The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca
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by Carol Bishop-Gwyn
Cormorant Books, Toronto, 2011
431 pp., illus., $36 hardcover
A double review with Passion to Dance: The National Ballet of Canada
by James Neufeld
Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2011
480 pp., illus., $50 hardcover
The Pursuit of Perfection is an aptly titled biography of English-born character dancer Celia Franca. Franca created the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto and used her strict and militant English ballet training to assemble, train, present, and tour our country’s first professional company.
Author Carol Bishop-Gwyn uses photographs, newspaper articles, transcripts of audio interviews, and Franca’s personal correspondence to create a portrait of a woman who was a character in her own life. The book chronicles Franca’s personal and professional journey from her first steps to her last breath.
This book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of the National Ballet of Canada and the personality of the woman behind it. Its tone is both lyrical and accessible.
Bishop-Gwyn does not sugar-coat the information but instead presents Franca’s strength and weaknesses, successes and failures, friends and foes, while distinguishing the real person from the carefully crafted and impeccably maintained celebrity.
Another new book, James Neufeld’s Passion to Dance, is a historical account of Canada’s National Ballet that sets Franca and her work in the context of her peers at the ballet’s school and company. The broader scope of this book includes mention of something Bishop-Gwyn’s biography leaves out: the fact that many of Canada’s most promising early dancers went abroad for professional opportunities because Canada did not yet have a proper company.
Bishop-Gwyn makes it seem as though Franca scraped together an ensemble and then rigorously trained and transformed what dancers she could find. It doesn’t mention that she started from scratch because the brightest stars had journeyed to Europe to put their talents to use.
Passion to Dance details the evolution of a company, not just the personal evolution of one (undeniably talented and entirely unforgettable) dancer. Though Celia Franca and the National Ballet of Canada are inextricably linked, Neufeld shows that Franca was not the only person the company had to stand on.
Neufeld’s book demonstrates his passion for dance. A weighty volume resulting from extensive historical research and including compelling storytelling and artful photographs, it provides an in-depth look at the National Ballet of Canada.
This review appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Canada's History magazine.
— Norah Myers (Read bio)
Norah Myers is a student and recently completed an internship at Canada's History Society.