A living legend doesn’t usually blush when praised, laugh about past blunders, or recall saying “Oh my goodness me!” when first informed that Queen Elizabeth was going to make him a Commander of the British Empire. Nor do dancers usually live long enough to say, “It’s not bad being 93-and-a-half!” And even if they did, it’s doubtful that they’d still appear onstage, as Frederick Franklin does—playing Friar Laurence in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet, Madge the witch in La Sylphide (a very demanding role), and the Prince’s tutor in Swan Lake. Franklin’s long career may be attributed to good genes, but also to his prodigious memory, his wit, and his immense capacity for happiness.
There was plenty of praise flying at the program titled “American Ballet Theatre—An Evening with Frederick Franklin” and moderated by Wes Chapman, an ABT ballet master and former principal dancer with the company. The presentation was one of a number of enriching events in the Guggenheim’s ongoing Works & Process series. Leslie Norton, who has recently published a biography of Franklin, spoke admiringly about him. Georgina Parkinson, a ballet mistress at ABT, said that “Freddie” wasn’t just a ray of the sun; he was the sun (Franklin got very pink and laughed in embarrassment). It was reported that when ABT principal David Hallberg was asked backstage why he had agreed to learn—and perform for this occasion with fellow principal Julie Kent—a pas de deux from Léonide Massine’s Gaité Parisienne that Franklin originated in 1938 with Alexandra Danilova, Hallberg said, “Anything for Freddie.”
Lively reminiscences, slides, archival film clips, and excerpts from the film Ballets Russes were interspersed with live performances: Kent and Hallberg also performed a duet from Balanchine’s Mozartiana (Franklin had seen the ballet in London in 1933 and danced in the 1945 production for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo). He appeared delighted with the live performance of the “Czardas” from Coppelia, which he had staged for members of ABT II (there was some especially lovely dancing by a sprite named Isadora Loyola), and he got up on stage to demonstrate his coaching techniques on students at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, to whom he’d also taught an excerpt from Coppelia.
Frederick Franklin, during the discussion part of the Works & Process evening devoted to him
photo: Rosalie O’Connor
What a career the man had (and is still having) and with what equanimity, grace, and presence of mind he sailed through it! Up to the age of 17, the young Liverpuddlian pictured in a projected photo as a member of “The Lancashire Lads” had had no ballet training, but he learned fast and from the get-go demonstrated a phenomenal memory for steps in a variety of styles. When auditioning in response to an ad that said “Boy wanted, Paris,” he managed every tricky step the choreographer demonstrated, and when she asked, “Where did you learn all this?,” answered guilelessly, “Why, from you!” Franklin tapped at the Casino de Paris in a 1931 revue that featured Mistinguett and Josephine Baker, and performed in London music halls and cabaret before joining the Markova-Dolin Ballet in 1935. In 1938, he signed on with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which remained his artistic home until 1952.
One of the first roles he learned with that company was that of the Baron in Gaité Parisienne, in which he partnered Alexandra Danilova—13 years his senior, glamorous, sophisticated, and initially dubious about this 24-year-old Brit. She, after all, had been trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg; he had seen her perform with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1929; she’d been George Balanchine’s lover. Franklin and Danilova ended up dancing the Baron and the Glove Seller in Gaité Parisienne for 20 years and were paired in numerous other ballets. Thinking back on Gaité years later, Jerome Robbins wrote, “No one has ever danced a waltz like Freddie and Shura or were more in love, or lived a more idyllic life than at the moment they came on from the wings, her arm across his shoulder and behind his head. . .” Even old black-and-white footage of the ballet, shot clandestinely during a performance, conveys the magic those two conjured up onstage.
The projected photographs and films also revealed Franklin’s versatility. Here he is in cowboy duds as the Roper in Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo! Here he is be-wigged, booted, and mustachioed in Massine’s Russian-legend ballet Bogatyri! Here he is jumping with marvelous élan in a clip from Igor Schwezoff’s version of The Red Poppy!
Christine Wright, who teaches at 890 Broadway, where ABT has its headquarters, once told me that whenever Franklin gets into the elevator there, he chats with whomever he chances run into during his brief ride, as if the two of them were friends. “Lovely!” is a word he uses often, and “lovely” is most certainly a word others apply freely to this modest, greatly gifted man, when they recount how much he has contributed in the way of inspiration and knowledge to colleagues, students, audiences, and the history of an art form.
A week after the Frederick Franklin tribute, Works & Process moved from honoring the past to giving the audience a glimpse of the future, although the title of the evening, “Ballet in Sneakers,” hardly heralds a new concept. To the young New York City Ballet dancers who learned Jerome Robbins’s New York Export: Opus Jazz in 2005, when it entered the company’s repertory, the work seemed vital and contemporary. Never mind that it was created in 1958 for Robbins’s new group, Ballets: U.S.A., which made its debut in Spoleto, Italy, the first summer of the Spoleto Festival, and the following year toured Europe as a wildly successful, cold-war ambassador for American culture. Two NYCB dancers, Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar were less concerned with the ballet’s history than with what it felt to them like now.
Suozzi and Bar were at the Guggenheim to speak about the project that’s fired them up and that they’re working to complete: a film of New York Export: Opus Jazz, with its NYCB cast members wearing up-to-date clothes and with each of its five sections shot in a different New York City location. Amanda Vaill, who wrote the Robbins biography Somewhere, moderated two successive panels. Barbara Milberg-Fisher, who danced in the original cast of Opus Jazz; Edward Verso, who performed with Ballets: U.S.A. in 1961 and staged the work for NYCB; and Jean-Pierre Frohlich, the NYCB ballet master most concerned with the Robbins repertory, talked about the original production and the revival. Suozzi, Bar, their co-producers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (he and Joost are co-directors as well) discussed the filming of Opus Jazz’s duet, “Passage for Two,” this past summer, and how they envision continuing. “Passage for Two” won the Best Camera Re-work Award at the recent Dance Screen Festival in The Hague, but, as you might expect, fund-raising still is an issue.
Ed Sullivan opened the Guggenheim program—that is, his tight-lipped, black-and-white image did—hosting his decades-ago television show and giving his audience a look at Ballets U.S.A. performing the opening section of Opus Jazz. Given the show’s 1959 date and the fact that it must have been broadcast live, the quality of the filming and the choice of angles were amazingly fine (it’s hard to believe that Robbins didn’t have some input). And as Verso said afterward, the performers were wonderfully raw. Despite their proficiency, whether they were primarily jazz dancers or ballet dancers, they looked like the teenagers they were supposed to be—suspicious of the adult world behind the camera lens and full of beans when Robert Prince’s jazzy score got under their skins.
At the end of the Guggenheim event, an NYCB contingent—Gina Pazcoguin, Andrew Veyette, Adam Hendrickson, Adrian Danchig-Waring, Amar Ramasar, and Antonio Carmena—performed the “Statics” section, with its implications of gang rape, and they were fine too, although a little less rough-and-tumble.
But the featured event was the finished film sequence. It was not, as Ellen Bar noted, created haphazardly by two dancers with camcorders. The production team, with a crew of 20 or more, shot it on 35 millimeter stock, with the camera atop a crane—ducking, dollying, and swooping up. The chosen site for “Passage for Two” was an unkempt section of the old elevated freight railroad, the High Line, which is in the process of being transformed into a city park. By way of additional entertainment for the Guggenheim crowd, Schulman read an itemized list of the trash they had to clear from the track in the summer heat before Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall could meet in the narrow space between the two rails, dance searchingly together, and part. I don’t even want to think about the two of them having to run through this poignant, understated duet 25 times a day for two hot days. The very last take is the one the team chose. The sun was sinking behind the brief idyll. Hall walked away from the camera as a silhouette against an orange sky.