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Celia Franca was the first artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada and was an important influence on the development of ballet in Canada. She became a member of Ballet Rambert in her native England in 1936. During the 1940s, she performed with the Sadler's Wells Ballet (later renamed the Royal Ballet). She later danced with the Metropolitan Ballet and received the British Broadcasting Corporation's first two commissions for choreography.
In 1950, Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Sadler's Wells Ballet (first named the Vic-Wells Ballet and later renamed the Royal Ballet), recommended Franca to a group of Canadians who wanted to start a company in Toronto. The following year, the National Ballet of Canada gave its first public performance under Franca's direction.
Franca quickly built the company's repertoire on a foundation of the classics and invited guest artists from Europe to perform with her company. Although her critics charged that the National Ballet of Canada was neither “Canadian” nor “national,” the company did perform works by Canadian choreographers, including Grant Strate, then in Toronto; Kay Armstrong, from Vancouver and Elizabeth Leese, from Montréal. Franca joined forces with British teacher Betty Oliphant in 1959 to establish the National Ballet School in order to train Canadian dancers for the company.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Franca strengthened the company's international reputation by inviting international stars such as Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev to stage full-length classical works. During the 1970s, her association with the company and the board of directors became increasingly strained. She officially left in 1974.
Among her many awards, in 1967 Franca became the first dance artist inducted into the Order of Canada. In 1985, she received the highest honour, Companion of the Order. Franca continues to contribute to dance. In 2002, she was invited to stage Antony Tudor's Judgment of Paris for the National Ballet of Canada. In 1978, she became co-artistic director (with Merrilee Hodgins) of the School of Dance in Ottawa.
Neufeld, James. Power to Rise: The Story of the National Ballet of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.