Celia Franca, the founder and guiding light for 24 years (1951 to 1975) of the National Ballet of Canada, was—in a word—redoubtable. My dictionary defines “redoubtable” as: “(1) Arousing fear or awe; formidable, (2) Worthy of respect or honour (from the Old French redouter, to dread . . . )” That about sums up the great lady. What Bishop-Gwyn has done in her new biography is flesh out all those adjectives, as well as the Old French verb.
Her thesis is straightforward, non-controversial and widely accepted: without the ferocity of her strong personality, Franca could never have jump-started the National Ballet and driven it to the central position in Canadian performing arts culture that it continues to occupy today. End of story, really. What Bishop-Gwyn has pulled off very well, however, is the detailing of all the incidents, challenges, setbacks, psychological nuances, and consequences that attended this full-throttle, dominating personality.
Amongst those who knew her well enough, the book will arouse both remembered dread and renewed respect. Like many innovative founders of major arts institutions, she was hugely driven and presented herself often enough to her dancers and board members as something of a haughty monster. The gift she bequeathed the country, however, was a first-class ballet company that is respected around the world.
Bishop-Gwyn’s book goes a long way to give us a much fuller and more sympathetic picture of Celia Franca than we have ever had before, without minimizing the character flaws. Her last sad years are painful to take in, but on the balance scales of life she was always more of a giver than a taker, and her gifts are now part of our performing arts inheritance. She has been lucky to have a biographer who does her justice and reminds those of us who needed reminding how great was the debt owed to her.