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The Pursuit of Perfection: An Excerpt

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The Huffington Post Canada is proud to be a returning sponsor of the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the March 4 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.

A note from author Carol Bishop-Gwyn:

Celia Franca's charisma attracted both men and women who desired to be part of her inner-circle. So much bolder and self-assured than many around her, they settled for reflected glory. And as long as these people were useful to her and her cause, Celia embraced them. Once they had fulfilled their purpose, Celia no longer had the time for them. So she could be hard-nosed, and indeed, ruthless in the way she dropped people once they had given their all to her. But vision and unflagging determination were the qualities needed to do the task she had been hired to do, and which she then made into a life-long mission.

That old cliché about there only being 24 hours in a day means that time spent on caring and sharing means time away from the objective. In Celia's case, her objective was to create a ballet company in Canada which would be recognized as one of the best in the world. As well she was out to prove to Dame Ninette de Valois, artistic director of London's Royal Ballet, how wrong she had been to discard her from that company.

Her single-mindedness is known generally as a male trait. What makes Franca so interesting is that in many respects she held many of the feminine perceptions of her time. Most professional women in the 1950s, before the support of the feminist movement, accepted that dedication to their careers usually meant staying single and forsaking children. It was an either/or choice. In Celia's case she remained fiercely committed to the institution of marriage. From early adulthood, Franca felt the need to be married, perhaps to try and please her parents who favoured their only son and his family of three children. While Celia had the "boys" and "girls" in her ballet company, they failed to replace grandchildren. All three of her marriages ended in divorce and the most probable reason was that these men did not appreciate playing second fiddle to Celia's career. Her magnetic personality over-powered and emasculated them.

And it would be pushing it to call Franca a feminist. She could be at least as hard on women as on men. A striking example is Kay Ambrose, a British friend who had been a constant companion and support during her first decade in Canada. Once Kay reached her limit of usefulness, Celia dropped her like a hot potato. After returning to London, Celia rarely kept in touch, not even bothering to pick up items which Kay had left to her in her will. She did however happily accept an annual royalty cheque Ambrose had bequeathed to her from one of her ballet books.

While writing about these kinds of episodes, it was impossible for me not to feel an outright hostility to my subject. But then she would win me back by her energy, perseverance, and selflessness. She was as tough on herself as she was on anyone else.

Despite Celia's indefatigable energy, she could not have pulled off creating a ballet company from scratch without the total commitment of the dancers and the selfless help of many others. Throughout her life, Celia Franca had the ability to attract people prepared to dedicate themselves to her. In England, Doris Margolis, Kay Ambrose, and Honor Frost had all gladly made sacrifices and contributed many long hours of unpaid work. It was the same in Canada. Besides Bert Anderson, several others
impressed with Celia's bravery, and likely touched by her vulnerability, stepped in to give unstinting help.

Stewart James and his family were exceptionally generous. After teaching two Sunday dance classes in early April, Celia went to the James home, where she slept for the afternoon and stayed for a dinner of roast beef, vegetables, salad, lemon pie, cake, and coffee. "Delicious," she wrote Doris, adding that she was putting on weight but didn't look fat -- yet. Presumably the sight of a prime rib of beef with all the trimmings seduced her temporarily to forgo her vegetarianism.

James was available to give Celia any help she required. By May he was volunteering full-time for her. "Stewart James' work is invaluable and I give him a few dollars a week for his streetcar fares," Celia wrote. Once the charter dancers began to arrive in September, several were billeted in James's grandmother's large home in Mimico, a village to the west of Toronto.

In those early days, Celia had nothing but praise for the man who had met her in London and offered her the job. They travelled together on the cross-country audition. He became the company's first general manager. Mysteriously, though, James fell out of favour and resigned in spring 1952 rather than be fired. No official reason was ever given for his fall from grace. Board minutes indicate a belief that he was under-functioning. In fact, once the professional arts manager, Walter Homburger, agreed to work for the company a couple of days a week, James was no longer needed. Understandably bitter, James told Lawrence Adams in an interview in the 1990s, "I made things work and when they were working I was taken out." He was the first of many National Ballet of Canada administrators who would fall out of favour with Celia Franca.

Celia demonstrated this kind of ruthlessness throughout her life. If a person was no longer useful, she moved on. Some people, such as Cyril Frankel or Doris Margolis, accepted it and were satisfied with the occasional letter or visit when Celia hit town. And while husbands Leo Kersley and, later, Bert Anderson were deeply wounded by her rejection, both kept an affection for this extraordinary woman. It seemed that living in the reflective glory of Celia's glamour, boldness, energy, and ambition was worth the eventual abandonment.

There was a core group of indispensable colleagues. Without Betty Oliphant, it's unlikely Celia could
have made a success of it on her own during those first years. They worked as a team with the common goal of creating the very best company and dancers. Celia knew how to put together a ballet company, and Betty knew how to train ballet dancers. There was trust between them, and during the years Celia was still dancing, Betty would give her a private twenty minute warm-up. She was the only person who could give Celia corrections after a performance.

In those first months in Canada, Betty Oliphant was Celia's only friend who shared her British ballet
background. After a hard day of teaching, they would kick off their shoes and have a drink or two. After
all, they had bonded over "cold tea." Both women enjoyed recounting the story of the time Celia invited
Betty to nip into the ladies room to have a sip from her flask of refreshing "cold tea" -- that is to say, of
straight Scotch. During the first summer school, in the hiatus between the day and evening classes, the two of them would sometimes duck out to Letros Tavern on King Street to relax by drinking potent
Manhattans. "One particularly hot and humid evening, Betty and I floated back to the school, where it
was my turn to teach the 'babies' class under the eyes of their parents. Betty tried to stifle her giggles as I staggered to place the portable barres in the middle of the classroom and she continued laughing as I taught, as I could, the most complicated polka step imaginable!"

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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