writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Living History

A Lifetime in Dance; Frederic Franklin
Barnard College
New York, NY
October 22 and 26, 2003

By Dale Brauner
copyright © 2003 by Dale Brauner

The preservation of choreography is still mostly dependant on the passage of information from one dancer to another. Ballets go in and out of fashion, sometimes disappearing from rotation after only a few performances for reasons other than the merits of the work. Choreographers have a habit of moving on to the next work and those who have seen forget or die. For this and many reasons, ballet is lucky to have Frederic Franklin.

Franklin, now 89, was the witness and participant in ballet history. Known for his 30-year association with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and his partnership with prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova, the Liverpool, England-born dancer not only performed almost all of the prestigious roles in ballet, but was there at the creation of works by Leonide Massine, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton and Agnes de Mille. Such was Franklin’s talent, 45 principal roles were created on him, including the Baron in Gaite Parisienne by Massine, the Baron in Night Shadow (La Sonnambula) by Balanchine, and the Champion Roper in Rodeo by De Mille. In addition, he worked with Bronslava Nijinska

Even before retiring from dancing (but not from the stage, Franklin was tabbed as a ballet master at the Ballet Russe. He was director of the National Ballet of Washington, D.C. from 1963-1974 and taught, coached and staged works for companies around the world.

Fortunately for us, Barnard College in New York staged two evenings with Franklin, the Virginia C. Gildersleeve Professor, in October.

The first lecture was a casual hour-long talk between Franklin, writer and Barnard teacher Mindy Aloff, director of research for The George Balanchine Foundation Nancy Reynolds and dancer and choreographer Donald Saddler (Franklin has worked with Aloff and Reynolds on an oral history project to chronicle the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo).

But first, we were introduced to Franklin as a dancer in the Young Lover’s solo that Ashton made on him in Devil’s Holiday (1939). It was a black and white sequence, with no music, scenery or costumes, but the eloquence of Franklin’s dancing and of the supremely difficult choreography Ashton dreamed up for that yearning solo did not those items to make their statement.

Aloff, Reynolds and Saddler easily guided Franklin—a seasoned story teller— through his career, which began when he was 17 in 1931 with Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris.

“I really wanted to go into a ballet company, but there were no companies in England,” Franklin said. “I saw in the paper an advertisement: `Wanted, boy, Casino de Paris, Paris.’ In those days, there were lovely English dancers, but they were born at the wrong time. Five years ahead of me, and there was nothing for them.

“It wasn’t until `32 or `33, that we had Colonial de Basil’s Ballet Russe back in with Danilova and Massine, (Anton) Dolin, and the three baby ballerinas (Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska), that started something in England. Ninette de Valois had already then got a small company going and that’s how England came on to the map with ballet.”

Franklin had warm words for Baker.

“She was a wonderful lady,” he said. “She was always so kind and gracious to all of us.”

Franklin took us through his earlier career performing cabaret, concert ballet, and vaudeville with in a group headed by Wendy Toye and Dolin. Those years on the stage were hard days, with shows seven days a week, rehearsing after an evening of performing and picking up things with minutes to spare.

It was during these years that Franklin’s knack for picking up choreography quickly became apparent. This ability to see something once and remember it would become of great importance not only in his dancing career but for keeping works alive for the future.

In his second year with the Markova-Dolin Ballet, Franklin worked with Nijinska.

“She knew Alicia (Markova) and Dolin and when she arrived her husband said she was only interested in Miss. Markova and Mr. Dolin, and we sort of swallowed,” Franklin said. “But as things progressed, she absolutely changed her mind about the English dancers. She loved us, we did her ballets very well. And there was once time she was going to redo the last act of the Nutcracker. I was doing the Trepak. She said, `Where’s the boy.’ So I get up and go. Well, two hours later and having gone through two pairs of boots, she said, `Freddy, now you are real Russian dancer.’ From then on, we loved each other very much.”

During one of the closing nights, Massine was in the audience and saw Franklin dance and he was invited to be the principal dancer in a new company in 1938.

“I think Miss. De Valois never forgave me.”

It was in this company, that Franklin first teamed with Danilova, who had been in the first ballet performance he had seen by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. When he first met the famed ballerina, she assessed him.

“She said, ‘I hear Massine like you very much. Tomorrow, I see.’ She ask me, `How old you are?’ I said, ‘I’m 23.’ ‘Oh, when you are 30 we will talk.’”

However, the two were cast in Gaite Parisienne.

“In the very first waltz, she said, ‘Young man, come here. Put your arm here and an arm here, and I hook.’ And she hooked for 25 years! No matter what we were doing Danilova would drape herself around me and hook. And were fine. She also said, ‘If you are going to dance with me, you must know where my curves are.’

When people talk about great ballet partnerships, it does not take long for the pair Franklin and Danilova to be mentioned.

“She was one who could do anything. She was had an enormous stage presence. I had to learn how to handle her. She was 13 years older than I was, and a big star. But as I went along, I think she sort of let go herself go with me. Each time, I could do a bit more. As we got older and we worked together, and I got to know more of her curves than ever, it becomes a real understanding. I danced with many other ballerinas but it was never the same.”

It was during this time that Franklin worked with the great choreographers of the 20th century.

On Balanchine’s Night Shadow (La Somnambula): “He told us, `Freddy, you will be the Poet and then there’s a Coquette.’ And Danilova said, ‘Oh! George, for me.’ And he said (making the characteristic Balanchine sniff), ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Oh, but I am Coquette.’ ‘No, there’s a sleepwalker, and Choura, you will be the Sleepwalker.’ Oh, there was drama. Then we found out that Maria Tallchief would be the Coquette. Well, that didn’t help. We did the rehearsals with Maria and then the rehearsals with the Sleepwalker came. And George is going around creating things. And afterwards, Danilova said, ‘You know, not bad.’ And Choura was perfectly beautiful in it. But she had to be turned around.”

Balanchine had a great influence personally on Franklin, first as a choreographer but also as a roommate, and later as the man who paved the way for him to become a ballet master.

“One time we were in Houston (touring), and Mr. B said, ‘Freddy, we will be (rooming) together.’ And everything was choreographed—who went to the bathroom first, when we brushed our teath, when we ate, who packed the bags— I was never so organized in my whole life!

“By now I was 31 years old, and I thought there might be something else for me to do. I told him about that. I had taken a rehearsal of one of Balanchine’s ballets, Jeux de Cartes. I had a birthday and there was a party on stage and there was an announcement that Mr. Franklin will now be undertaking another part in his career as the ballet master with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Mr. B was the one who went the administration. And Danilova came to me and said, ‘So, does this mean that are going to be my boss?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ That’s when all my faculties – the memory, the musicality—stood me in good stead because I had to learn the rep and rehears the company. I had to dance my own parts. And it was a wonderful thing because he set me onto something I’m still doing today.”

In the second evening at Barnard, Franklin’s work as a ballet master was on display in films of him rehearsing and staging, as well as dancing.

The first film was a 1939 practice film of Franklin and Danilova performing the pas de deux, in practice clothes and with an added piano accompaniment, one of the pas de deuxs from Devil’s Holiday. This was followed by Franklin’s reconstruction of that bit for the Cincinnati Ballet, which staged a special program to honor him and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in October 2002.

Cincinnati Ballet also performed a reconstruction of the third movement of Massine’s Seventh Symphony for that evening.

“Mr. Massine never old us what was going on,” Franklin remembered of the start in 1938. “During rehearsal, Danilova said, ‘Young man, do you know what you are doing in that ballet?’ ‘Not really.’ ‘Yes, it shows.’ It wasn’t until I got the program on opening night that it said, ‘Spirit of Creation, Frederic Franklin.’”

During the 1940s, Warner Bros took an interested in Massine’s ballets and two— Gaite Parisienne (changed to Gay Parisian for the film) and Capriccio Espagnol (changed to Spanish Fiesta)—were made into short films. Only Spanish Fiesta was shown, but Franklin’s part was taken by Massine and Franklin performed as the lead local in the town square. While Franklin may cringe at the results, the films are great reminders as to what the Ballet Russe companies meant to their fans—the verve and personality have seldom been replaced.

Gaite Parisienne (1938) was shown in a secretly made film by Victor Jessen, who camped out for years in the 1940s at the old Met in New York and filmed, in short takes, the Massine ballet. Dancers come and go in the film, but Danilova and Franklin remain constant. Even in a scratchy, patchy film, their greatness shines through and most of us were humming the Jacques Offenbach’s famous waltz when we left.

The other two segments showed Franklin in his job as coach and sometime performer in character parts. He defied his years while showing New York City Ballet dancers portions of Balanchine’s lost full-length Raymonda (1946), recreated for The George Balanchine Foundation in 1998. It was a sight to behold as Franklin’s octogenarian body captured the Hungarian spirit far more easily than the young dancers could.

Many times, those who are witness to greatness don’t realize their good fortunate until it is too late. Thankfully, Franklin knew what was going on around him and paid attention. He was grateful for the chance to be a part of history, and now we are grateful that he shares his experiences with us.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Dale Brauner



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last updated on October 7, 2003