- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

Dancer Frederic Franklin is a poster child for aging gracefully. Not only gracefully but with unabashed glee.

His contagious zest is captured in “Do Not Go Gently,” a documentary airing at 9 tonight on WHUT-Channel 32. The film explores the way creative involvement in the arts has a revivifying effect on older people, along the way highlighting Mr. Franklin; Arlonzia Pettway, a quilt maker from Gee’s Bend, Ala.; and Leo Ornstein, a 109-year-old pianist-composer.

In the documentary, Mr. Franklin is seen rehearsing and performing the role of Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet.” Next month, he’ll repeat the role for American Ballet Theatre at the Met in New York, and his entrance is always greeted with a burst of applause. Mr. Franklin will just have turned a hard-to-believe 93 as he stands center stage in a brief performance critics have described as the most genuine moment in the ballet.

“I’m all alone out there for quite some time, and it’s wonderful,” he says, relishing the thought.

Through the years, he has been involved in some of the great moments of 20th-century dance. He’s also been choreographer, teacher and artistic director, but his role as dancer remains at the heart of his remarkable career.

Born and raised in Liverpool, England, his stage life began in a prophetically glamorous way: dancing at a Paris nightclub in a chorus line behind Josephine Baker, then trumping that by partnering the legendary Mistinguette. He soon left for the serious challenge of classical ballet but kept the high spirits he displayed in his showbiz years. He joined the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, performing in roles created for him by its director, Leonide Massine — along the way forming a fabled partnership with ballerina Alexandra Danilova.

Choreographers created for him some of the great male roles of the 20th century, in the process giving him an amazing range.

Agnes de Mille had her first smash hit with him in “Rodeo.” In her autobiography, “Dance to the Piper,” she describes his effect: “He was the first great male technician I had ever had the chance to work with and I tried everything I thought the human body could accomplish. He was as strong as a mustang, as sudden, as direct.”

Following that came two roles that were poles apart. In George Balanchine’s strange and haunting “La Sonnambula,” the celebrated choreographer created the Poet for Mr. Franklin, who brought to this mesmerizing role of the artist as outsider an alert, mysterious, almost feral quality not captured by anyone else.

A few years later, when co-directing the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet, he played against type, astounding the dance world by assuming the brooding, brutish Marlon Brandon role of Stanley Kowalski in Valerie Bettis’ dance version of “Streetcar Named Desire.”

From elegant sophistication to swaggering cowboy to sexy, low-class bounder, Mr. Franklin nailed them all — then, as he aged, he went on to give definitive portraits of some of ballet’s wonderful character parts: the vengeful Madge the Witch in “La Sylphide” and the bumbling, tragic-comic Dr. Coppelius in “Coppelia.” He still performs two roles regularly with ABT that demand presence rather than pyrotechnics — Friar Laurence and the Prince’s tutor in Kevin McKenzie’s version of “Swan Lake.”

His later years have seen Mr. Franklin plunge into staging ballet classics, passing on his knowledge with boundless enthusiasm, providing a living glimpse of history in an art form that has not much of it. In “Do Not Go Gentle,” he’s seen coaching his role in “Seventh Symphony” with a dancer who clearly treasures the rich insight Mr. Franklin brings to him.

He’s staged a “Creole Giselle” for Dance Theater of Harlem and has just agreed to stage “Giselle” again for the Joffrey Ballet next fall. “I must be out of my mind,” Mr. Franklin says cheerily.

For over a decade, he headed the National Ballet, the most important and ambitious company Washington has had (it eventually folded in 1974), staging full-length classics and new works choreographed by himself and others, performing here and touring the country. He brought in guest artists Dame Margot Fonteyn and Edward Villella — and developed talented dancers who went on to major careers. Ivan Nagy and Desmond Kelly became principal dancers at ABT and the Royal Ballet respectively, and Mr. McKenzie is now artistic director of American Ballet Theatre.

Forty years after he danced for Mr. Franklin at the National Ballet, Mr. McKenzie asked him to stage “Coppelia” for ABT.

“He came roaring in with the same energy, and drive and passion,” Mr. McKenzie says, “and I thought, ‘What a wonderful gift. Nothing is going to get in the way of his love of life.’

“Another thing he brings with him,” Mr. McKenzie adds, “is a memory for ballets that’s legendary. He knows the part he danced, his partner’s steps and what everyone in the corps is doing. There are people with memories, and people with photographic memories. This is a step up, it’s an archival memory. It’s connected through the music, through the character. It’s all of a piece.”

Honors also pour in. One that’s especially dear to this transplanted Englishman is going to Buckingham Palace to receive the honor of Commander of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II.

“So I went to the palace, and the Queen couldn’t have been nicer,” Mr. Franklin recalls. ” ‘You’ve had a very long career,’ she said. And I said, ‘Yes and this is the most wonderful day of my life,’ and she put the medal on, and, oh dear, she was lovely, bless her heart.”

Next week Mr. Franklin will receive an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School along with Audra McDonald and Stephen Sondheim. He’s also front and center in the splendid documentary on the Ballet Russes that came out a couple of years ago, and he can be seen as the Prince’s tutor on the DVD of ABT’s “Swan Lake.”

It all makes it easy to believe Frederic Franklin’s joyful declaration at the end of tonight’s documentary. “I’ve had a lovely career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. I don’t have any regrets — not one.”

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