A biography on one of the leading lights of the Canadian ballet scene has earned Cabbagetown author Carol Bishop-Gwyn a spot on the shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
Bishop-Gwyn’s book, The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, shines a new light on the guarded visionary who rose from humble roots to co-found the National Ballet of Canada along with Betty Oliphant.
Bishop-Gwyn got to know Franca – at least somewhat – when they lived a street apart from one another in Ottawa, but was amazed at how little of her true self the artistic pioneer let show.
“One of the saddest things about her life was that her biggest invention was not the National Ballet but herself,” the author said.
The Pursuit of Perfection offers a hitherto unseen look at some elements of Franca’s life, one the author admits may have mortified her subject. Fair from being sensationalistic, however, the book aims to give people a fuller understanding of the National Ballet co-founder.
“I realized very quickly (in her research) that she wouldn’t allow a book about her, warts and all,” Bishop-Gwyn said. “My book has warts, but not for the sake of warts.”
The book also celebrates Franca, who started the National Ballet at a time when support for the arts was rare in Toronto. She came to Toronto in 1951 when the city had Massey Hall and the Royal Alex but few other venues, and arts organizations such as the Canada Council for the Arts and the Toronto Arts Council did not exist.
“She was not a great ballet dancer herself but she had an amazing sense of drama and great passion and stage presence,” Bishop-Gwyn said. “She was tenacious and absolutely determined and focused.”
For the first seven years of its existence, the National Ballet made do with few funds, the only money it had having been scraped together by its founders.
Bishop-Gwyn did not have the opportunity to speak at length with her subject, but she was able to track down plenty of resources, from letters to one of Franca’s old boyfriends to a series of taped interviews between Franca and a would-be biographer.
“There was never a biography on Celia Franca,” the author said. “There was one in the process of being written in the ’90s by Frank Rasky but the poor chap died. His wife donated all his papers and hours and hours of tapes to a wonderful place called Dance Collection Danse and I was able to make use of them.”
The Pursuit of Perfection follows Franca’s path from working-class roots through her studies and struggles as a dancer in London, to her eventual success in founding one of the world’s most renowned ballet companies.
Like her subject, Bishop-Gwyn has been passionate about dance since childhood. Unlike Franca, however, the author learned her own abilities left her best-suited to working as a dance historian.
“I was a terrible little ballerina so I just became a big fan,” she said.
Bishop-Gwyn has lived in Cabbagetown – the former home of Franca, Oliphant and Karen Kain – and has fallen in love with the neighbourhood.
“This area is kind of like the dance hub of the city,” she said. “You have the Distillery District close by, Lemieux Coleman on Parliament, Canadian Children’s Dance, the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, Toronto Dance Theatre. I try to attend as many performances as I can at the Winchester Street Theatre and at the other venues nearby.”
Bishop-Gwyn’s book is one of five shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize. The winner will be announced Monday, March 4.