A great Ballet Star gambles on Canada.

KEN JOHNSTONE August 20 1955

A great Ballet Star gambles on Canada.

KEN JOHNSTONE August 20 1955

A great Ballet Star gambles on Canada.

When Celia Franca left English ballet to come to Canada it was like Hap Day quilting the Leafs for the minor leagues. When she arrived to form the National Ballet she got the cold shoulder. Her troubles still aren't over but her company has already won international applause


IF LEO DUROCHER left the New York Giants to handle a baseball team in Cape Town, or Hap Day gave up the Toronto Maple Leafs to coach a church hockey team in Oxbow, sports fans would be no more bewildered than the English ballet world was in 1950 when it learned that Celia Franca was leaving to try to form a Canadian ballet company.

For Franca was regarded as one of the brilliant young talents of a flourishing British ballet. Just twenty-nine, she had already been a ballerina for four years with Sadler’s Wells, perhaps the greatest ballet company in the Western world. Dame Ninette de Valois, the company’s artistic director, had called her “the greatest dramatic dancer the Wells ever had.” She left that company to create ballets for the junior Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet and then, for two years, had served as ballet mistress, ballerina and acting artistic director for another brilliant, if short-lived group, the Metropolitan Ballet. In addition she had carved out a niche for herself creating ballets for BBC television. In short, Celia Franca was in a position to take any job she wanted on the British ballet scene.

But Canada! Here was a ballet wilderness. Talented dancers occasionally emerged from it to join foreign companies, but otherwise it was best known for its receptive audiences for touring

groups. It looked as if the seemingly hardheaded Miss Franca was suffering from the dancer’s equivalent of a boxer’s punch-drunkenness.

Yet today the international ballet world regards this deceptively fragile young woman as a kind of wonder-worker. Her National Ballet of Canada, born in the autumn of 1951, is ranked as a professional company of the top level. In March of this year it invaded that bastion of ballet, New York, to face America’s top reviewers. It won measured praise from the New York Times’ John Martin: “. . . a very creditable young organization ... a serious and well-founded group . . .” The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Terry said its two performances were “good cause for rejoicing ... for the group has matured noticeably, adding polish and performing discipline to basic vitality and winning ways.” Time’s reviewer remarked that “both the audience and the critics seemed to think that the occasion was worth waiting for.”

Out of this appearance came a ten-day engagement in Washington in June and an active demand

for hookings through the United States and Eng land for the 1955-56 winter season.

Delia F ranca’s achievements might be compare! with building a National Hockey League team i| North Bay, Ont., or Nelson, B.C., yet she pulled i off with a handful of supporters in the face o active opposition on the part of many Canadiai dance teachers and directors, and never being quit! sure where the next dollar was coming from. Hei assets were her own courage and integrity, plus hei capacity for drawing the ultimate effort from thl people surrounding her.

She came to Canada under the most tenuous oí circumstances. The idea for a national ballet company was horn in the minds of three Toronto clubwomen, Mrs. F\ J. Mulqueen, Mrs. R. B. White! head and Mrs. J. D. Woods, who had for some tirru been interested in the arts in general and the hallef in particular. Mrs. Whitehead was active in the Toronto Symphony women’s committee and Mrs Wood was the wife of the president of York Knitting Mills which for years sponsored the national radio program, Singing Stars of Tomorrow.

The three women asked the advice of Ninette de Valois of Sadler’s Wells and Dame Ninette suggested they try to get Celia F'ranca to come to Canada. The offer to F’ranca was a pretty slender one. A group of anonymous hackers put up one thousand dollars to underwrite a visit by her to the Canadian Ballet F’estival in Montreal in 1950. She attended, liked what she saw, and agreed to ref urn in the spring of 1951 to make an eight-month survey of the field. There were no firm offers made. She was told simply that there were a number of Canadians interested in supporting a national company if F’ranca considered it worthwhile.

The misgivings among Celia Franca’s London friends when she set out seemed well founded. The group who had undertaken to raise the money to start a professional ballet had grown to about fifteen persons but they weren’t yet ready to set up a company—and there wasn’t much that F'ranca could do about it. A job was found for her at Eaton Auditorium where she was presumably studying Canadian staging and business practices. Actually she did any kind of chore that turned up, such as office work and filing and acting as relief telephone receptionist. (She never was able to master the intricacies of the switchboard and invariably mixed up the lines.) She liad only her Flaton’s salary to live on. It was enough to support her in a two-room apartment on the third floor of a home in Toronto’s Ilosedale.

All this time she was a desperately lonely and unhappy girl. Friends wrote from London: “What

are you doing .working in a department store?” Canadian dance teachers and directors, whom she hoped to have as supporters, tended to regard hei as an interloper. At the ballet festival in Montreal the previous year she hadn’t been able to say much about her plans because they hadn’t yet formed. The rumor got around, of course, that a new national company was being planned around her. France’s noncommittal attitude caused other dance teachers at the festival to take offense for they felt they were being excluded from whatever scheme was afoot. Now there was no attempt to invite her to their functions nor to take advantage of her considerable dance knowledge by having her give guest classes, as is the custom with most visiting dancers of established reputation.



That first spring of 1951 an effort was made by two dancing teachers to persuade the Canadian Dance Teachers’ Association in Toronto to sponsor a showing of the movie Red Shoes to raise funds for the projected National Ballet. The hostility and suspicion toward the newcomer showed itself when the association, inspired by the opposition of a talented Toronto teacher named Betty Oliphant, turned the project down cold.

' “We’re not buying a pig in a poke,” Miss Oliphant declared. “We don’t know anything about the National Ballet or who is going to be in it, so why should we raise funds for it?” She went on to complain that Celia Franca was giving classes preparatory to forming the new company but that only students from certain favored studios were being invited.

Franca resolved to meet this criticism head-on. She appeared in person before the organization and agreed that they shouldn’t support a showing of the film until they knew more about the National Ballet. Then she went on to deny as emphatically as she could that her classes were in any way exclusive.

“I want dancers from every studio and from every part of Canada if a truly national ballet is to be built,” she said.

These remarks helped to clear the air, but some lingering suspicions remained. That same summer Celia Franca opened a summer school for dancers at St. Lawrence Hall, above Toronto’s venerable city market. During the winter the hall is used as a sleeping place for transients and a musty smell still lingered about it, mingling with the seasonal odors of fruit and vegetables. The great old hall with its peeling paint and high vaulted ceilings still suggests those days of grandeur when Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, sang there and Tom Thumb appeared before a bewitched public. But Celia Franca’s dancers gave it a new life.

That first summer she heard from a number of parents who claimed their children’s dance teachers had advised them not to patronize the school. One mother told her a teacher had “blown up” when the school was mentioned and declared she would be crazy to waste her money sending her child to Franca.

But Franca got help from an unexpected sourc — Betty Oliphant, the very woman who had beei so critical of her. Miss Oliphant had changed he position entirely and gone to work for Franca as dance teacher at the summer school. Soon she be came a Franca booster. When she visited Montres she spoke frankly to ballet people she knew there “Do you know anyone who is prepared to make th same sacrifice in terms of money, time and effor and who would stick to her job in the face of th abuse she gets from those supporting her?” sh asked.

Franca managed to get a hundred pupils for th school, which earned a thousand dollars that sum mer a nest egg for the embryo company tha Franca planned to form in the fall.

Meanwhile she took her Eaton’s earnings and se off on a five-thousand-mile pilgrimage across Can ada to seek out dancing talent. When she saw i dancer she liked she tried to persuade him (or her to come to Toronto to try out for the new company The offers were as tenuous as those that had beei made to her. She couldn’t even offer train fare Of the three hundred young dancers she inter viewed, twenty-eight were on hand when she callei her first rehearsal in the autumn on her return.

The little group included some professionals, on or two dancers who had worked with Franca ii England, and a host of new faces. A newspape reporter quit his job on the Montreal Herald t work for less than half his salary as a dancer for th new company. An Edmonton law graduate, abou to hang up his shingle, threw this career aside t work for Franca. A variety of racial strains wer represented. There was a Latvian, a Pole, an Eas African, a Japanese and a Finn among the dancen

This mixed bag found Celia Franca a demand in task master, a stickler for detail, intolerant c amateurism, but ready to praise serious effort. Sh

In a drab, barnlike studio in Toronto’s St. Lawreno Market, Celia Franca molds ballet’s new génération

put them to work and six weeks later the Nationa Ballet made its debut with three performances ii Eaton Auditorium. The critics praised the firs' efforts of the infant company, but Franca shudder at the memory of it all. “Bloody awful,” are thi kindest words she has for the debut.

On its modest budget the company managed nini Toronto performances that year as well as fou: performances in Montreal and a tour of southeri Ontario. The dancers got twenty-five dollars ¡ week during rehearsals and thirty while performing The principals didn’t get very much more.

That year the ballet balanced its budget that ii to say, it only lost t wenty-four dollars on a ninety thousand-dollar outlay. (About two thirds of thai outlay, of course, came from donations and nol ticket sales.) But that is the only time in its five year history that it succeeded in making ends meet The National Ballet Guild, which came into forma existence in October 1951 as the organization back ing the company, agreed with Franca that the com pany to be truly national would have to trave nationally. The long train hops and small theatre! inevitably meant losses. This was the financia story of the ballet over the next four seasons.

In 1952-53 it gave sixty-four performances ir twenty-six centres from Victoria to Sydney and lost twenty thousand dollars. The next year it gave 101 performances in twenty-seven centres and lost eighty-four thousand dollars. The following year, with donations failing to make up the deficit, it pulled in its horns and visited only twelve centres, It lost twenty thousand dollars. After all subsequent donations were in, t he ballet was still in t he hole by almost fifty thousand dollars.

If the company was losing money its dancers weren’t making much - but then no one ever expected to get rich playing for the National Ballet. Even today, four years after its founding, the dancers get only a basic forty-two dollars a week during rehearsals and an extra five a week living allowance when they play across Canada. The rate they know best is the fifteen dollars a week that many of them collect from the unemployment insurance office during those periods when the ballet doesn’t play or rehearse hut when the dancers continue to attend class to improve their skill.

Continued on page 58

A Great Ballet Star Gambles On Canada


Young Yves Cousineau, a slender twenty-two-year-old Canadien dancer, is one who ekes out his between-engagement periods on unemployment insurance. He manages it by paying seven dollars a week for a room which he shares with another, and by cooking all his own meals. The two dancers spend eight dollars a week between them on cheap meats, conveniently bought at the market below the dancing school. The rest goes for bread, milk, vegetables and carfare. Cousineau buys no clothes in the summer, stays away from barbers for six-month stretches, does all his own washing, takes his lunch to ballet school, sees no movies at all and spends his holidays eating bologna sandwiches on the beach at Toronto’s Centre Island.

Other ballet dancers take off-season jobs in television, work in factories, earn extra money in the Canadian National Exhibition’s grandstand show and stretch their pennies by mending their own tights and ballet slippers, while attending classes as frequently as four times a day. The heady wine of television as a permanent career beckons to many, but few respond to it on a full-time basis for their fellow dancers have only pity and contempt for what they consider backsliding.

How Franca’s Task Force Captured Washington

On tour the dancers practice the same kind of rigid economy, carrying hotplates and cooking utensils with them and getting their own meals. They need plenty of protein not only because their work is athletic hut because some of them haven’t stopped growing yet. The average age is barely twenty; two of the girls are under sixteen and eight are under eighteen. In the United States special work permits have to be obtained so that the teen-agers can be employed.

All of them have seen more of Canada than most youngsters of similar ages, but usually under trying and sometimes amusing conditions. (In one city the husband of the local ballet committee chairman, who was an undertaker, placed his fleet of funeral cars, hearse and all, at the disposal of the dancers for sight-seeing.)

One Leap and He’s Gone

In Red Deer, Alta., the troupe couldn’t get the scenery on stage because the back entrance was too small. The indignant impresario went hackstage to demand an explanation. When the back door was opened to demonstrate the problem a cow poked her head through in ruminating wonder at all the excitement.

In Sydney, N.S., the ceiling was so low over the stage that Franca had to forbid one of her top dancers, David Adams, to do any leaps. Adams cheerfully offered to aim between the beams, which were only eleven feet from the floor, hut Franca couldn’t afford to have her leading dancer break his skull.

In Sack ville, N.R., the troupe performed in a lecture hall with dressing rooms under the stage on an earth floor. It was mid-winter and so cold they didn’t dare change costumes until a few moments before performing. The stage was so small that Adams admitted afterward, "It was the first time in my life I was able to jump on and off stage in the one leap.” In ballets such as Les Sylphides the members of the corps de bullet had to take turns going on stage with the principals—there wasn’t room for them all at the same time. But the audience loved the performance and when the ballet returned they found that students from Mount Allison University had put floors in the dressing rooms.

In Fredericton, N.B., Franca encountered a stage with the fantastic dimensions of seventy feet in width and only ten in dept h. This flattened out all the ballet movements until, as Franca says, "we looked like pancakes.”

David Haber, the company’s stage director, wrote one theatre manager asking if the theatre possessed a balcony "rail,” a technical term for the apparatus holding the spotlights. Back came a reply berating him for his "impudence.” "We have as good a theatre as anyone,” the manager wrote, "and nobody is likely to fall from our balcony.”

In one town Franca and the dancers arrived at the theatre and found everything in disorder. The caretaker got busy sweeping the floor and then casually announced: "Sorry it’s not ready, but we’ve all got the mumps.” Within a week one of the dancers had them, too.

In Peterborough, Ont., the troupe performed in a school auditorium which was separated from the dressing room by a gymnasium. There was a basketball game going on in the gym, hut it came to a dead halt every time t he girls made their way through in filmy dance costumes.

An Appeal from the Stage

The company also had to learn to get used to local habits. On opening night ; in Sydney, N.S., the theatre was jammed by 6.45 p.m., although the performance wasn’t scheduled to begin until 8.30. The next night all the stores stayed open late, so the show couldn t start until 9.30 p.m.

These minor alarums and excursions, however, added a certain piquancy to the company’s cross-Canada tours and ! were nothing compared to the perennial financial crises that beset the National Ballet.

Possibly the worst of these was the : one that hit the company in January 1 1954 following an artistically successful hut financially disastrous venture into the U. S. (The critics were kind, hut j the audience stayed away in droves,

! perhaps believing that Canadians, fis ballet dancers, would make better I Mounted Policemen.) Faced with a deficit of some fifty thousand dollars in mid-season, it looked as if the company would have to call off its second western tour. Then Celia 1' ranca took the unprecedented step of making a personal fund-raising appeal from the : stage at the middle of each performance. It was a dignified and simple ; speech and within a month it brought in forty thousand dollars and enabled ! the company to continue the tour.

It also precipitated a curious advertisement from Gwenyth Lloyd, the talented director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which has always regarded itself as a national organization. The advertisement advised the public that there would still be a professional ballet company in existence even if the National Ballet disappeared. The ad made newspaper headlines, hut Franca refused to he drawn into any controversy with the other important Canadian ballet group (which was later to suffer a disastrous fire that put it temporarily out of existence).


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A second crisis overtook the com-

pany in the middle of the 1955 tour. Once again, in spite of the critics, the Americans refused to believe that Canadians could be made into ballet stars. The Ballet Guild decided to cancel bookings in Buffalo, Philadelphia and New York. Franca rushed back to Toronto to battle in particular for the New York engagement which she considered vital for the company’s growth.

Ata meeting with the guild directors she was told that creditors were pressing and that there simply wasn’t enough money to risk on a venture that couldn’t break even.

"You’ve got to gamble,” she insisted. "The theatre is all gamble, and. if you don’t gamble you’re through.” "We won’t die if we don’t go to New York,” one of the directors observed.

"That’s just where we disagree,” Franca flashed. "I think we’ll die of slow rot if we don’t expand. If we get good notices in New York we’ll get other hookings, and more people at home will come to see us when they see we’re accepted in the States.”

She was finally told that unless nine thousand dollars could be raised in the next two days the New York engage-

A Gamble That Paid Off

ment would have to be called off.

Franca was a dejected woman when ~-^he left the meeting. She knew that the sfelN^anpea! to the audience that had worked so well the previous year couldn’t be repeated a second time. "Nobody likes poor relations,” she remarked.

She talked to Betty Oliphant, who was now the company’s ballet mistress, and David Haber, the stage manager.

"We can raise it,” Betty Oliphant said. "We just have to, that’s all.”

She set to work to make up a list of names and began to make a marathon series of telephone calls. Some of the ! Oliphant calls were to the very Montreal teachers who had been sceptical and critical of Franca a few years before. Now, in a few minutes, this group pledged seven hundred dollars.

Betty Oliphant called one woman she’d never met hut who was known to give money to theatre ventures.

"Don’t you think you have a nerve taking your company to New York?” the woman asked her bluntly.

"No, I don’t,” said Betty. "I think they’ll be a credit to you and to me.” She got five hundred dollars and best wishes.

She called her doctor, her dentist and her lawyer and got money in sums varying from five dollars up. Jack Arthur, producer of the CNF grandstand show, gave her a hundred dollars. His secretary, who heard the appeal, made a canvass of the Arthur office and dug up another twenty-five.

The dancers all turned in ten dollars of their meagre pay cheques. Another group of eighteen dancers performing in the Toronto Opera Festival contributed ten dollars apiece. Dance teachers’ associations which had once snubbed Franca all made contributions. In a day and a half Betty Oliphant and her helpers had raised thirty-six hundred dollars on their own efforts.

Violinist Charles Dobias, concert master of the ballet orchestra, made the rounds of Toronto stores and raised $365.

Then one of the hoard’s directors obtained a five-thousand-dollar donation from the Cadillac Contracting and Developments Limited. By the end of the two-day period more than ten thousand had been gathered and the New York booking was confirmed. Artistically and practically, in terms of increased prestige and new bookings, the New York gamble paid off. But. it used up all the funds allotted it and some guild members still wondered whether it had been a good thing.

Celia Franca has considerable respect for the guild, without whose hacking the National Ballet would have been impossible. In five years the guild has increased its membership until it has eight branches and five hundred members. But the directors are businessmen who sometimes find it difficult to reconcile a yearly deficit with sound business practices.

Thus in guild meetings Celia Franca occasionally lets her sharp tongue get the better of her. After one such meeting a guild director complained to Betty Oliphant: "I’ve had just about all I can take from that woman. Today she called me a bloody fool.”

Betty reproached Celia. Celia denied the charge.

"I didn’t call him a bloody fool, I’m sure,” she said. "Maybe I called him a fool.”

"Bloody fool sounds more like you,” Betty Oliphant observed.

"Well, I wouldn’t call him that unless I really liked him,” was Franco’s final defense. It. was a true enough comment, for Franca is correct to a fault, and even cold, with people she doesn’t know op doesn’t like, although in the classroom and among her friends she has a winning sense of humor and great charm. Perhaps this mixture comes from her own background in which elements of the austere and the exotic are equally mingled. She has studied the dance form since she was four and a half years old, putting herself through the rigorous training with scholarships and loans, often over the protests of her parents. She has danced leading roles with some of the greatest companies of the age, and she has hoofed it in the chorus of second-rate English musical comedies. She has had her share of caviar at receptions and she has also lived for weeks on a diet of boiled beets, which are cheap and, for a dancer, nourishing because they contain energy-providing sugar.

Today she shares a six-roomed apartment with Kay Ambrose, the j National Ballet’s artistic director and i the author of several books on ballet, j and with two other members of the company. Her own bedroom is a tiny ; nunlike compartment in green, which she finds restful. It is austerely j furnished with bed, chair, night table, dresser and a tiny cupboard crammed with ballet slippers and a few simple j dresses. She reads detective novels for j relaxation and shares, with her other apartment mates, a fondness for cats and wrestling matches. Her Canadian experiment has not brought her any great wealth. She still earns less than four thousand dollars a year—a sum that includes her teaching stints and other commissions. If she wanted to cash in on her reputation she could easily earn triple her salary in tele-

vision anfj teaching, hut she has not Cnanged her point of view from the one she expressed to a group of reporters when she came to Canada to stay in 1951:

"I’m going to build a ballet company here if it takes me five years, ten years, or twenty. Surely this country is big enough to support a company on the road for five months of the year without having to depend on dancers who work in offices in the daytime. Where will we play? In theatres, where there are theatres, or any place in which there is a stage.”

Franca was brought to Canada to build up a company that would keep Canadian dancers at home. Last summer, of the three hundred students registered for her course, some thirty came from the U. S., from towns as far off as Seattle, Atlanta and Minneapolis. She has even accepted two American dancers for the National Ballet. They’ve taken out citizenship papers and become new Canadians, an act that certainly reverse's a historic trend.

It begins to look as if Celia Franca has done quite a job. She still doesn’t

know where the money is coming from but that isn’t stopping her from going ahead with plans for the 1955-56 season. These plans include a muchextended tour of Canada, the United States and England, and an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.

And the financing? That’s still a problem, and probably always will be. But few people doubt that, if resourcefulness and determination can solve it, Canada’s National Ballet company will he showing a lot more people that Canadians can dance as well as they can play hockey. ★