Interview with Carol Bishop-Gwyn, author of The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life of Celia Franca

From the book:

While some people have suggested that Franca would not have wanted her life examined by a biographer, my guess is that this is not true. For one thing, rather than destroying her papers, she donated a vast amount of material, including some very personal and revealing items in notebooks, diaries, letters, memorabilia, and photographs, to our national repository of history, the Library and Archives Canada. For another, she had agreed to work with Frank Rasky in the early 1990s (and to take half of his publisher's advance) on her biography. Lastly, she had cooperated fully in the making of the 2006 documentary Celia Franca: Tour de Force.

As part of my own research, I spent weeks wearing a headset that gave me a headache by the end of every day, eavesdropping on the lengthy interviews Celia granted to Rasky. His often clumsy and downright annoying questions bemused Celia and at other times infuriated her. But the depth of Rasky's research impressed her, if it also unsettled her. In England, Rasky had tracked down both professional colleagues, such as Dame Ninette de Valois, as well as extant family members, such as Celia's aunt Lena. Franca was particularly exasperated at Rasky's frequent references to her Jewish heritage. In my as role interloper I was able, somewhat akin to a therapist, to discern the meanings behind both the words and the silences. Rasky, either as an interviewing technique or through disorganization, often  repeated questions. Celia, taking this as a sign that he did not believe her, lashed back, "You keep checking up on me. I'm not a liar." Frequently, in that haughty voice, she would add, "Carry on, dear." During those long hours listening to Celia Franca I realized my great luck. Using some discretion, I could give readers her own words without the censorship she would have imposed on Rasky. Particularly when she lost her temper at his repetitive questions, the real Franca came through loud and clear.

As a proponent of the British "stiff upper lip" attitude, she resolutely refused to be self-reflective. She had a convenient habit of forgetting unpleasant experiences in her life and refused to discuss them, employing the dismissive "I forget." Ballet and music were the stuff of Celia's life. Outside of the dance world, she had few hobbies or interests besides her beloved cats. So it has been a struggle to discover the "inner Celia" -- a psychological expression she would have detested. While she attracted a great number of people with her charismatic and dramatic personality, she had few intimate friends. She had a bad habit of dropping people if they no longer were helpful. While her rehearsal pianist, Mary Macdonald, was a stalwart friend throughout her life, for a period of time Celia even snubbed her. She told Rasky that she had trusted many people who had turned on her. "You get cautious," she said. Many people who considered themselves Celia's friends tended to be in awe of her or pander to her. And while she craved the respectability and standing of being in a marriage, she managed to lose three husbands.

One fact never changed from that day in February 1951 when she arrived in Toronto stepping off the aircraft in her black Persian lamb coat. Celia Franca was a celebrity, one of Canada's first cultural stars (Glenn Gould and Margaret Atwood and the rest were still to come), a status of which she made adroit and conscious use in order to advance her own cause. With her perfect posture and distinctive profile, her nearly white makeup, hair pulled tightly back, Celia Franca was the embodiment of her own art form.

Franca's story falls neatly into three broad sections: her formative years in England to the age of twenty-nine, her career as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, and her almost three decades post-National Ballet, some of those years being lonely ones. She died in 2007 at the age of eighty-six.

During her long life, Celia Franca was loved and loathed, a loyal friend and a dangerous enemy, arrogant and insecure, self-centred, and yet thoughtfully generous. This is the story of a woman who rarely stepped out of her role.

From the book: The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, ©2011, by Carol Bishop-Gwyn. Published by Cormorant Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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