Frederic Franklin, dancer, choreographer, ballet master, company director, teacher, mentor, and inspiration to generations of dancers, celebrates his 90th birthday this month. On that day, June 13, he is likely to be rehearsing American Ballet Theatre dancers performing his staging of Coppélia, the first ballet he ever danced in, aged 19, in his native England.
"It has all come round full circle," says Franklin, a dapper and ebullient figure, well known for his unfailing good cheer and enthusiasm for life and work. "ABT's version is based on what I learned from Nicholas Sergeyev at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. And he learned it from Marius Petipa at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg."
This direct connection to a ballet heritage that seems very far off to most young dancers makes Franklin a legendary and extraordinary source of both lore and fact. He began dance classes at age 6, after his parents noticed him "jumping around" to music, but only decided firmly on a dancing career after Diaghilev's Ballets Russes visited Liverpool, where he grew up. In 1931, at 16, he went to London looking for work and saw an ad in Variety that said simply: "Wanted, boy, Casino de Paris, Paris." He ended up performing with Josephine Baker and the music-hall legend Mistinguette. "My generation of English ballet dancers were unlucky," he says. "There was no classical company to join."
After a year, he returned to England, danced in a number of West End shows ("all flops"), and met Wendy Toye, a young, but well-known cabaret dancer who was ballet-trained. Toye asked Franklin to partner her, and introduced him to Ninette de Valois, an ambitious Irishwoman who had danced for Diaghilev and was trying to form an English company. They performed in de Valois's Coppélia, and with the great Anton Dolin in music-hall bills. "At that point, I didn't even want to be in a ballet company because I was having such a lovely time dancing all over the place with Wendy. But when Dolin formed a company with Alicia Markova in 1935, he said to me, 'Freddie, it's about time you became serious about your art.'"
The Markova-Dolin company was Franklin's real entry into the ballet world, and he remained there until 1937, when Léonide Massine invited him to join the new company he was forming with René Blum‹the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Rehearsing feverishly for their first season at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, Franklin was teamed with the ballerina Alexandra Danilova, whom he had idolized since his teens. Their first encounter was inauspicious. Danilova looked Franklin up and down, and asked: "How old are you?" "I'm 23," said Franklin. "Hmuph," sniffed Danilova. "When you're 30, we talk."
Although Franklin would also dance with almost every ballerina of note over the next two decades, his partnership with Danilova was nonetheless to become legendary. With her, he performed all the principal roles of the ballet repertoire, and created parts in new works by Massine, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Agnes de Mille, whose Rodeo gave Franklin a signature role as the Champion Roper. De Mille, an astute observer, described Franklin as "the inner motor of the Ballet Russe, the reason why they get through the sheer amount of labor involved in each tour. "
War brought Franklin to America when the Ballet Russe, on tour in the United States, found itself unable to return to Europe. With many new American dancers having to learn the repertoire, Franklin discovered his gift for remembering and teaching choreography. "It was Balanchine, who was with the Ballet Russe as a guest choreographer in the forties, who noticed that I had a good memory for steps," says Franklin. "He decided that I should be ballet master as well as principal dancer with the company. I learned a lot of Russian. Actually, I still sometimes shout out things in Russian."
In 1952 he left the Ballet Russe to form a company with another of his great partners, the Yugoslavian ballerina Mia Slavenska. It was for this company that Valerie Bettis created A Streetcar Named Desire, with Franklin famously incarnating the Marlon Brando role. He stopped dancing around 1960, but continued to teach, coach, choreograph, and restore ballets, directing the National Ballet of Washington from 1963 to 1974 and the Cincinnati Ballet from 1984 to 1986.
Over the last eight years, Franklin has formed a close alliance with American Ballet Theatre, first mounting Coppélia for the company in 1997, then returning to the stage as the witch, Madge, in La Sylphide, the Tutor in Swan Lake, and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. Concurrently, he has put his prodigious memory to work on staging forgotten works for the Balanchine Foundation, and Massine's Seventh Symphony for the Cincinnati Ballet. And in March, he flew to London to set a section of Ashton's forgotten ballet, A Devil's Holiday (previously staged for Cincinnati), on the Royal Ballet. "Ashton never saw the ballet, or even the stage set," he recounts. "We learned it in Paris, then war broke out and we were on our way to America. We got off the boat, went straight to the Met, and performed the ballet that night."
American Ballet Theatre will commemorate Franklin's birthday after the June 21 performance of Coppélia, but the man himself is taking the occasion lightly. "The main thing is that I can still be of some help," he says. "ABT has really believed in me, which is wonderful. If they want my memories, I'm only too happy to give them."