Obituary: Frederic Franklin / Ballet dancer was inspiration for George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille

June 13, 1914 -- May 4, 2013

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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 last Saturday at a New York City 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, 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.

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."

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, his pursuit was regarded as eccentric by his community, particularly for a male.

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.

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 lighthearted 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' melodrama "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1952, with Mr. Franklin as the brutish Stanley Kowalski and Slavenska as the troubled Blanche Du Bois.

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