When the Joffrey Ballet decided it was time to mount a production of the classic story ballet Giselle, the company knew just whom to call: Frederic Franklin, a dance artist for over seven decades and one of the great names of 20th-century ballet. At 93, Franklin's preternaturally keen memory is an invaluable asset and when the Joffrey dancers step onstage this month, the moves they make will echo the expertise of a man who is a living encyclopedia of dance history.
Born in Liverpool, England in 1914, Franklin found his way into dance at a young age, beginning his studies at age six. He launched his career in 1931 as a chorus dancer for the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris. Franklin went on to perform in the popular stage shows of the day in Paris and London, eventually joining the Markova-Dolin Ballet in 1935. Three years later, he joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where he formed an historic partnership with ballerina Alexandra Danilova.
When World War II broke out, that storied company was forced to tour overseas, and Franklin eventually settled in New York City, where he now lives. "Beyond his gifts as a dancer, he developed an audience for ballet in the U.S.," says Leslie Norton, author of the newly published Frederic Franklin: A Biography of the Ballet Star. "He did so many stagings of ballets that would have been lost — pieces from the Ballet Russe by Ruth Page, Agnes de Mille, and Leonide Massine," Not only that, but as Norton notes, "He enhanced the stature of regional ballets across the country."
Over the years, Franklin partnered a veritable who's who of great ballerinas, a roster that includes Moira Shearer, Rosella Hightower, Maria Tallchief, Tamara Toumanova, and Alicia Alonso. He originated roles in ballets by Massine, de Mille, and George Balanchine, and, remarkably, still performs character roles — Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, the wicked witch Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty — for such major troupes as American Ballet Theatre.
But it is in restaging great works of the past where Franklin is most active. When asked how it is that he knows everyone's parts in Giselle and the other ballets that he restages, he says "I don't know. I've looked at it, I've learned it — it's a funny thing. That music plays and I'm like an old horse, I know what to do."
Of the various works Franklin has restaged — including Massine's Le Beau Danube for the Joffrey in 1972 — Giselle is the one that keeps him most busy. Companies in California, Ohio, Virginia, and Oklahoma all boast Franklin stagings. The Dance Theatre of Harlem mounted its own version — Creole Giselle — with an assist from Franklin in 1984.
Franklin first saw Giselle in 1933, in a production at the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet). That staging had been mounted on Sadler's Wells by Nicholas Sergeyev of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Sergeyev had carefully notated the version choreographed by Marius Petipa in the late 1800s, who had reworked the original, French production that premiered at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1841, choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. "That's the version I've kept and that I've done since," says Franklin.
Over repeated viewings of the ballet at Sadler's Wells, Franklin soaked in the interpretations of English dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in the leading roles. "Markova was born to dance Giselle," says Franklin. "She was light and lovely, and Dolin was a wonderful partner. Markova had all the technical gifts. She had very strong feet. The hops on pointe never bothered her, she could do pirouettes to the left and right. I remember all that she did."
According to Franklin, Markova had seen the great Russian ballerina Olga Spesivtseva (sometimes billed as Spessiva) dance Giselle with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, "and it was a great influence on her." Giselle was one of Spessiva's most notable roles, in which her air of spiritual purity and elegant classical technique found full expression.
The work itself dates from ballet's Romantic era, when ethereal nature spirits populated the stage in story ballets that often juxtaposed the orderliness of society against unpredictable, supernatural forces. At the time, it was fashionable for ballets and operas to include a "mad scene" for the leading lady, allowing her to show off her pyrotechnic performing skills and dramatic flair.
In the mad scene of Giselle, the title character — a charming village girl — falls apart when she discovers that she's been deceived by Prince Albrecht. A nobleman engaged to another woman, Albrecht has been flirting with Giselle, capturing her innocent heart by disguising himself as a peasant. In a scene of incredible pathos, the young girl loses her mind and dies. The second act finds her reappearing as a ghost, dancing with a remorseful Albrecht who visits her grave. "It's so easy to overdo," says Norton. "It takes a real master coach to help a ballerina pull that off."
When Franklin was coaching the dancers of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the mad scene, his effect was overwhelming. "You forgot there was a 60-year-old man there," says Norton. "He became Giselle. It was amazing. The dancers who were learning the part cried, it was so moving."
"It's so important, to get that mad scene," says Franklin. "I always work with the Giselles separately and alone. It's a very individual thing. They've all got their own way of doing it. Does she kill herself or is it a broken heart that she dies of?"
Franklin and Danilova took more than one turn as the ill-fated couple. "Choura, as I called her, wanted to do it because it was a challenge," he recalls. "She was an actress, and so much of that role is acting. She used to say 'Giselle is not one of my favorite ladies.' I don't think Choura would have put up with that nonsense from Albrecht."
As for playing that duplicitous prince, Franklin relates, "Anton Dolin said that in the second act, Albrecht must 'have the gift of tears.' It's a lovely way of being sad. I didn't dance Albrecht until I was 31, until I was mentally ready to do it."