Born in 1921, Franca began studied on scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Dancing. She joined Ballet Rambert at age 15 and performed with two other companies before moving to Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) under Ninette de Valois in 1941 and becoming one of that company's top ballerinas. After six years, she went on to London's Metropolitan Ballet as soloist and ballet mistress; while with that company, she choreographed the first two ballets ever commissioned by the BBC, Eve of St. Agnes and Dance of Salome.
When, in 1950, a group of Canadians approached de Valois to seek advice on forming a ballet company, she recommended Franca. In February of 1951, she went to Toronto and supported herself as a file clerk at Eaton's, the city's major department store, while recruiting and training dancers and preparing a debut program. Nine months later, on November 12, 1951 in Toronto's Eaton Auditorium, she led the first performance of what became the National Ballet of Canada.
Franca retired from dancing in 1959 (co-founding Canada's National Ballet School that same year), but she served as the company's Artistic Director for 24 years. She led the troupe on tours of Canada, the United States, Mexico, Japan and Europe — both establishing the National Ballet's international standing and making sure that her dancers' work deserved that reputation.
To achieve so much in so short a time requires a great deal of determination, and Franca became known as a stern taskmistress with extremely high standards, herself admitting that she could be a "tyrant," according to The Globe and Mail.
"She was a feisty lady, a difficult personality, but she is one of the pioneers of ballet in this country and that significance can not be taken away," Globe dance critic Paula Citron told her paper. "Celia was never just a dancer, she had balls and like all remarkable women she was an eccentric. She wasn't a saint, but she was damn interesting."
"She was a little frightening," current National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain told the Canadian Press. (Franca oversaw the 11-year-old Kain's first dance exam.) "She was very proper, she was very demanding but underneath all of that she was very kind and nurturing and funny. But she had very high standards and she did not give an inch on those standards, and when you didn't measure up you certainly heard about it."
Among her many awards and honors, Franca was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 and a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1985; in 1987 she was one of the first recipients of the Order of Ontario.
Kain told the Canadian Press that Franca requested that no funeral be held: "She wanted her memory to be celebrated in the performances of the National Ballet of Canada and in the performances of the young students at Canada's National Ballet School." The National Ballet has dedicated this season, its first in the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, to the memory of Celia Franca.