I have a deep respect for the generation of Canadians who built the cultural institutions we take for granted today. It’s a generation that is – too rapidly – disappearing.
The latest to go is Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet of Canada in 1951 and was its artistic director for 24 years. Along with Betty Oliphant, Franca also founded Canada’s National Ballet School, in 1959 – about the same time that another hero of mine, Phil Nimmons, was working to establish jazz education in Canada. It is impossible to overstate the importance those two events had on the artistic landscape in Canada.
Simply put, Franca gave birth to ballet as a native Canadian artform, as surely as Nimmons has made jazz a part of Canada’s culture through the school he co-founded with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, the Banff jazz program, and the various programs he put in place at Canadian universities. Without them, who knows how long it would’ve been that dance and jazz in Canada were merely offshoots of other, larger nations’ activities.
Franca – who had an impressive dance career in the Sadler’s Wells and Metropolitan companies before immigrating to Canada – was a tiny woman, but she bowled people over with her tenacity and her passion for the arts. For years she was ubiquitous on radio and television, but I only saw her once in person – at a symposium on the arts that was organized by one of the government funding organizations. She was riveting. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and her message that you have to fight and fight and fight to get the arts their due was truly inspiring. It’s little wonder that she single-handedly got ballet on track in this country and wound up turning out some of the world’s greatest dancers within a generation of moving here.
She died today here in Ottawa at 85 – too young it seems for someone who was so vital – a year after breaking her back in a fall.