Celia Franca founded national ballet company

Celia Franca, founder of the National Ballet of Canada and a York University honorary doctorate recipient, died Monday. She was 85.

Left: Celia Franca in a 1984 photo by Barry Gray

In 1950, ballet enthusiasts in Toronto lured Franca, an established dancer, choreographer and teacher, from London, England, to establish Canada’s first classical company. Within a year, she had founded the National Ballet of Canada and in 1959 co-founded the National Ballet School with Betty Oliphant, DLitt (Hon.) ’92. 

"She put all her heart and soul into creating a company and later a school that were national in scope," said York dance Prof. Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, a graduate of the school and dancer with the company for four years. "It was always her dream and vision."

"Once the school was established, there was a steady stream of talent – Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Frank Augustyn – became available to draw upon," said Fisher-Stitt yesterday. "And that just let the company fly."

"Celia Franca really laid the foundation for a company that was national and international in scope," said Fisher-Stitt. "She also helped build the foundation for very solid technical training and the nurturing of dancers in this country."

Artistic director for 24 years, Franca invited international stars such as Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev to dance with the company. The invitation to Nureyev almost bankrupted the company, but Franca "made a lot of very clever moves and took calculated risks," said Fisher-Stitt, who was a member of the corps when Nureyev mounted The Sleeping Beauty and remembers his positive impact. "Everybody’s dancing improved. His own work ethic was tremendous and so was his commitment to the ballet. He was present all the time, watching from the wings."  

As a student and a dancer with the National Ballet in the 1960s and 1970s, Fisher-Stitt remembers being at once in awe and terrified of Franca. "She had such power over us," said the York professor, because she chose what roles the dancers played. "At the same time, we had tremendous respect for her. She ran a tight ship and when she came into a room, the effect was electric," Fisher-Stitt says. "She was always pushing us."

Last November, Franca attended a special screening in Toronto of Veronica Tennant’s documentary, Celia Franca: Tour de Force. Even in a wheelchair, she was "a real dynamo and very theatrical," says Fisher-Stitt.

The dance prof. interviewed Franca a few years ago for a history she is writing about the ballet school and hopes to publish by 2009, the 50th anniversary of the ballet school and York. "When I interviewed her, she was in her 80s. She greeted me at the door in flowing grey hair, silk pajamas and fully made up," says Fisher-Stitt. Franca believed dancers had a responsibility to always maintain an artistic presence, she said.

Franca won many awards. In 1967, she became the first dance artist inducted into the Order of Canada and, in 1985, received its highest honour, Companion of the Order. She was among the first to be honoured with the Order of Ontario in 1987. In 1976, she received an honorary doctorate as a dancer and choreographer from York.

Franca served on York’s Board of Governors from July 1, 1985 to June 30, 1988.