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“The Men Dancers, Plus!” Celebrates the Life of the Legendary Frederic Franklin

A roll call of dance greats – performers, directors, critics, and historians – took the stage one after the other at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts in New York City on the evening of May 30th 2014 to share their memories of one of the greatest of them all, Frederic Franklin.


Known to everyone as Freddie, the affable and gifted star delighted audiences during an astonishing eight-decade career beginning with his debut at 17 and closing with his portrayal of Friar Lawrence in ABT’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the age of 96. He was also a sought-after coach and director, including his legendary collaboration with Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. Freddie died just shy of his 99th birthday in 2013, yet he was reportedly vibrant and loquacious to the end.


How fitting, then, that the founders of “From the Horse’s Mouth: Magical Tales of Real Dancers”, used their trademark pastiche of storytelling and dance to celebrate Freddie’s life now that the centennial of his birth is approaching on June 14th 2014. My guess, especially after seeing Freddie’s endearing persona on film during the event, was that he would have loved being honored by a parade of luminaries in a production that blended history and humor with superb dancing by some of today’s best performers.


A highlight for me was the appearance of Jack Anderson, whose dance criticism I devoured when I was growing up with dancing and writing dreams of my own. He made his way haltingly to the chair on center stage using a walker, but he proved to be as verbally agile as ever. Speaking in a voice that was clear and strong, he demonstrated once again the depth and breath of his knowledge as well as the extraordinary gift he has for language.


For that matter, all of the notables who spoke were eloquent and articulate -- even the dancers. I’ve heard dancers on other occasions stumble over their words and apologize by reminding the audience that talking isn’t their medium. How refreshing it was to hear 95-year-old Marge Champion relate backstage tales dating from her childhood without faltering. Eleanor D’Antuono, who joined Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in 1958 at the age of 14, talked engagingly about her experiences with Freddie. As for Jacques D’Amboise, he eschewed the microphone and the chair so that he was free to punctuate his original poems about Freddie with expressive gestures. Martine van Hamel and Carmen De Lavallade, slim and supple still, not only spoke but also ably joined the improvisation portions of the performance right along with the younger dancers. Other distinguished participants who gave stellar presentations were Gus Solomons, Jr., Arthur Mitchell, Deborah Jowitt, Susan Jones, and on film, Kevin McKenzie.


Overall, the evening was a fitting tribute to Freddie, the man and the artist who was beloved and respected by balletomanes the world over. Following Friday’s gala celebration, “The Men Dancers: From the Horse’s Mouth” performed at the Schimmel Center on Saturday,  May 31st and Sunday, June 1st.  An impressive all-male cast continued a tradition that began during the 80th anniversary season at Jacob’s Pillow in honor of Ted Shawn. Freddie, who was among the most acclaimed male dancers of his generation, would surely have approved! 

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