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Frederic Franklin: a Biography of the Ballet Star,

By Leslie Norton and Frederic Franklin

Reviewed by Leland Windreich

November 2007

Leslie Norton, an associate professor in the Theatre and Dance Department at Hamilton College, had written the first draft of this biography without having had any personal contact with her subject.  When she finally approached him, the affable dancer agreed to collaborate with her, providing some precious memories, anecdotes and significant facts.

Norton covers a brilliant and ongoing career, from Franklin’s debut as a child performer in England through his engagements with the Markova-Dolin Ballet, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet.  She discusses as well his various foreign engagements with his long-term partner, Alexandra Danilova, his work as director of the short-lived Washington Ballet, his activity in promoting regional ballet in America, and his restoration of popular ballets for various companies.  Now in his early 90s, he continues to perform in character roles at American Ballet Theatre—as Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet,” the prince’s tutor in “Swan Lake” and as Madge, the witch, in “La Sylphide.”

The Liverpool-born Franklin started his dance training early and was a child celebrity in his community before he began serious training in ballet at the precursor of what later became the Royal Academy of Dancing.  In his teens he joined a troupe of boy hoofers known as the Lancashire Lads, who were booked for a season at the Casino de Paris as a backup for Mistinguett.  Anton Dolin, the last protégé of Serge Diaghilev, was soon to form the Markova-Dolin Ballet and recruited Franklin on the basis of his mastery of some of the more spectacular ballet skills.  The refinements would come later as Franklin honed his craft in the classical modes, partnering Alicia Markova and learning a repertoire rooted in the Diaghilev traditions.

Enter Leonide Massine, who, in 1938, was in the process of severing his connections with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes and beginning to recruit dancers for a new company under the direction of the Russian banker, Serge Denham.  Massine attended performances of the Markova-Dolin troupe in London and managed to entice both Markova and Franklin to join his new endeavour.   At age 24 Franklin was hired as a principal dancer and was the only star of the company who was not billed with an authentic or pseudo-Slavic stage name.

Roles for the male dancers in the Denham troupe were stratified.  Igor Youskevitch and Andre Eglevsky were the danseurs nobles, taking over the 19th century classical ballets requiring superior technique and princely deportment.  George Zoritch was favored for the romantic or poetic roles.  Franklin took on the virile parts in the Fokine ballets “Scheherazade” and “Prince Igor” and invariably was chosen for demi-caractere assignments in the new ballets by Leonide Massine, Marc Platoff, Ruth Page and Agnes de Mille.  It was not for a decade or more after his male colleagues had gone to other companies that he took on the classical repertoire.  Never a brilliant technician, he brought his dramatic strength and conviction to the parts of Albrecht in “Giselle” and Siegfried in “Swan Lake.”

His service as a trouper in a community of temperamental Russians soon became apparent.  It was Franklin who gave wholehearted support to Agnes de Mille during the preparation of “Rodeo” when the European dancers scorned her tastes and dropped out of rehearsals.  Blessed with a vivid attentiveness and a remarkable memory for choreography, he was able to step into major roles at short notice when the assigned dancer could not go on.  Balanchine, who restored three of his ballets to the Ballet Russe repertoire in 1940, noted Franklin’s intelligence, reliability and leadership abilities and entrusted him with the rehearsals of his work.  It is no wonder that Franklin would assume the position of ballet master with the Denham company, and it was his energy and clarity of purpose that kept it alive until he retired.

The chapter on his work with the Ballet Russe is by far the most fascinating segment of the book.  In it Norton goes whole hog in her fascination for the company and offers full descriptions of the ballets that were performed, occasionally describing at length some of the works in which Franklin did not appear.  Author of an excellent biography of Leonide Massine, Norton has long been obsessed with the ballet russe phenomenon and generously shares her enthusiasm in her story of Franklin’s career.  Some ballet scholars might have preferred a leaner study and one as disciplined as her Massine book, which had a more stringent editing.  This study, however, offers as well as a vivid biography, a welcome survey of the contributions of a remarkable ballet company and the vital era of American dance in which it flourished. 

McFarland and Co., 2007.   227 pp.  illus.  ISBN: 978-07864-3501-2.  $45.00.

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