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ARTFUL BLOGGER: New biography explores battles and heartbreaks of Celia Franca

By Paul Gessell

In 1972, Celia Franca was at the height of her powers as founding artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. She had yet to move to Ottawa to reign supreme as the Dowager Empress of dance.

During Franca’s days with the Toronto-based National Ballet, dating back to 1951, she could be a tyrant, she could bully her board and she could reduce her dancers to tears. But there was one person she could not browbeat: Russian phenom Rudolf Nureyev.

In a complicated business arrangement, Nureyev started dancing with the National Ballet in 1972, initially as the Prince in a touring production of The Sleeping Beauty. Everything had to go the way Nureyev wanted, according to a new Franca biography The Pursuit of Perfection by Toronto author and dance historian Carol Bishop-Gwyn. Indeed, Nureyev was the only one allowed to boss around Franca.

One of Nureyev’s bad habits was swearing, frequently and colourfully. Russian being his native language, some of his expressions in English were, to say the least, unique. One night in 1973, Nureyev and the National Ballet were to perform in Chicago. Things were running late. The audience began to applaud impatiently.

Bishop-Gwyn recounts the story this way: “Suddenly, Nureyev appeared from behind the curtain, not yet in costume, with a bare chest and wearing leg warmers, and shrieked at the audience, ‘You shitfuckers, shut up.’”

No one but Nureyev could get away with that.

Mounting The Sleeping Beauty exactly the way Nureyev wanted was quite the chore. Franca was so exasperated that she began, in private, to refer to the ballet as The Sleeping Bitch.

Most of Franca’s dancers were in awe of Nureyev. Veronica Tennant, a principal ballerina, described Nureyev’s arrival for rehearsals in August, 1972: “He entered, the grandest of princes, the embodiment of the living legend. His movements were appropriately large and dashing, surprisingly graceful and delicate. What we hadn’t expected was a man who was not tall, oddly dressed in a wool cap and tight leathers — a man — whose eyes twinkled like someone you’d always known and loved — who chuckled when you were introduced — who made immediate irrevocable contact with every person in the room and would notice the instant anyone left.”

Nureyev loved to pit one female dancer against another by making critical asides to each of them. “But the dancers didn’t fall for it and would tell each other what he had been saying,” writes Bishop-Gwyn. “Nureyev became bemused when he realized that his ploy didn’t work with these Canadian ballerinas.”

Tensions became very heated between Nureyev and Franca during initial rehearsals for The Sleeping Beauty. Franca was cast in the role of the wicked fairy, Carabosse, and she became so angry at  Nureyev’s attitude she refused to attend the sessions. “Second-cast dancer Victoria Bertram said, ‘I had to do all the rehearsals and then write it down and take it upstairs and talk to her about the role because she would have to do the full rehearsals,’” writes Bishop-Gwyn.

Karen Kain, then just 19 years old, fell under Nureyev’s spell. And Nureyev fell for her too, professionally speaking, by favouring her over other, more experienced, dancers in the company.

“I was a very innocent, gullible, and shy person and Rudolf wanted my affection for sure, and before I had a chance to have a fully developed relationship with Celia,” the book quotes Kain as saying. “I mean, I was only in the company two years before this force of nature, who was so passionate, and drove us and inspired us, we were just crazy about him.”

By making Kain his preferred partner, Nureyev advanced her international standing.

“I think she [Kain] goes a bit overboard when she says how much he did for her,” Franca is quoted as saying. “I was doing a lot for her, also, thank you Karen. You could mention me every now and then.”

When Kain was read this quote, she readily admitted, “I think she’s probably right. I probably didn’t give her enough credit. When I look back on my whole career, I certainly recognize what she did for me and how she supported me. But at that time, no.”

The relationship between Nureyev and the National Ballet ended in 1976. Nureyev died in France in 1993 at the age of 54. Franca died in Ottawa in 2007 at age 85. After a storied career as a dancer, Karen Kain assumed the job first held by Celia Franca, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada.

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