Sunday, July 09, 2000

Ballet's elder statesman far from retiring


At 85, Franklin wows New York audi ences

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

        When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo held a reunion in New Orleans a few weeks ago, Frederic Franklin — one of its original and most articulate dancers — arrived late, but for good reason.

        “I was performing the first day of the reunion on stage at the Met with American Ballet Theatre,” he said recently by phone from his New York apartment. He was bringing me up to date on his latest dance activities and the lousy New York weather outside his window, which overlooks Central Park.

        The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was a traveling ballet company that toured the United States from the 1930s through '50s.

        “In the '30s and '40s we were the covered wagons of the ballet. We went to towns that had never heard of ballet,” Mr. Franklin said. “Sometimes they would polish the stages before we got there, not knowing we would need to put Ajax and Coca-Cola on them to make them not so slippery. But we introduced many famous designers and musicians into the hinterland — Matisse, Massine, Shostakovich — great artists and we introduced them.”

        The New Orleans event brought old friends together again from as far away as New Zealand and Brazil to reminisce and attracted new faces to see why all the fuss about these well-known gypsy dancers.

        Mr. Franklin (“Freddie, please”) is Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director emeritus. That means the company loves him, values his immeasurable influence through the years (including serving as interim artistic director in 1984 after the death of David McLain) and is indebted to him for the roughly dozen ballets in the repertory that he has staged. He is still staging; his Swan Lake, Act II is scheduled Nov. 17 and 18.

        With his performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, he becomes one of a handful of dancers to perform at both the old and new Met. It had been 14 years since his last onstage appearance anywhere when he got the call to perform from American Ballet Theatre's Kevin McKenzie.

        Ironically, Mr. McKenzie's career got an early boost when Mr. Franklin directed National Ballet of Washington (D.C.) in the late '50s. “Yes, he danced for me then. He was very young,” Mr. Franklin says.

        “At the Met I was in an old ballet called La Sylphide,” he said. “There are three main parts — the man (James), the sylph and a terrible old witch (Madge). I was the old witch. I kill James at the end — a very dramatic role. I've done it in Cincinnati.”

        He still moves with the grace of an Astaire, but at 85 appearing onstage with one of this country's top companies had not been in his thoughts. Waiting in the wings, about to face New York's harshest critics and savviest ballet lovers, he wondered “What on earth am I doing here? But once onstage, I felt just as home as I ever had.”

        Things went well enough that he was immediately asked to do the Friar in ABT's Romeo & Juliet. “I can kneel very well but I have trouble getting up,” he said. “When I entered and knelt down, there was so much applause, I was worried I wouldn't get up.”

        No one had ever applauded the Friar's entrance before. With that kind of reception, he's being courted for appearances next season. “I'm starting a new career,” he joked.

        Miss Tami's goodbye: Leaving the nest is tough — just ask Tami Alesson. She happily starts a new job with Pennsylvania Ballet's equivalent of the Budig Academy — called The Rock School — this month. But some tears have been shed over leaving Cincinnati Ballet.

        The company has been home since David McLain invited her to join 20 years ago while she was working on a dance degree at University of Cincinnati. The inexperienced, starry-eyed college sophomore was invited in as a “trainee.” The position and the company's connection with UC no longer exist.

        Starting at the bottom of the heap, she danced her way through the ranks and repertory while earning a BFA at the College-Conservatory of Music. She's shown an amazing flexibility, surviving seven different ballet directors, bending with each new vision and agenda. Only ballet mistress Johanna Wilt has lasted as long.

        Her final performance in the 1997 Nutcracker brought an embarrassing armful of flowers. “I felt like Eva Peron,” she said. “I was in my Spanish costume. I never expected it.”

        Although she's performed on area stages a thousand times for Cincinnati Ballet, that's not how most local dance kids will remember her. After retiring from the stage, she moved into teaching, and proudly boasts “Five of my level fours (girls 12-15) have been accepted into Joffrey Midwest this summer.” The Joffrey is a world-class company in Chicago that offers summer intensives for talented kids.

        But it's the Nutcracker that has introduced most young dancers to “Miss Tami.” For the past couple of years she's the one who has made sure every little mouse knew when to scurry across the stage, every toy soldier knew to enter on count 12 not 16, and that each young dancer walked proudly, gestured largely and made an exit before being trampled by the big guys.

        Her duties — teaching, working with the company's adopt-a-school program (which goes out into community schools to help teachers make dry academic subjects lively by applying an artful twist) and directing kids in ballets — is often a 9-9 job. Why give so much? “I love the kids, I can't say no,” Ms. Alesson said.

        And they love her. The last few classes at Cincinnati Ballet were bordering on funereal. Kids cried; Miss Tami cried; even parents cried. There were hugs and gifts. One was a copy of the Degas statue of a dancer with the inscription “Tami, we'll miss you and love you, Your level four "2000' class.”

        After 20 years of devotion to one company, it's pretty exciting to be jetting off to California and North Carolina for teaching gigs before headding for Philadelphia. This new-found attention happened very quickly — she made the Rock School connection at an engagement party for former CB dancer Joe Cox a few weeks ago and other offers followed. But it's been a long time coming.

        She's taking a lifetime of experience and the treasured wisdoms of her mentors, Freddie Franklin and James Truitte. She's never far from the memory of the late Mr. Truitte. “He's still with me every single day, in my heart,” she said.

        “I've know Tami from the very beginning. Cincinnati Ballet will be very unhappy to lose her,” Mr. Franklin said. “Pennsylvania is lucky indeed — she's a very bright girl with an awful lot to give.”

        Top teachers: Many area dancers head off to dance workshops in New York, Chicago and the West Coast this time of year to work with some of the world's most exciting teachers. Every once in a while, these teachers show up in Cincinnati.

        Claudia Barrett's Ballet Tech recently hosted classes by two prominent Russians — Alexandre Bondarenko, a master at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow, and Guzel Apanaeva, a former soloist with Russia's Igor Moiseyev Dance Company.

        This month Cincinnati Ballet's own Russian couple, Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik, are teaching. When asked how she gets such distinguished teachers to come to her studio in Foster, Ohio (near Kings Island), Ms. Barrett says “I just hear about these people, call them and ask them to come teach. Most do.”

        Carol Norris is a free-lance writer who covers dance for the Enquirer. Write her c/o Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax, (513) 768-8330.

       



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