June 13, 1914 – Frederic Franklin:
“The Ballet needs choreographers. Can you name a major American choreographer? I can’t. I believe the future of companies and dancers depends on new works and first-rate choreographers. The Royal Ballet just did a new production of Sleeping Beauty. How many times can you see La Bayadere or Swan Lake. That’s all they do. They’re in a mess, too. It’s regrettable because there are wonderful dancers capable of doing all kinds of things. They’re crying out for roles.”
I know more about Dance then most civilians because in the early 1970s, I had a boyfriend who was a dancer and became an important figure in the Dance World. I still remember his accomplished flexibility.
Franklin was one of the most loved figures in the world of Dance. He played an important part in the preservation of many early ballets by George Balanchine, and in 2002, he was able to reconstruct Devil’s Holiday, Frederick Ashton’s 1939 ballet that had never been revived and never seen on stage by Ashton.
Franklin, known to his many friends as Freddie, was a major star of gay impresario Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes, where he began a memorable and long-lasting partnership with fellow dancer Alexandra Danilova; her effervescent personality and his handsome looks and charisma were combined to dazzling effect in such ballets as Léonide Massine‘s Le Beau Danube (1933) and Gâité Parisienne (1938). Franklin also partnered with most of the leading female ballet stars of his era, including Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, Mia Slavenska, Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova, Moira Shearer, Yvette Chauviré, Rosella Hightower, and Maria Tallchief.
As well as dancing leading roles in 45 dances in Ballets Russes’s repertory, and creating several roles for Massine, Franklin also appeared in the world premieres of Agnes de Mille‘s Rodeo (1942) and Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes (1944). He co-founded and directed the National Ballet of Washington, acted as adviser to the Dance Theatre of Harlem and worked with regional ballet companies across the USA.
He was born in Liverpool. His interest in the theater started when his family took him to see Peter Pan when he was four years old. When he got home, he jumped on his bed trying to fly and announced: “I’m going to be in the theatre.”
To get him out of the way his mother enrolled him in a dance school. His teacher told his mother that six-year-old Franklin was gifted and gave him a scholarship. Shortly afterwards his parents bought a record player and Franklin spent hours dancing to music. When he started dance lessons, his teacher saw that he was wearing women’s pointe shoes.
His first public performance was in the school recital at the end of that year. His efforts rewarded with a box of chocolates. He later wrote:
“I thought, well, if I go out there and dance and get a box of chocolates every time, I don’t mind doing this again.”
He auditioned for Anna Pavlova, the great Russian prima ballerina of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. He was accepted in Pavlova’s company, but the ballerina’s death in 1931 put an end to that gig, so he left for London and joined a troupe called the Lancashire Lads. They travelled to Paris where they appeared with music-hall stars Josephine Baker and Mistinguett.
Back in London he danced in music halls, cabarets, and any place he could make some money. In 1935 his big break came when he joined the Markova-Dolin Ballet Company, where he first partnered with Markova and met Bronislava Nijinska, who became the company’s ballet mistress. He was spotted by Massine who was looking for dancers for the company he was forming and, together with Markova, Franklin joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
The company toured the USA during World War II on grueling schedules for little money; but they brought the magic of classical and avant-garde ballet to hundreds of towns and cities. Whenever they played Hollywood, movie stars attended their performances. Franklin made friends many of the stars, especially Ginger Rogers. The company spent months in Los Angeles, where a version of Gâité Parisienne was filmed where Franklin appears as the romantic hero: blonde, blue-eyed, and impossibly handsome.
In 1942, De Mille made the romantic role of the Champion Roper in her ballet Rodeo just for him. DeMille’s memoir Dance To the Piper (1951) mentions Franklin’s willingness to adopt new styles and his personal kindness during the making of that first truly American classical ballet.
When the Ballet Russe temporarily disbanded in the 1950s, Franklin and Mia Slavenska formed their own company and premiered A Streetcar Named Desire (1952), based on the Tennessee Williams play, with choreography by Valerie Bettis, with music by Alex North, who had composed the music for the 1951 film version of the play. It starred Franklin as the brutish Stanley and Slavenska as Blanche. When the ballet opened in New York, Franklin’s performance as Stanley startled the ballet world because he was noted for his sensitive, endearing personality, and his boyish charm, yet Franklin created a brutal, loutish character. Marlon Brando wrote Franklin a note that he wished he could have done with his voice in Streetcar what Franklin did with his body.
Working with Balanchine, Franklin wrote:
“In those days, Balanchine was more concerned with the acting. When I danced his ballets like Baiser de la Fille, it required a lot of acting. Later in his career Mr. ‘B’ would say, ‘Don’t bother about the acting. Just listen to the music and dance.’ All his steps came out of him through the music. The music was terribly important to him. He didn’t want any expression. The dancing was enough. That was Balanchine.”
In his later years, Franklin was in great demand as a stager of dances. Working with Dance Theatre of Harlem he set the old Romantic-era ballet Giselle in the Louisiana bayous among the Creole community. Each step and gesture were historically correct, but he managed to refresh that old workhorse ballet and provide it with modern dramatic focus. He also staged works for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
Even in his 90s, he continued to perform with American Ballet Theatre in the roles such as the Witch in La Sylphide and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, to all of which he brought great reviews and considerable distinction.
He was made a CBE in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II.
Franklin took his final bow in 2013 at 90 years old. He left behind, William Haywood Ausman, his partner of 48 years.
“Oh, there’s been the ups and downs like everyone,” he told me. “But I’ve been fortunate. I’ve met and been around lovely people. And, of course, there have been some other people and difficult moments. There was one moment I woke up and I didn’t have any money. It had all gone. So, up by the bootstraps, once again! So it’s been a wonderful life. It has. And I’m very, very grateful for all of it.”