About The Celia Franca Foundation
Excerpt, Celia Franca Foundation files.
There have been many costumes, many stages and many honors and awards for Miss Franca since her debut at the Mercury Theatre in London in 1936 to her current status as a “national treasure” in Canada.
Her Canadian connection began in 1951 when she founded the National Ballet of Canada. For nearly all of the next 25 years Miss Franca was one of the company’s Principal Dancers, its Artistic Director, and was largely responsible for the growth and successes.
Miss Franca received her early education in music and dance at the Guildhall School of Music in London. She was a scholarship student at what is now the Royal Academy of Dancing and later studied under Judith Espinosa, Stanislas Idzikowski, Marie Rambert and Antony Tudor.
After her debut she continued working with the Ballet Rambert at the Mercury Theatre until 1939. The next three years were spent with Les Ballets Trois Arts, the Arts Theatre Ballet and the International Ballet, all in London.
Miss Franca remembers well her next few years as a leading dramatic dancer with the Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet.
These were the war years, the dark days of the blitz in England, and Miss Franca often found her performances accompanied by the sound of exploding bombs in the background.
Following the war, she was a dancer, teacher and choreographer and guest artist for some of the leading ballet companies in London before she was approached and accepted the challenge to form a national ballet company in Canada.
"There was no organization, no money, no dancers," she recalls, just a possibility that something might happen in the future. But that didn't stop her from stepping off of a plane in February 1951 at the Toronto airport and starting her work in Canada. She was co-founder of the National Ballet School in 1959.
One of the company’s earliest quarters was the St. Lawrence Hall, attached to a farmer’s market and not in those days “one of the amenities in the City of Toronto”.
The roof leaked and there was inadequate heating, says Miss Franca. “We would sometimes exercise in our overcoats, and at one desperate time the dancers threatened to strike.” Besides that, there were pigeons nesting in the rafters, occasionally sweeping down to see what the dancers were doing, and there were rats among the garbage at the bottom of the stairs.
From such humble beginnings, however, the National Ballet was nurtured by Miss Franca and grew to its present status as one of the most respected companies in the world.
She is proud to have been the first choreographer commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation to create ballets especially for the television medium – “The Dance of Salome” in 1949 and “The Eve of St. Agnes” in 1950. For Canadian TV her ballet “Cinderella”, directed by Norman Campbell, won Canada’s first Emmy Award in 1970 in competition with American programs.
Here are just a few of many roles she has danced: “Blue Bird” from “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Bride” in “The Mermaid”, “Girl” in “Giselle”, “Lady Capulet” in “ Romeo and Juliet”, the “Black Queen” in “Swan Lake” and “Carabosse” in “The Sleeping Beauty”. Choreography for television included “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel”. She adapted the choreography for “Coppelia”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake” for the camera in co-operation with Norman Campbell.
"Romeo and Juliet" was awarded the Prix Rene Barthelmy at the Monte Carlo International Television Festival in 1966. "Swan Lake" was nominated foe an Emmy Award in 1968. Nureyv "The Sleeping Beauty" won an Emmy Award in 1973.
Her list of honours and awards is impressive. Among them: honourary doctorates from several Canadian universities; gold keys to the cities of Washington, DC, and Miami, Florida; Companion of The Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario; Woman of the Year awards in 1958 and 1987; adjudicator of international ballet competitions in Bulgaria and Moscow; appointment and re-appointment to the Canada Council; and two invitations to teach ballet in the People’s Republic of China.
Miss Franca has been a patron of the Osteoporosis Society of Canada, and is listed in The Canadian Who’s Who, Who’s Who in America, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Foremost Women of the Twentieth Century, and Biography International.
After retiring from the National Ballet in 1974 she made Ottawa her home with her husband James Morton, founding principal clarinet of the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
Celia Franca could not have given Merrilee Hodgins and Joyce Shietze, founders of The School of Dance, any greater gift than accepting their invitation to be their co-artistic director. Thus began her twenty-seven year contribution to the pursuit of excellence in dance education here in Ottawa.
Miss Franca has always been active in all aspects of The School of Dance including teaching classes regularly, delighting most particularly in the very young students. “Our Miss Franca,” as she is known to the students of The School of Dance, has coached the young dancers, acting as an artistic mentor to many memorable performances. Not one to shy away from hard work, Miss Franca has also faithfully supported all of the fundraising projects of The School, from the letter writing campaigns to dancing at the Hoedowns!
In 1985 the Celia Franca Scholarship was established by The School of Dance in her honour.
Merrilee Hodgins and Joyce Shietze were instrumental in the creation of the Celia Franca Foundation, dedicated to excellence in dance training in Canada.
Miss Franca has been the honoree at numerous events produced by The School of Dance: twelve Celia Franca Scholarship Evenings held at the Museum of Nature, the National Gallery of Canada and the National Arts Centre, and in 2001, Happy Birthday Celia, love Canada, celebrating Miss Franca’s 80th birthday. On that momentous occasion, 3,500 long-stemmed red roses were given to audience members to mark the birthday.
Thank you Miss Franca, a gala performance to thank Celia Franca for her contribution to the arts in Canada, took place on June 26, 2006 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Produced by The School of Dance, this evening of film, music, dance and memories featured: excerpts from Celia Franca: A Personal Perspective, a new film by Veronica Tennant and Neil Bregman; dancers from the National Ballet of Canada performing the White Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake, by Erik Bruhn; Hopak by dancers of Svitanok Ukrainian Dance Ensemble; and young dancers from The School of Dance. Guest speakers included Hamilton Southam, Veronica Tennant, Neil Bregman, Karen Kain and Merrilee Hodgins.
And what did Miss Franca reply when asked about the highlights of her vast and varied career?
"The highlight is always tomorrow."