Although she didn’t know it at the time, Carol Bishop-Gwyn, as a dance-enthralled little girl in Toronto—and the proud owner of an autograph of British ballerina Margot Fonteyn, no less—was part of Celia Franca’s moment in Canadian cultural history. Still enthralled by dance, and now the possessor of two postgraduate degrees in dance history, Bishop-Gwyn, 65, is the author of The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca. Shortlisted for the Charles Taylor prize, as well as the Governor General’s Literary Award, it’s a biography of the driven Englishwoman who founded the National Ballet of Canada.
The postwar years were one of ballet’s golden eras in the 20th century. As a distraction from the horrors and deprivation of the Second World War, dance “boomed in Britain,” Bishop-Gwyn notes. The Sadler’s Wells company, for which Franca danced, “trooped around the country for 50 weeks of the year,” drawing packed houses. “Of course, the British companies couldn’t cross the Atlantic then, but when they did after the war they caused a sensation.” Bishop-Gwyn still recalls seeing the Sadler’s Wells dancers “shivering on a stage built over the ice rink at Maple Leaf Gardens.” Dance exploded in popularity here too—Bishop-Gwyn’s own lessons, taken “before it became abundantly clear I was not ballerina material,” were one tiny part.