went off to Toronto to contemplate her assignment and, eventually, to accept the challenge. Nothing was easy for her, as she remarks in one of the many interviews filmed during various periods of her career.  “It was one continual fight,” she tells her viewers--for money, for support, for approval.  (The film unfortunately omits an account of the circumstances in which the T. Eaton Company agreement to sponsor the ballet was contingent on Franca’s accepting a secretarial job in its management offices to validate their subsidies).

Franca was both canny and lucky, and in her tour of the far-flung nation she found genuine talent and some excellent (albeit contrasting) examples of ballet training.  The film offers brief glimpses of some of the early recruits and many snippets of rehearsals and performances.  Franca, who was considered a demi-caractere dancer in England, was obliged to take on the starring roles in the productions she mounted for the new company--”Giselle”, “Swan Lake”, and “Nutcracker”.  Early clips in black and white show that she was a competent technician and a vivid performer.  Karen Kain tells us in an interview that it was Franca’s performance in “Giselle’ which she witnessed at age nine that prompted her to follow her own career.

Franca was wise to take on as a colleague the budding ballet pedagogue Betty Oliphant, to whom she would turn over the direction and full control of the National Ballet School.

Their association, however, turned sour as Betty’s ambitions grew and Franca began to put up barriers. She was prepared neither to share the responsibilities of running the company with Oliphant nor to consider her as a successor at a time when she contemplated retirement.  The feud between them flourished over the years, becoming a cause celebre in Canadian ballet circles.  It is discussed cautiously and with obvious tact by Franca herself in the film clips, as her tone changes from that of a respectful colleague to an outraged object of vile professional jealousy.  In a span of filmed comments we are shown the true power of Celia Franca’s indestructible ego.

Franca’s statements reveal her convictions that all of her efforts were spent making the company succeed, both artistically and financially.  And those who shared her years agree that her contribution was enormous. Along with love and profound respect, her dancers tell of their inherent fear of their director.  She was terrifying to most, a formidable taskmaster and a no-nonsense  boss.  “I think I was destined to run a ballet company and push people around,” she tells us wryly in a late interview.  She did both of these things and did them successfully.

She must be praised as well for bringing to the National some of the world’s greatest ballet talents over the years of her tenure: Antony Tudor, John Cranko, Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn, Frederick Ashton. They all raised the prestige of the home-grown company and put it on the cultural map of the world.

The second disc in the set runs for nearly 2 hours and features some wonderful early footage of performances by the National Ballet on stage and in the television studios.  Much of the material was filmed in the 1950s by premier danseur David Adams and his wife, Lois Smith, and additional pictorial records were drawn from the holdings of Dance Collection Danse, Canada’s foremost archives of the dance arts.

There are additional clips of Franca in various states of seriousness, a photo gallery, and further historical documentation of Franca’s career in both England and Canada.

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Director, producer and interviewer: Veronica Tennant.

Co-producer: Neil Bregman

Distributed by Sound Venture International, Ottawa, Canada (2006)

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