Sunday, October 13, 2002

Crowning moment arrives for prince of the ballet

Cincinnati production honors 88-year-old dance master

By Carol Norris
Enquirer contributor

If he'd stayed in his native England, Frederic Franklin would most certainly be Sir Frederic by now. Many of his British peers are. But his dance career developed primarily in America, out of sight and mind of bestowers of such titles.

“It's a curious thing and disturbing to lots of people in Britain,” says Clive Barnes, dance and theater critic for the New York Post.

What: Cincinnati Ballet's 40th Anniversary: Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Also includes new works by Val Caniparoli and Julia Adam.
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center for the Arts, downtown.
Tickets: $15-$55; 621-5282
Although he's never been knighted, Mr. Franklin remains everyone's favorite prince. Cincinnati Ballet is honoring the 88-year-old dance master with a tribute, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Friday and Saturday at the Aronoff Center.

It's difficult to imagine “Freddie,” as he prefers to be called, completely at ease with “Sir” in front of his name. His genial charm doesn't show a trace of ego.

Mr. Barnes, also a native of England, says Mr. Franklin played an enormous part in helping to spread the reputation of British dancers and has been a great force in American ballet.

First came "Nutcracker'

Mr. Franklin lives in New York and continues to work primarily with American Ballet Theatre, but has been a major artistic contributor to Cincinnati Ballet.

His association with the company dates to 1974, when he was hired to choreograph the snow scene for the company's first Nutcracker. He's had an ongoing relationship ever since.

“Freddie has been the heart, soul and backbone of Cincinnati Ballet,” says chairman of the ballet board, Melody Sawyer Richardson.

He has staged roughly one-tenth of the company's repertory and served as acting artistic director after David McLain's death in 1984 until Ivan Nagy was hired in 1986.

“He's inspired dancers and audiences alike ... , ” Ms. Richardson says. “To know him is to love him.”

Says Mr. Barnes: “I've been in this business for 50 years, and I've never heard anyone say a bad thing about Freddie. He's wonderfully elegant and has this enormous enthusiasm. It's infectious.”

“Freddie was the director of National Ballet (in Washington, D.C.), and he gave me my first job,” says Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of New York's American Ballet Theatre, where Mr. Franklin stages ballets and performs.

“When I became director of ABT, my first thing was to ask him to stage Coppelia. He had this positive, wonderful energy' and I thought that's what I want for my company, that's what I want to surround myself with. It wasn't a planned thing — he just stayed. Even after open-heart surgery he danced the tutor in Swan Lake this year. I'm already wondering what I'll have him do next season.”

Still dancing

As artistic director emeritus for the company, Mr. Franklin has been put to work re-creating works from the 1938-44 golden years of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a glorious touring company that introduced ballet to American audiences until the early 1960s.

Mr. Franklin was the company's principal dancer and ballet master.

He relishes his time in the studio and was dancing along as usual in front of the dancers at a recent rehearsal. Not bad for someone who had triple bypass surgery a few months ago.

“Well you know,” he begins, “I was dancing with Georgina Parkinson and Martine Van Hamel (at American Ballet Theatre) and I got this pain. Somehow I got through the performance. But when I went to the doctor he said, "You know we'll have to do it. We'll have to do a bypass.'

“I'm still a bit scrawny — 133 pounds fully clothed — but not as bad as I looked before. I was a bit peculiar in the face when I was so thin.”

Mr. Franklin's first days in the studio were shaky, but he says he's getting stronger everyday.

“When I got back on my feet they said I should walk — so I walked all over New York and up and down subway steps.”

Muscle memory

With the assistance of New York City Ballet's Bart Cook, who is here for the Balanchine Foundation, and Cincinnati Ballet's ballet mistress Johanna Wilt, all are trying to guard his time and keep his hours to a minimum.

But Mr. Franklin still manages to sneak in six hours of rehearsal occasionally.

He's prepared excerpts from three Ballet Russe ballets: Frederick Ashton's “Devil's Holiday” (last performed in 1939), Leonide Massine's “Seventh Symphony” and “Gaite Parisienne.” He's also restaged George Balanchine's one-act ballet “La Sonnambula” (The Sleepwalker) — originally titled “Night Shadow” and first presented by Ballet Russe in 1946.

Some of the reconstruction has come from 16-mm film footage, courtesy of John Mueller, a film archivist from Columbus. But most of it has come from Mr. Franklin's memory.

“He remembers everything that he took part in,” says Francis Mason, editor of Ballet Review in New York. “He's one of the greatest ballet masters of all time. He worked with all the great ballet choreographers of the 20th century. He remembers things that Balanchine didn't.”

Mr. Barnes concurs. “It's called muscle memory. All dancers have it, but few people have the memory that enables them to remember an entire ballet, including everyone else's parts. (Rudolf) Nureyev could do it. So can Freddie.”

Says Thomas F. Buck, longtime board member and history Web site master for the company:

“Everyone will tell you that Franklin is one of the world's greatest dancers, remarkable for his age, has an unbelievable memory and a charming personality.”

“He was a magnificent dancer and a wonderful partner to Danilova (Alexandra Danilova, with whom he had a legendary partnership),” Mr. Mason says.

“His importance and contribution have been inestimable to the whole world of dance. What's more, I've never seen him silly or angry — he never indulges in things that the rest of us are prone to.”

Collaborations included work with Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky, which gave it excitement. But most days were mundane and tiring.

Hours were spent traveling the continental United States in rumbling trains to perform with little warm-up in high-school auditoriums on slippery floors, 125 performers and crew thrown together for six months at a time.

“We knew hardships,” Mr. Franklin will admit, “and great joy.”

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