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Ballet school gets $15-million mystery donation

Speculation swirled around the Betty Oliphant Theatre in downtown Toronto yesterday about the identity of the anonymous $15-million donor to Project Grand Jeté, the building fund for the National Ballet School.

Could the gift, the largest recorded personal donation to a performing-arts organization in Canadian history, have come from ballet patron Walter Carsen? Perhaps it represented the munificence of capital-campaign co-chairs Margaret and Wallace McCain? Nobody was even willing to acknowledge whether the money came from a long-time supporter or a new patron.

"Anonymous is anonymous," said former cultural maven Bernard Ostry. "We must honour the wishes of the donor," Margaret McCain said primly. She herself had just been recognized with the announcement that her family was giving $5-million in tribute to her passion and commitment to the ballet school.

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The NBS, which was founded in 1959, is trying to raise $90-million to triple the physical plant of one of the world's premier residential dance and academic schools. The school's international reputation for excellence has been matched in recent years, said artistic director Mavis Staines, by its unofficial designation as the school with the worst facilities.

She told the audience, which included NBS graduates Karen Kain, Rex Harrington and Veronica Tennant, that her dance colleagues often ask her whether it is difficult to persuade parents to allow their children to attend a school that has such decrepit and crowded facilities.

The building program will see the school's current facility on Maitland Street turned into a residence. Additionally, there will be new academic and training facilities connected to the Betty Oliphant Theatre, on nearby Jarvis Street.

(Oliphant, the first principal of the NBS, died on Monday at her home in St. Catharines, Ont.)

These expanded facilities, an innovative combination of new construction and renovated heritage buildings (including the original Havergal Ladies College dating from 1898), are being designed by architects Goldsmith, Borgal and Company and Kuwabara Payne McKenna and Blumberg. The expansion is expected to be completed in 2007.

The project has already received $40-million in combined federal and provincial money. With the double announcement yesterday, combined with donations from the NBS board and staff, the campaign has hit $72-million or 80 per cent of the total goal.

McCain, a former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, joined the NBS board 15 years ago and also served as its chair. The Havergal building, on Jarvis Street (which for decades belonged to the CBC), will be renamed the Margaret McCain Academic Building. McCain said she "was deeply moved by the tribute my family has made to me."

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While the identity of the anonymous donor remains a mystery, nothing could camouflage the general delight that the new dance training facility will be named for Celia Franca, the English dancer who founded the National Ballet Company of Canada in 1951, and then persuaded the board to start the school in 1959.

An emotional Franca, 83, held the audience of about 300 people entranced with an anecdote about how she took on the board in the 1950s in a battle about founding the school and won. "One member of the board, who was a bastard," she said, sticking out her chin pugnaciously, "started to provoke me and to insinuate that I didn't really want the school." Frustrated and enraged, she burst into tears. At which point the chair of the board turned to the man and said, "Shut up or get yourself a new board of directors."

After a dramatic pause, Franca uttered the ultimate revenge. "And the man who provoked me is now dead."

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More


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