An Evening with Frederic Franklin
Works & Process
Peter B. Lewis Theater
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
January 10, 2010
By David Vaughan
copyright 2010 by David Vaughan
What an enviable life Frederic Franklin has led! And at age 95 he’s still going strong. At a time when to be a dancer was considered an unsuitable profession for a middle-class English boy, his family encouraged him to study all kinds of dancing. At first he was a hoofer, in a music-hall troupe called the Lancashire Lads, then he went to Paris to be one of Josephine Baker’s (and later Mistinguett’s) back-up group at the Casino de Paris. Back in London, he performed in cabaret with Wendy Toye (who became a choreographer when she was still a teenager) and at the same time studied with Lydia Kyasht and Nicholas Legat. Anton Dolin saw him in the latter’s class and said, “It’s time you took your dancing seriously,” and signed him as a principal in the company he was forming with Alicia Markova. The Markova-Dolin Ballet lasted for a couple of years, at the end of which time Leonide Massine, who had left Colonel de Basil’s Russian Ballet to take over the artistic direction of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was recruiting dancers, offered principal contracts to both Markova and Franklin. (That was the end of the Markova-Dolin; Dolin, in a huff presumably, went to de Basil.) But Franklin soon found himself partnering Alexandra Danilova, a partnership that was to last for twenty years. George Balanchine, who succeeded Massine as resident choreographer, appointed Franklin as ballet master. He then formed a company with another ballerina, Mia Slavenska. That was short-lived, but in due course he became the founding director of the National Ballet in Washington DC, then artistic advisor to Dance Theatre of Harlem. He has staged many ballets for various companies, most recently for the Cincinnati Ballet, another company with which he has had a long association. His creation of the “Creole Giselle” for Dance Theatre of Harlem was one of the most distinguished recensions of that ballet (and was recognized as such by an Olivier Award in England). And he still performs with ABT in its spring seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, as the Prince’s tutor in “Swan Lake,” and as Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet”—as he put it, the “old man and old lady parts,” the latter being the witch, Madge, in “La Sylphide.”
On top of all that, Franklin is perhaps ballet’s greatest raconteur: he seems to have total recall, not only of every step of every ballet he has ever danced, but also of the circumstances of their original production. His account of his career, which I have summarized, was illustrated with many, often hilarious anecdotes, such as the story of his performance at short notice of the “Bluebird” pas de deux with Markova (at a matinée of the Markova-Dolin Ballet in Bournemouth, an English seaside resort), including hoisting her on to his shoulder. Telling us about his appearance in London with a Camargo Society performance of “Coppélia” produced by Ninette de Valois (I have never understood why she didn’t snap Franklin up for the then Vic-Wells Ballet, given the shortage of male dancers at the time), he described Lydia Lopokova, who danced Swanilda, as a “roly-poly lady, very wide.”
Franklin and the evening’s moderator, Wes Chapman, Artistic Director of ABT II, were joined by Virginia Johnson, recently appointed Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. In between reminiscences, there were performances of excerpts from classic ballets by members of ABT II and students at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT, and finally by two ABT principals, Xiomara Reyes and David Hallberg. Franklin’s stagings of the Czardas and two variations from “Raymonda” and of the “Bluebird” pas de deux were typical of his work in their musicality and their attention to detail in footwork and movements of the head and hands—the “Bluebird” pas de deux came across as a demi-caractère number, something we don’t always see. The young dancers clearly responded to Franklin’s careful and generous way of working. And Reyes and Hallberg paid tribute to him in the excerpt from “Giselle” (which Franklin has recently staged for the Joffrey Ballet in the traditional version) in Kevin McKenzie’s staging for ABT. Even in this limited space and with piano accompaniment, they were able to evoke the atmosphere and emotion of the second act pas de deux.
In his conclusion, Franklin said “I loved it from the beginning,” which is no doubt why he has been able to continue, as he put it, “giving,” with no diminution of enthusiasm and commitment. An inspiring evening, about an inspiring life.
Photo: In his younger days, Frederic Franklin takes a curtain call for Coppelia. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.