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Celia Franca, 85; English dancer founded the National Ballet of Canada

February 24, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet of Canada while working as a clerk at a Toronto department store, died Monday at the Ottawa Hospital. She was 85.

Franca, who was also a founder of Canada's National Ballet School, had been in declining health after a series of falls, but the exact cause of her death was not given, according to Sally Szuster, the ballet's publicity manager.

Franca "inspired dancers by her example and her devotion to the art of ballet," Karen Kain, a leading dancer with the company under Franca and now its artistic director, said in a statement this week.

In 1950, when Franca was 29, she traveled to Toronto from her home in London, invited by dance enthusiasts who were looking for someone to take charge of a project to form a new ballet company.

She was known as a strong, dramatic dancer who had performed leading roles with Ballet Rambert and the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) in London through the 1940s. Sadler's Wells artistic director Ninette de Valois recommended her for Canada's proposed company.

"I knew nothing" about what it would take, Franca said in a 2001 interview with the Toronto Sun. But, she added, "I was ready for the job."

Less than a year after she moved to Toronto, the National Ballet of Canada made its debut in Eaton Auditorium, which was owned by the department store where Franca worked.

She had recruited and trained the dancers and helped raise the government and private funds to support the project.

From its early days the National Ballet toured Canada, performing at high schools and hockey rinks to build an audience. Franca accepted invitations to throw the first puck into the rink at professional games as a way of promoting the dance company.

During her 24 years as artistic director, she brought in works by Europe's leading choreographers, including John Cranko, Antony Tudor and Rudolf Nureyev, who staged a production of "Sleeping Beauty" in 1972. She also commissioned works by Canadian choreographers.

Franca invited prima ballerinas, including Canadian-born Lynn Seymour, a star of the Royal Ballet from the late 1950s, to be guest performers.

For some years Franca danced major roles with the company. After she retired from the stage in 1959 she sometimes performed small character roles. She also choreographed several works for the company, including a production of "The Nutcracker."

She was a strong personality known for her blunt honesty and disciplined precision that both terrified dancers and endeared her to many of them.

"More than once after a mistake in a performance I cowered in a cubicle in the communal washroom," recalled Kain of her years under Franca's direction, in a 2001 interview with the Ottawa Citizen. At times Franca would "bawl me out," Kain said, but she could also be "very kind and nurturing."

Franca was born Nita Celia Franks in London on June 25, 1921. She later changed her name. She started studying dance at age 4 and went to London's Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Dance before joining Ballet Rambert in 1936. From there she moved to Sadler's Wells, where she was a leading dramatic dancer from 1941 to 1946.

She later danced with several other companies, including the Metropolitan Ballet of London, before she moved to Toronto.

After retiring from the National Ballet at the end of the 1973-74 season, Franca continued to coach and teach dancers.

She was married three times. Her third husband, James Morton, a clarinetist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, died in 1997. There are no known survivors.

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