Frederic Franklin, ballet dancer, coach and director, dies at 98


This 1939 photo supplied by Geller/Goldfine Productions shows Frederic Franklin, center background, George Zoritch, center, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in their production of "Rouge et Noir," which was choreographed by Leonide Massine. Franklin died Saturday at the age of 98. (AP)

Frederic Franklin, an exuberant, British-born ballet dancer who was an early inspiration for choreographers George Balanchine and Agnes de Mille and a frequent stage partner of the renowned ballerina Alexandra Danilova, died Saturday at a New York hospital. He was 98.

He had complications from pneumonia, said his partner, William Ausman.

Long after most dance careers end, Mr. Franklin continued to be an important force in the ballet community, serving as its living library and oral historian. Until the advent of film and video, dance was notoriously difficult to pass down because it lacks an effective, widely used system of notation.

Mr. Franklin’s impeccable attention to detail, uncannily sharp memory and extensive experience with key choreographers and dancers made him uniquely suited to serve as a coach for a new generation of artists. He also continued to perform in small parts with the American Ballet Theatre through recent years. The group’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, once called Mr. Franklin “a gold mine.”

Starting in 1938, Mr. Franklin rose to acclaim as a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a celebrated troupe that barnstormed the United States and Europe, and appeared in several Hollywood film shorts. His career was propelled by a dashing appearance, a strikingly well-proportioned physique for ballet and a photographic memory for dance steps.

He became the company’s ballet master, or principal teacher, and also performed more than 45 principal roles with the group. In 1942 alone, he played a poet in Balanchine’s macabre “The Night Shadow” and a lively cowboy in de Mille’s “Rodeo,” a ballet whose hoedown-inspired movement and Aaron Copland musical score made for the first quintessentially American ballet.

De Mille later wrote that Mr. Franklin was “the first great male technician I had ever had a chance to work with. And I tried everything I thought the human body could accomplish. He was strong as a mustang, as sudden, as direct and inexhaustible.”

Though Mr. Franklin danced with many of the leading ballerinas of his era, including Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief and Alicia Alonso, it was his pairing with the Russian-born Danilova in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that was the most highly regarded. Both known as vivacious, committed performers, they teamed up for everything from classical story ballets such as “Giselle” to the pantomime-heavy “Coppelia.”

“Comedy, drama or the intricacies of Balanchine’s neoclassicism — all were to his command,” wrote dance historians Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick in their 2003 book “No Fixed Points,” “although he excelled above all in [character] parts, where his nimbleness and ebullient personality shone.”

Frederic Franklin was born June 13, 1914, in Liverpool, where his father was in the catering business. His interest in dance bloomed at an early age, after his parents bought a gramophone.

Mr. Franklin was raised in an era when British ballet was in its infancy. At a time when most of the ballet greats came from Russia, Mr. Franklin’s pursuit was regarded as eccentric by his community, particularly for a male.

“I was the only boy in my dancing class,” he told the London Guardian in 2009, “but it never bothered me. I danced in competitions and the next day, when I went into school and said I’d won a medal, the other children were all very interested. There was no teasing. None.”

Professional dance opportunities were scarce in Britain when Mr. Franklin began looking for work at 17. So he took a job in France in a cabaret-style show at the Casino de Paris that was headlined by American chanteuse Josephine Baker.

The revue, “Paris qui remue,” was an onstage globetrot through Africa and the West Indies. Mr. Franklin and the other ensemble dancers, known as the Jackson Boys, performed behind Baker and, in at least one section, her pet leopard.

It was during this gig that he acquired the tap-dance skills that would later be incorporated into a showstopping solo in de Mille’s “Rodeo.”

By the mid-1930s, Mr. Franklin returned to his native country, where he worked in the Markova-Dolin Ballet run by Markova and Anton Dolin. He performed with Markova in the production “Carnivale.”

Leonide Massine, who led the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, spotted Mr. Franklin with the Markova-Dolin company and brought him into his own organization in 1938.

Mr. Franklin starred in “Gaite Parisienne,” a light-hearted 1938 ballet by Massine that became one of Ballet Russe’s signature works. He played a gallant baron who falls for a humble glove peddler, played by Danilova.

The dance troupe came to the United States during the war and detoured to Hollywood in the early 1940s. Mr. Franklin said he befriended many in the English colony there, including Charlie Chaplin (with whom he played tennis) and actress Greer Garson. With the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Mr. Franklin appeared in the short films “The Gay Parisian” (1941) and “Spanish Fiesta” (1942).

After Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo briefly disbanded in the early 1950s because of financial problems, Mr. Franklin formed his own company with ballerina Mia Slavenska. They adapted Tennessee Williams’s melodrama “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1952, with Mr. Franklin as the brutish Stanley Kowalski and Slavenska as the troubled Blanche Du Bois.

New York Times dance critic John Martin wrote that Mr. Franklin conveyed “tremendous force” in a role that had originated on stage and later was translated to film by Marlon Brando.

From 1957 to 1961, Mr. Franklin co-directed the Washington Ballet with Mary Day. He then helped launch the National Ballet in Washington, a group that achieved critical success before folding in 1974 because of poor fundraising and audience development.

Later, as a freelance artist, Mr. Franklin created a new rendition of “Giselle” for Dance Theatre of Harlem. That 1984 work became known as “Creole Giselle” because of its New Orleans setting. He also staged a traditional version of that classic ballet for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in 2007.

Though his focus shifted from performing to coaching and directing in his later years, Mr. Franklin didn’t completely retire from the stage. In his ninth decade, he danced character and pantomime roles in American Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake,” “La Sylphide” and “Romeo and Juliet,” among others.

Survivors include his partner of 48 years, William Ausman of New York, and a brother.

Mr. Franklin remained a formidable presence on stage, even in advanced age. Anna Kisselgoff, the New York Times dance critic, once wrote that the director of the Kirov Ballet approached her after seeing the then-88-year-old Mr. Franklin’s performance with the American Ballet Theatre.

He asked, “Who is the man who was the tutor in ‘Swan Lake’? He has the presence of a star.”

In 2011, Mr. Franklin received a Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement, one of the dance world’s most prestigious prizes.

Not long before receiving the prize, he told an interviewer for Time Out London, “There have been moments when I’ve thought: What am I doing? And then I talk to myself and say: ‘Come on FF, get up there and get going.’ That’s the true spirit of showbusiness talking. ‘As long as my legs keep going, I’ll be all right.’ ”

Sarah Halzack is a reporter and Web editor for Capital Business. She covers the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She occasionally writes for other sections at the Post, most frequently in the form of dance reviews, dance features, book reviews and obituaries.