Canadian balletomanes know Betty Oliphant's considerable achievements as founder of Canada's National Ballet School. But anyone hoping for extended revelations in Miss O: My Life in Dance
(Turnstone, 271 pages, $26.95 cloth) about her love-hate relationship with Celia Franca (one of the founders of the National Ballet) or her deepest feelings about figures such as Rudolf Nureyev, David Haber, and Alexander Grant, will be disappointed. And she does not deal with radical criticism of her teaching methods. For instance, we know from James Neufeld's recent Power to Rise
that some of her dancers ran secretly to Boris Volkoff for relief and then were greatly appreciative of Peggy van Praagh's 1956 guest course on the advanced Cecchetti method. In 1962 both Richard Buckle and Lincoln Kirstein found much to denounce about her school in a report to the Canada Council; Miss O does not mention these two eminences.
She does score some hits on Boris Volkoff ("I was not impressed with his teaching or with the caustic and often humiliating remarks he made to his pupils"), Ninette de Valois ("difficult, autocratic, with a very sharp tongue"), artistic directors in general, Wallace Russell, David Haber, and Celia Franca ("I always felt that Celia Franca modelled herself on Dame Ninette").
The artlessness of Oliphant's prose serves her directness on ballet technique, jurors at International ballet competitions, various great dancers (she rates Baryshnikov higher than Nureyev and regards Erik Bruhn as "the greatest classicist of his day"), and her cunning way of making yearly additions to her school
She will be remembered for the clear, unaffected style of ballet she produced in a country that was resistant to the idea that it could produce first-class dancers. The roster of her students is a who's who of Canadian ballet.