Celia Franks was born in London on the 25th of June, 1921, the daughter of Jewish-Polish immigrants Solomon and Gertie. She won a piano scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music, but quickly established that she preferred to dance. Celia made her professional debut in 1935, at the age of 14, on the chorus line of the West End musical Spread It Abroad. In 1936 she joined the Ballet Rambert. At the time, many English dancers believed that adopting a Continental name would improve their prospects, so Celia changed her surname to Franca.
War in Europe saw Celia's brother Vincent--my grandfather--dispatched to North Africa. Celia toured the UK with the homeless Sadler's Wells Ballet Company, whose theatre had been destroyed in the Blitz. At the age of 19 she married Leo Kersley--a conscientious objector and a fellow Sadler's Wells dancer. When I asked Celia what it was like, Celia told me "we were looked upon as little better than whores."
Celia soon established herself as one of Sadler's Wells' best dramatic ballerinas. In 1946 she began to work as a choreographer, in which capacity she created the ballets Khadra and Ballemos. In 1946 Celia joined the Metropolitan Ballet, where she created the first ballets ever commissioned for television by the BBC: Eve of St Agnes and The Dance of Salome. Celia had an eidetic memory for choreography and continued to consult in the area long after she declared herself retired. (This happened on at least three occasions that I recall.)
In 1950, after Celia had quit the ballet company--she was "tired of putting on Nutcracker and Swan Lake over and over"--a group of balletomanes from Toronto persuaded her to immigrate to Canada to help them form a professional company. While officially working as a clerk at Eaton's Department Store, Celia built the Canadian National Ballet from the ground up. The company staged their first performance in November of 1951, just 10 months later.
Celia retired as a principal artist in 1959, although she would continue to perform on and off for years following. She particularly relished playing villain roles: Ladies MacBeth and Capulet and the Black Queen. I suppose the poison apple doesn't fall far from the tree: as a writer, I have always been more interested in villains than heroes.
I once asked Celia if she missed being on the stage. "Only the flowers," she said.
Celia remarried twice after moving to Canada, first to Bert Anderson and later to musician Jay Morton. She outlived both of them. Leo is the only one of Celia’s former husbands I had the privilege of meeting.
In 1959 Celia and Betty Oliphant founded the National Ballet School in Toronto. When Celia retired from this role in 1974 she was invited to China to teach ballet. I believe she had a wonderful time during her two expeditions there: she was proud of the work she did and I think she was relieved to be away from the establishment she had helped create, and all of its politics.
In 1979 Celia founded the School of Dance in Ottawa with Joyce Shietze and Merilee Hodgkins. Her work there was the most important part of her life for the next 25 years.
Celia came to visit my family in South Africa in the early eighties. Her brother Vincent had passed on, but her father Solly was still hale and hearty. I had no real idea who Celia was--I just knew her as a lovely and exotic relative. She brought us figurines of the Canadian Mounted Police as gifts. They were a similar scale to the Superman and Batman dolls my brother Gavin and I had and I insisted that they were toys we should play with. I'm certain we broke all them almost immediately.
Late in 1995 I travelled to North America with my father. We visited his sister in New York and then we went to see Celia in Ottawa. Celia was still very busy at 74: there were TV cameras in and out of her apartment and there were a number of meetings and functions that required her attention. I had a nasty flu and I carried a box of tissues with me everywhere. During a quiet moment, apropos of nothing, my father said "Did you know Jason wants to be a writer?"
I was twenty years old. I was at University, studying for a degree in Cognitive Science. I wasn't writing anything, much less submitting. It was my big secret.
Celia just looked at me and said. "Oh, well. That's settled, then." Celia spoke with authority. It felt as if she had given me permission.
Celia accompanied us to the airport when we left a couple of days later. I remember she surprised us after we said goodbye by appearing in the international gate lounge to wait for the plane with us. I don't know how she did it, but she certainly didn’t negotiate passport control with my father and I. I doubt she was carrying any identification documents with her at all.
A year or so later, Celia visited us in Australia---a side trip on a business jaunt. I visited again in 1998. We maintained frequent correspondence by FAX through those years. I still have most of my letters, but alas Celia's hand-written replies are long lost.
In 2001 I decided to move to America. Celia let me have the run of her apartment while I was looking for a job. I was there when I sold my first short story.
That year the Ballet Company put on a gala concert to celebrate Celia's 80th birthday. Leo Kersley flew out for the event--I don't think Celia had seen him in many, many years. At the reception after the show I knew only a handful of people. A couple of of people recognized me as Celia's nephew, and I think I disappointed them by not knowing who they were in return, since I was not Canadian and knew absolutely nothing about ballet. I spent most of the evening hanging out with Celia's masseuse; a Canadian Sikh named Siri. I could see immediately why Celia liked her: Siri was kind and unpretentious and blunt.
Although she was very controlling of her public appearances, at home Celia was very straightforward, and had little interest in self-aggrandisement. The only celebrity story she ever told me unprompted was that Rudolf Nureyev had once insulted her hair. On one occasion, when she found me listening to a movie soundtrack on a portable CD player, she said “That sounds like Leonard Cohen.” It was indeed Leonard Cohen. I was surprised that she knew who he was. "Oh, I was in a short film with him. That was before he went into the monastery." I didn't even know that Cohen was Canadian.
During the five years I lived in the US, I visited Celia several times in Ottawa and in Naples, Florida, where she would sometimes rent an apartment for a few weeks during the winter. Naples was driving distance from my place in Tampa.
In December 2005, I received a phone call from the School of Dance. Celia had slipped and broken one of her vertebrae. She was suddenly in care and in poor spirits--would I go up and visit her? Nobody from the school was available. I was angry, and I refused their offer to pay my airfare. It did not occur to me that it Christmas time. When I arrived in Ottawa, Celia seemed her usual self. She was too proud to be seen in a wheelchair and refused to leave her room. I took meals in the dining room with the other residents.
In Ottawa in October 2006, on my way home to Australia, I visited Ottawa for the last time. I stayed in the rest home with Celia for two weeks--the staff dragged a trundle bed into the sitting room for me. I carved Halloween pumpkins for the residents and went running by the canal, where the leaves had turned red. I’d never seen a proper Northern Hemisphere autumn before. The documentary Celia Franca: Tour de Force--by Veronica Tenant, a former ballerina turned director--seemed to be constantly on the TV.
"I don't want a funeral," Celia told me. "When I die I want my body to be burned. I want my ashes to be thrown in the bin."
On the weekends I saw a procession of Celia's former students and colleagues coming to visit. Many of them were visibly terrified of "Miss Franca". I had only been on the receiving end of her temper a couple of times, myself, but I could understand exactly why,
The first time I suffered Celia’s ire was at dinner with the film critic Jacob Siskind. We were at the Light of India restaurant in the Glebe and the food was incredible. Jacob and Celia did not have big appetites, but I did, and so I finished off their meals as well as my own--and made myself quite ill. Celia said only a few words to me after that, and very quietly, but I felt chastised for days.
The second time I experienced the wrath of Miss Franca was a grocery expedition. I went out on foot, in heavy snow, to procure some supplies one winter’s afternoon. I. was gone for more than an hour, but I failed to find the shop and I came back empty handed. "Oh, you're just useless, aren't you?" She barely raised her voice. I suppose she was worried about me. Also, I had promised to bring back some vodka, and we had run out.
I'd been home in Australia for a couple of months when I received an email from Celia's close friend Viki Prystawski. Celia had been diagnosed with acute Leukemia. Viki told me that she was aware but unable to communicate, and that she was not in any pain. Celia died two days later, on the 19th of February, 2007.
No funeral was held for Celia. Her ashes were scattered at sea.
In her lifetime, Celia was honoured with the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, and twice with Woman of the Year. She received many other minor accolades: keys to various cities, honorary doctorates, a species of flower was named after her.
In 2012 I dedicated my first novel, Bloody Waters, to her. I wrote most of the first draft at her dining room table in 2001. It features a driven female protagonist who would probably be considered a villain in a different context. 2012 also saw the publication of The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, by Carol Bishop-Gwynn. Viki and I have no intention of ever reading it.