If Celia Franca were alive to read this wonderfully candid book about her, no doubt she would hate it.
The British-born founder of the National Ballet of Canada had a phobia about people knowing too much about her, learning early on to create a flamboyant persona to distract from the truth of her origin as the daughter of poor working-class Jews in London’s rough-and-tumble East End.
It’s not that this former ballerina with more spit than polish feared the spotlight – far from it.
She just needed, always, to be in control.
Being authoritarian was both a blessing and a curse, at least as revealed by this biography, the first written on this matriarch of Canadian ballet, and largely because Franca herself vetoed earlier attempts by demanding of publishers the final say on what could be said about her.
Luckily, Toronto-based dance scholar Carol Bishop-Gwyn has skirted around this imperious command by publishing four years after Franca’s death in 2007 at the age of 86.
Writing her book, Bishop-Gwyn ironically received much invaluable help from Franca herself in the form of tapes made in the early 1990s by the late Frank Rasky.
The former Canadian Jewish News entertainment editor interviewed Franca for a biography that never made it past their arguments over disputed facts; Bishop-Gwyn relies heavily on these irritable and irate conversations, often quoting Franca verbatim on such contentious matters (for Canadian ballet aficionados anyway) as who founded the affiliated National Ballet School, Franca or her one-time loyal and admiring sidekick, the late Betty Oliphant.
Franca, not surprisingly, toots her own horn: “No, it was my goal. Let’s get that one straight. Betty was helping me. She approved of what I was doing. She could see what I was leading to and she was helping me achieve that goal.”
Bishop-Gwyn also presents Oliphant’s side of the story, and it makes for poignant reading; Franca does appear to have skewered her former friend, just one among many. She also sacrificed three husbands and her health. Her excuse was always that she did it for the company.

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