Celia Franca: Shall we dance?

Celia Franca’s first performance in Canada 019: Celia Franca: Shall we dance?
March 13, 2015

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Discover the story of Celia Franca, a woman who introduced Canada to world-class dance performances, pioneered the internationally famous National Ballet of Canada and devoted her entire life to dance. In this episode we are joined by LAC archivists Michel Guénette, Théo Martin and assistant archivist Judith Enright-Smith who will speak to us about who Celia Franca was, and the dance-related resources available to researchers at Library and Archives Canada.

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Podcast Transcript

Celia Franca: Shall we dance?

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

In this episode we explore the story of Celia Franca, a woman who introduced Canada to world-class dance performances, pioneered the internationally famous National Ballet of Canada and devoted her entire life to dance. We are joined by LAC archivists Michel Guénette, Théo Martin and assistant archivist Judy Enright-Smith who will speak to us about who Celia Franca was and the dance-related resources available to researchers at Library and Archives Canada.

If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

Hi Judy.

Judy Enright-Smith: Hi Jessica.

JO: Thank you for being with us today.

JES: It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

JO: How did Library and Archives Canada acquire the material included in Celia Franca’s fonds?

JES: Celia Franca was first approached about donating her papers to Library and Archives Canada, it was then the Public Archives, in the late 70s, 1979 I think. At that time she was writing a book on the National Ballet, it was a collaboration with the photographer Ken Bell, and she wanted to hold on to her papers. So it was decided that we would contact her maybe 18 months down the line, which we did. She had completed the book at that point and so the first donation came to Library and Archives in 1982, I believe. It consisted of about 7 metres of written material as well as about 600 photographs, most of them were black-and-white. We received the second installment of the Franca material in 1992, about 10 years later. At that point we received more textual material along with thousands of photographs as well as drawings and a bit of ephemera such as pins and medallions and the various awards that she received. Then we received the third installment in 2007, after she passed away; it was willed to us through her estate.

JO: Hi Michel.

Michel Guénette: Hi.

JO: Thank you for being with us today.

MG: It is my pleasure.

JO: Can you talk to us a little bit about Celia Franca and her background?

MG: Yes, of course. Celia Franca was born to immigrant parents in 1921, in the East End of London, a rather modest area. Her father was a tailor from Poland. They weren’t really very rich. Celia Franca showed a talent for music and dance at a very young age. She liked to move and that became clear at a family wedding. She was encouraged to keep dancing from then on. She was sent to dance schools, even though her family did not have a lot of money. They had to find…

JO: …the means …

MG: The financial means to make it happen. She was encouraged and trained. Later, her father started to wonder, because one did not become rich through dance and ballet at the time.

JO: At any time, really.

MG: Exactly, still today. And Celia Franca was a very determined woman, starting from a very young age. At 14, she would audition for a company for a role in a musical comedy called Spread it Abroad. She was hired as a dancer for that musical. She started earning money and she was very happy to bring money home to her father. To say…

JO: “Look at me.”

MG: “Look at me. I can earn money doing this.”

JO: Yes.

MG: Later, she would train with Antony Tudor and Marie Rambert, a prima ballerina with a ballet company in her name: the Marie Rambert Ballet. Franca would also dance in the company’s ballet performances, where she became a professional ballerina. The Second World War was a major turning point in her life. She would join the Sadler’s [Wells] Ballet … with Ninette de Valois, who was a prima ballerina, an incredible woman, world famous in the dance community. Franca would join that troupe and dance alongside Margot Fonteyn…

JO: Okay.

MG: …a prima ballerina. Celia Franca is known mostly for her talent as a dramatic dancer. She does not have a raw talent as such, but she has a wonderful presence. Audiences watch her on stage because she… 

JO: She is captivating …

MG: She is captivating and she also likes to play the villain roles a bit. In one of the choreographies—I don’t remember what it was called, but she danced the role of the spider, I think it was in the butterfly or something… She was very good in those types of roles. With the Sadler’s company, it was during the war, so they performed a lot for soldiers; and when the war ended, in 1946, to everyone’s great surprise, she left Sadler’s, which, at the time, was a good position. It paid well and there weren’t many questions asked [about why]. She left Sadler’s. According to her, it was because she had a role that she had to play over and over again and she did not really enjoy that. Biographies of her say that it was because she did not have a major role in the upcoming ballet, I think it was Sleeping Beauty. And, also, some ballerinas who had left Sadler’s during the Second World War were coming back. So, there was…

JO: There was competition among the ballerinas: who was going to be the star?

MG: That’s it. Knowing Celia to be driven and determined, I’m sure she simply decided to leave. Then… she had to make a living, so these were tough years for her. But she kept choreographing and added to her already vast experience. She was still extremely young at this stage. She would be asked to choreograph for the BBC, British television. She would create [Dance of] Salomé, which was a first in Great Britain at the time. Then she would join the Metropolitan Ballet, where she would also become a dance instructor, in addition to dancing for the company. She would then gain teaching experience, which was going to be important. So now she has a range of experience, and it was around this time that a group from Toronto wanted to found a dance company, a ballet company. They went to Great Britain. They knew Ninette de Valois, whom we already talked about. They go to see her and she recommends Celia Franca. They contact Celia Franca; that was in the 1950s or so. One thing leads to another… and she comes to Canada in 1951 and founds the National Ballet of Canada. 

JO: What is included in the holdings?

JES: The Franca collection is very rich in content and significance. It consists of primarily textual material, we have about 14 metres of textual documents. We also have about 2,600 photographs and there is also art work, we have about 250 drawings as well, an assortment of pins, medals, and medallions. The textual material has been broken down into select series depending on their theme or their subject matter. The first series would just be an abundance of correspondence, files and files of correspondence, both personal and professional. Then there is the note series, Celia Franca was just this incredible keeper of notes. We have 100s and 100s of notes…

JO: Like in notebooks?

JES: No, these are little notes on scraps of paper, big pieces of paper. The notebook series is coming later. These are tiny little notes, big notes. Notes written about grocery lists, about laundry lists, about things to do with her cats, everyday things in addition to lists about galas that she was going to attend. Notes on meetings of famous people. So what’s really interesting about the notes series is that you get a really neat juxtaposition of her private life and her personal life. It gives the readers, should they take the time to go through all these notes, a really rich understanding of Celia Franca as a “personal” person and as a “professional” person.

The next series is dedicated specially to the National Ballet of Canada. These would include files on their annual meetings, their board minutes, their budgets, their finances, files on their various tours, their national tours, their international tours. There is another series that is a selection of printed programs from their various tours, again their national and international tours. There are dozens and dozens of clippings, clippings and reviews, newspaper clippings. There is also a memorabilia and personal material series, which would include her honorary awards and degrees, her calendars, her day-timers, the passports, her will, her birth certificates, things like that.

Then we get to the notebooks. Dozens of notebooks related mostly to her professional career. So you would have notebooks devoted specifically to costume design and stage lighting, teaching notes, notebooks filled with dance moves as well as notebooks with drawings of how she wanted a specific dancer’s arms to drape over another dancer’s arms. Really, really interesting things.

JO: You mention that there were photographs?

JES: Yes, there are about 2,600 photographs in the Celia Franca collection. They range from simple snapshots of family and friends. There’s many posed shots with Franca with professional people including Frank Augustyn. There are a lot of photographs of banquets and parties. There are several photographs, which are very interesting, of Celia Franca teaching a very young Veronica Tennant. And there are several professionally posed business type of… show business type of photographs. There is also art work in the Celia Franca collection. There are about 250 drawings, most of them are done in coloured pencil, there are some in watercolour and it’s primarily art work that consists of costume design. They are very beautiful—they are stunning. They are done on black board and they are done with coloured pencil. They are also drawn as the ballet dancer would be dancing in costume. So they are almost alive, these drawings have such lovely movement to them and detail. Also included on each illustration board is a swatch of the fabric that was going to be used for these costumes. The costumes range from simple one-piece leotards for the chorus, I would suspect, to beautifully detailed, opulent gowns for the main dancers, which could also come apart for quick changes and things along those lines. They’re really, really lovely and beautiful.

JO: Hi Théo. Thank you for being with us today.

Théo Martin: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

JO: Can Celia Franca’s holdings and fonds be consulted?

TM: That is a very good question. In fact, of course, the majority of her fonds has been processed, described and is available for consultation. In fact, that’s pretty good, because that is not always the case with other arts or performing arts collections. That is certainly something that dance researchers or others might be interested to know because it is quite the wealth of information we have here at LAC. However, it is important to note that some correspondence may or may not be open to the public, you would have to seek permission.

JO: Yes.

TM: I’m talking about private correspondence….

JO: Personal.

TM: … personal, more private.

JO: Okay. So we’re almost there. It’s almost completely processed.

TM: Absolutely, absolutely. As far as the roughly 3,000 photographs are concerned as well. It is a truly exceptional collection from a graphics, or iconographic point of view. There are many that are more than 50 years old … where copyright no longer applies, that are easy to consult. Generally speaking, the photographs can be reproduced, but, yes, the researchers have to be realistic. You know of course that they may be more than 50 years old, but the photographer may still own the rights. This will need to be determined.

JO: Why is Celia Franca important to the history of Canada?

MG: She is important on a number of levels, if I may say so. She really participated in the development of dance and performing arts in Canada. I think, to understand her importance, it is important to know that before the 1950s dance did not have much significance here. There isn’t… Canada does not have a ballet tradition, a dance tradition, except for in homes and a few shows here and there. There are a few pioneers of dance. As I was saying earlier, Boris Volkoff, who founded a school, would put on shows here and there, but they were still amateur productions: they were still amateur schools of dance or amateur troupes. Other than that, it was international troupes who came here to put on shows. Dancers were often from abroad. There was not much interest. Things began to change in the 1950s. In Winnipeg, there was an amateur troupe that would gain professional status and become the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. A few years later, Celia Franca would found the National Ballet of Canada. A few years later still came the Grands Ballets Canadiens. A trend was taking hold in the 1950s and Celia Franca was no stranger to that…

JO: Okay.

MG: She is important also because she brought a lot of discipline to dance and ballet in Canada. Coming from Great Britain, having danced for major companies that were very demanding—only the elite achieve that status. She arrived with her baggage and demanded more or less the same in a country where there really was nothing. She had to build from the ground up and bring all that discipline with her. She wanted to model the National Ballet of Canada after Sadler’s in Great Britain. So, she brought all that baggage, all that discipline, and all that strictness to the company and its dancers. I should mention that the other reason I think she is so important in the history of dance in Canada, in addition to everything that was mentioned, is that creating a school of dance was important to her. To her, this went hand in hand with the quality of a great, professional dance company. Until then, anyone wanting to find the best dancers to be the principal dancers, or Canadian dancers with massive potential wanting to perfect their training and pursue their career, would have to go abroad.

JO: Okay.

MG: So, that is when she would co-found, with the help of Betty Oliphant, a school of dance affiliated with the National Ballet of Canada, and really cement the whole thing. If you could create your own dancers to become big stars, then that would ensure…

JO: Success…

MG: Success and the sustainability of the company. And it worked. Just look at Martine van Hamel who would become a very successful ballerina, and other dancers who are slightly more well known by our generation—Veronica Tennant, or Karen Kain…

JO: Who is now the director, I believe.

MG: Exactly. They spent time at the school, and also under the direction of artistic directors at the Grands Ballets.

JO: Okay. What would you say is Celia Franca’s biggest accomplishment?

MG: It is hard to…

JO: Say one thing…

MG: To say one thing about someone you didn’t know is interesting because her biographer, Carole Bishop Gwyn, says that her biggest accomplishment is herself, in fact. In a way, she created a character, Celia Franca in the dance world, she is a very important figure. Like her or not, she represents ballet here in Canada. And she is a self-made woman. That is what is extraordinary. She came from a very modest upbringing, far removed from the arts. She managed to climb the ladder to the top and set the standard for ballet in Canada.

JO: Yes.

MG: Other than that, we might say that her most remarkable accomplishment is the birth of the dance company as such.

JO: Yes.

MG: The National Ballet of Canada, which she founded, is a very big accomplishment that has been around since 1951. It has had some shining moments, and it continues to shine…

JO: It is a well-established school now, a well-established school and company…

MG: That’s right.

JO: In Canada and around the world.

MG: Exactly. Her reputation—stemming from her creation of the National Ballet of Canada—and the school that was extremely important to her; I think all these things combined make her someone who accomplished a lot.

JO: How can the holdings be consulted? Is there anything accessible online?

TM: Absolutely! In fact, just go to the LAC website and search the archival holdings for Celia Franca and you can not only get a description of the fonds, but also order unrestricted documents. The consultation can be done in the consultation room at LAC. However, some graphic components of the fonds—especially certain photographs—are already available online, including on the LAC portal and on Flickr. There is also a database of online images that can be found on the website. A simple search with the words “National Ballet of Canada”, “Celia Franca”, “ballet”, “dance”, will allow you to look at those photos. It’s quite magical! 

JO: Yes, yes, yes. What documents does Library and Archives Canada have on the National Ballet of Canada? It’s the same thing, right?

TM: Yes, in fact, Library and Archives Canada has other fonds related to the National Ballet of Canada. Celia Franca taught and developed her students at the National Ballet, who themselves would become emeritus dancers, who would have major national and international careers. Among those, there is…

JO: Karen Kain, of course.

TM: Karen Kain, absolutely, whose fonds we have here at LAC; Tennant, also Prima Ballerina, Veronica who had a successful career. We have a wealth of splendid documents that document not only their careers at the National Ballet, but also what they did afterward to develop dance, to be advocates for performing arts in Canada. In the case of Veronica Tennant, she provided her archives not only in connection with her dance career, but also in connection with her youth, her education, her careers and her accomplishments as a writer. It’s rather interesting. She even wrote for children. We have a few versions of her book here in the LAC collection. Then there is her career as an actor (on stage, including at the Shaw Festival), choreographer, television host, director and producer of a number of major documentaries, including for the CBC. She is, as I said earlier, an advocate for arts and culture in Canada. LAC has most of Veronica Tennant’s films and documentaries, including the documentary made in honour of Celia Franca, entitled Celia Franca tour de force, made in 2006.

JO: Okay, shortly before her death, then.

TM: Yes, shortly before her death. It is a lovely tribute to her career by one of her former students. In the case of Karen Kain, she also provided her archives in 1995, and her documents relating to her education, her life, her career with the National Ballet. It includes a number of documents in connection with her international career. There are also some documents on her youth, her honorary distinctions, a major collection of photographs of Karen Kain as the principal dancer at the National Ballet… Other documents, likely more restricted, include very rich correspondence with other dancers, other choreographers, and other personalities from the world of politics in Canada and around the world.

JO: Yes.

TM: It’s rather interesting. Both fonds combined represent roughly 15 metres of textual documents, 3,500 photographs… not to mention the audiovisual, documentary art, posters, and medals. It is very, very… 

JO: … rich, I imagine.

TM: Rich. Absolutely, in both cases. I will elaborate on that. Those documents were compiled in part by their mothers. It is rather impressive. We are talking here about a collection of almost 20 years of everything that might…

JO: Of everything having to do with their development, their childhood.

TM: Their career development, yes.

JO: From their early childhood to their career.

TM: Throughout their careers, and it’s rather interesting. Today, Veronica Tennant and Karen Kain are still very active in dance, both in Canada and around the world. Karen Kain is currently the artistic director of the National Ballet. It is a real privilege to keep the documentary heritage of these two former National Ballet ballerinas here at LAC.

JO: Yes.

TM: I also want to add that that is not all we have on the National Ballet. There are also photographs by Ken Bell. Ken Bell was the official photographer of the National Ballet from the early days until the late 1970s. Bell brilliantly captured the first representations of the great classical ballet at the National Ballet. We’re talking about Coppélia, the Nutcracker, Giselle and many more. Bell took memorable photos, also, of the founder of the National Ballet, Celia Franca. He would also take photos of other major dancers. I named a few earlier, but there was also Lois Smith, Nadia Potts and many others. You can also find nice photographs of National Ballet dancers and productions (performances) in the Michel Lambeth fonds, who also took photographs of the schools connected to the National Ballet. The audience may not know this, but there was an extension of the National Ballet here in Ottawa, where future prima ballerinas and great dancers were taught. I should mention that LAC has a number of very important documents on the early days of the National Ballet, including a fonds called “National Ballet,” but it is made up of duplicates because most of the administrative documents (more operational) are still held at the National Ballet.

JO: Oh, of course.

TM: However, for those interested in the National Ballet, it is a good starting place for their research because we truly have documents that explain the foundation of one of our greatest dance institutions in Canada. As far as contemporary dance is concerned, we are lucky to have the fonds of Le Groupe de la Place Royale, which is really one of the first contemporary dance organizations in Canada. It would become Le Groupe Dance Lab in the 1990s. Unfortunately, that institution closed its doors around 2010. Co-founded in 1966 by choreographers and dancers Jeanne Renaud and Peter Boneham, the institution was, as I said, one of the first to develop contemporary dance and would fuel other groups that would pave the way for institutions such as La La La Human Steps.

JO: Yes, I was going to say…

TM: Absolutely, for the Toronto Dance Theatre, for example. Every institution we know today can trace its roots to Le Groupe de la Place Royale. And even more interesting is that just recently I had the privilege and opportunity to acquire the fonds of Peter Boneham, which represents almost 50 years of dance for this very famous award-winning dancer and choreographer in Canada. Another fonds of note in contemporary dance is that of the Margie Gillis Dance Foundation. Margie Gillis is one of our most reputable, renowned, and internationally known dancers. A few years ago we had the opportunity to acquire the fonds from her Foundation. It includes her artistic explorations and her collaborations with dancers in Canada and around the world. Other fonds we have along those lines are from the Toronto Dance Theatre, and some fonds…, such as the National Arts Centre, have references to contemporary dance and classical dance.

JO: Once again Judy Enright-Smith. What’s your favourite item in the collection and why?

JES: Well, I have a few favourite items. I already touched upon one, the beautiful black illustration boards that were done for costume designs by Kay Ambrose. There is also one notebook in particular, when I was going through the collection. I found it and I opened it and it was just this curious collection of little circles and arrows. Arrows pointing right, arrows pointing left, and I realized that this was almost like a ballet alphabet of Celia Franca because I would assume there’s no symbol for an arabesque or a plié. She had created her own little alphabet language, it’s the only thing I can think of. The whole notebook was just filled with circles and arrows and pages upon pages of this ballet alphabet. It was really, really fascinating to look at and I realized she’s probably the only one who would be able to understand this notebook. I just thought it was absolutely beautiful.

JO: Once again Michel Guénette. In your research, did you find any anecdotes, interesting stories that show another side of Celia Franca?

MG: Except for, well… We mentioned her sense of discipline, determination, drive, all that; she also had a rather British sense of humour that I’m not sure everyone understood, but during a presentation of the ballet Giselle, there were ballerinas who had to exit the stage at one side and run backstage to get to the other side. While running, one of the ballerinas fell to the ground and said, “I hope Celia didn’t see that!” A person next to her picked her up and said, “It’s okay, dear, she didn’t see that!” and it was Celia Franca herself who picked up the ballerina. It just goes to show that she knew how to temper things because it was often said that some dancers, ballerinas were afraid of her. Perhaps on occasion, perhaps, it was just to help them maybe be more demanding of themselves or to improve their performance because other dancers said they got along with her very well throughout their career.

JO: I know that after she came to Ottawa she founded a dance school, but did she retire after that?

MG: Not really. She was not one to stay home. When she left her duties at the National Ballet of Canada, she moved here to Ottawa, since her husband was playing for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. She stayed in the arts world. She was recognized in Canada for her contribution to dance. She was awarded [Officer of] the Order of Canada in 1967, was named a Companion of the Order [of Canada] in 1985, which was rather early. Then she won the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize in 1974, so just after or just as she was leaving the National Ballet of Canada. She was bestowed an honorary degree by the Canadian Conference for the Arts in 1986, and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 1994. She amassed a number of awards, which shows that she was recognized for her talent, of course, but also…

JO: …for her contribution… 

MG: …her contribution to dance, to ballet in Canada.

JO: Thank you very much, Michel, for coming here and talking to us about Celia Franca and her work.

MG: It was my pleasure to spend this time with you.

JO: Do you have anything else to add, Théo?

TM: The only thing I would add is that you have to keep going back to the LAC website to check out the growing collection. We know there is a wealth of information in the fonds and collections, and that more and more the community—not just the dance community—but researchers and performing arts lovers are discovering what LAC has to offer. So, you’ll have to watch for what we have to offer in the coming years.

JO: Thank you very much, Théo.

TM: Thank you very much.

JO: To learn more about Celia Franca and other exceptional Canadian women who have made outstanding contributions to Canadian society and the world, please visit our Celebrating Women’s Achievements website at collectionscanada.gc.ca/women. Also, don’t forget to check our blog, thediscoverblog.com, for more performing arts content. You can find the content quickly by selecting “Music and Performing Arts”from the category list on the right side of the web page.

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Judy Enright-Smith, Michel Guénette and Théo Martin.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.

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