National Ballet founder Celia Franca dies

Celia Franca, the London-born dancer who started the National Ballet of Canada, died Monday at the age of 85.

Celia Franca, founder of the National Ballet of Canada and artistic director for 24 years, died in Ottawa on Monday. She was 85.

Celia Franca as Giselle in the ballet Giselle, the National Ballet of Canada, 1956-57 season. ((Library and Archives Canada))

Franca, whohad been in poor health for more than a year after breaking vertebrae in her back,diedin the Ottawa Hospital.

Francais being remembered for the enormous achievement of establishing a professional ballet company and developing a sophisticated audience for dance in Canada.

"Celia was more than the National Ballet's founder. She was its presiding spirit, its most stalwart supporter and the embodiment of its ideals and values," said Karen Kain, artistic director of the Toronto-based National Ballet.

"She inspired generations of dancers by her example and her devotion to the art of ballet," Kain said in a prepared statement. "And most importantly, she made us believe in ourselves and that no goal was ever out of reach. She will be missed by everyone who cares about ballet."

Francawas known for her dance career with London's Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Metropolitan Balletbefore she was invited to Canada in 1951 by a group of dance enthusiasts who wanted to create a classical ballet company.

Began dancing at age 4

Born in London in 1921 Franca began to study dance at the age of four and was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Dancing.

She joined Ballet Rambert in 1936 and later worked with the Three Arts Ballet and International Ballet.

In 1941, she joined Ninette de Valois's Sadler's Wells Ballet, now the Royal Ballet, where she was recognized as one of its finest dramatic ballerinas.

In a 1970 interview with CBC Radio, she recalled performing in London during the Second World War and continuing her performances even during air raids.

"Air raid sirens would go off in the orchestra pit if the planes were coming over from Germany and it was always so satisfying to find that really nobody in that audience ever got up to go to the shelter," she said.

Celia Franca in Lilac Garden. She retired from dancing in 1959 and developed a new generation of ballet stars. ((Ken Bell/National Ballet) )

In 1947, she joined the Metropolitan Ballet as a soloist and ballet mistress and began choreographing ballets such as Eve of St. Agnes and Dance of Salome for television.

Franca came to Canada in 1951 and had a classical ballet company running within 10 months, though she had to support herself by working as a file clerk at Eaton's.

She recruited and trained dancers for the first performance of the National Ballet of Canada on Nov. 12, 1951, at Toronto's Eaton Auditorium.

She recalled the many challenges of the early years as "up a few steps, down a few." The hurdles included economic setbacks, a need to instill professionalism in dancers and the need to develop audiences.

"We were young, when you don't get discouraged. You were so eager to get your teeth into a great challenging job and to me that was a great joy," she said, speaking to CBC's On This Day.

A remarkable teacher, she trained her dancers by her own example, before and after her official retirement from the stage in 1959. Until that point, ballet training in Canada had been uneven, she said.

Strengthened ballet training in Canada

"I remember when I first came to Canada in 1951, there were really not too many ballet schools across the country and those we had, most of them … the teachers didn't know very much about the training of ballet dancers and I think we've done a very big educational job through our summer schools and our teachers courses… and now the standard of teaching in Canada is really quite high. I am rather proud of that," Franca said.

The fledgling National Ballet was strengthened by the advent of guest artists including Lynn Seymour, Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev.Franca worked withBetty Oliphant to found Canada's National Ballet School in 1959.

She choreographed ballets including Cinderella (1968) and The Nutcracker (1964), and in 1973, she and Erik Bruhn collaborated on Les Sylphides.

She also added 30 ballets from Canadian choreographers to the ballet's repertoire and started touring the company in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

In her 24 years as artistic director of the National Ballet, she saw the company mature into an internationally recognized ballet company with its own corps of stars.

"It has been a tremendous satisfaction over the years to watch the improvement in our artists and the greater sophistication of our audiences," Franca said.

'She made it all come true'

In 2001, at a celebration of Franca's 80th birthday, former principal dancer Veronica Tennant remembered how Franca had made her career possible.

"[Celia Franca] means everything to me, to what I was or have been — all my hopes and dreams. She made it all come true," Tennant said.

In 1967, Franca became the first dancer invested into the Order of Canada. She was first an officer, but was promoted to companion in 1985.

"She invested all of her energies in the promotion of this exquisite form of body language, conveying her love of dancing to many generations of students and spectators," Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean said in a statement Monday night.

"The arabesques, the elegance and most of all the brilliance of this leading dancer are already missed, but will forever remain engraved in our hearts."

Francaserved as a member of the board of governors of York University, the board of directors of the Canada Council and the board of directors of the Canada Dance Festival Society.

Franca was predeceased by her husband James Morton. Morton, an accomplished clarinetist, died on Aug. 21, 1997.