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Antonia Franceschi in a solo choreographed for her by Wayne McGregor. Laurie Lewis photo courtesy Antonia Franceschi.

Copyright 2014 Paul Ben-Itzak

Before Bon Jovi, before feathered hair, and just before Ronald Reagan there was Alan Parker's "Fame," a "Stage Door" for a new generation, an incubation lab for the "RENT" Gen Xers before the wake-up call of AIDS and la vrais vie Boheme stalled them, more gritty than glitzy, more grime than glam. With a script by Christopher Gore, a soulful soundtrack by Michael Gore, and choreography by Louis Falco, "Fame" was a quadruple-layered tale, revealing the trials and tribulations of its characters, the projected dreams of those approaching the age to chase them, the saga of those (including this reporter) who had been there, and the stories in the making of its young stars, including Irene Cara, Gene Anthony Ray, Paul McCrane, Barry Miller, and Laura Dean. For aspiring dancers (and with due deference to the multi-faceted Cara) the dreams and the aspirations, the identifying and the empathy focused on Hilary van Doren, interpreted by the sumptuous and sublime Antonia Franceschi, who already had the real-life High School of the Performing Arts as well as one musical film, "Grease" (she had to lie about her age to get the part) under her pointe shoes when she landed Hilary. It was an imposing task because "Fame" was not just the story of glory-seekers, it was an authentic chronicle of the struggles and coming of age of normal teen-agers with issues they all grapple with, the stage-struck and the wallflowers alike: absent parents, poverty, the pull of gangs (a real-life issue for adopted New Yorker Franceschi, who joined one for protection, keeping her dance classes secret -- she eventually studied with the legendary Margaret Craske and another dancer's favorite, Maggie Black), sexual confusion, self-confidence and -- in the case of Franceschi's charge -- unanticipated pregnancy.

Of course, as readers of this magazine know better than most, "Fame" is not only elusive but fleeting, and the real-life trajectory of artists and of dancers particularly is more like a zig-zag through various streams than a straight line journey to the horizon. Singing the body electric has many currents.

Ironically -- considering that Hilary, in her big scene at the abortion clinic, tries to convince herself that she didn't want to dance for Balanchine anyway, with his slim and tall standard -- the trajectory of Franceschi, whose "Kinderszenen" gets its New York premiere on Ballet NY April 15 - 17 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, began with 12 years at New York City Ballet, at which she worked with Balanchine and Robbins. "Balanchine taught me to go for it (that took awhile), that we were replaceable, and that he loved each and every one of us," she told the Dance Insider in an wide-ranging interview. Next, falling in love with an Englishman took her to London and on to new directions in her career, as dancer (working with Michael Clarke, Karole Armitage, Wayne McGregor, and others), dramatist, film-maker, actress ("The Vagina Monologues" on stage, Merchant-Ivory's "The Golden Bowl" on screen), impresario (producing a New York Ballet Stars tour, and advising the South Bank Center), teacher (Rambert and the Royal Ballet), and as a choreographer.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Can you tell me more about "Kinderszenen," the work you're presenting on Ballet NY? Specifically, you've mentioned that it was made with the composer, the painter, and Balanchine in heart and mind. Who is the painter, and can you tell me more about the composer?

Antonia Franceschi: The ballet was commissioned by Ballet Black in the year of Diaghilev's centennial. In that vein I used the composer Allen Shawn, who I met through his brother Wallace [the well-known New York actor and playwright, author of "My Dinner with Andre"], and a painter I knew from my mother's circle of artists, as she is a painter as well. Both are New Yorkers although Carole Schilly had passed away. The Shawns are the sons of William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, which my Mother always had in the house, and it turns out they grew up in the same Upper East Side neighborhood as me -- although they lived on Park Avenue! His music I found challenging and original, with a lot of Stravinsky-esque complexities which reminded me so much of Balanchine's ballets. I felt I could reference them with the greatest respect, like church, and that they could be a launching pad for memories of my own childhood moments, as they were for Allen. At times melodic, and then angular and harsh. Carole's paintings were beautiful images meshed with buildings and moments of the city.

PBI: What did Balanchine teach you, as a dancer and more generally, as an artist? For example, has he influenced you to make more 'whole' ballets, which relate not just to dance but to music and visual art as well?

Antonia Franceschi: Balanchine taught me to go for it (that took awhile), that we were replaceable, and that he loved each and every one of us. Also that every day was a new one. It was the most original set of dancers I'll ever see -- all beautiful, odd, and individual. A very free environment but safe in that we were under one roof going in the same direction with huge amounts of confidence given to us, as if we were special guests at a party. You were chosen and you felt really good. Everyone had that 'special' glow.

I remember when I was new, he was choreographing Noah's arc for a show, and he asked me to do an arabesque in the middle of a swarming circle of dancers. I had done "Bourgeoisie Gentilhomme" when I was in the school (when Nureyev danced for him) and I didn't know he really noticed me at that time, but he had. Moments like this you felt could and would happen all the time with him. You felt you where seen and known -- also because he taught and was around ALL the time!

PBI: As a choreographer, who are some of your influences? For example, have the choreographers you've worked in England had a particular influence on you? Has the English inclination towards narrative as opposed to abstract influenced the type of ballets you like to create?

Antonia Franceschi: I worked with many inventive choreographers here as a dancer and then taught their companies. I would say this has influenced me a lot as well as remembering being in Balanchine's "Balade," and lots of Robbins works ("Piano Pieces") as they were making them, which one never forgets. The contemporary choreographers here I had the great fortune of being created on -- Mark Baldwin, Wayne McGregor, Michael Clarke, etcetera -- showed me such a different way of working and creating. Also Richard Alston's classicisms and love for Balanchine hugely taught me tons. They all are really kind as well, and have their own languages, and processes. Also Cathy Marsden. They marry theater with dance, narrative, etcetera. I was also raised on Tudor and Limon, and Ailey. There is a physical language they expanded for me, the Brits and their emphasis on narrative as well, and just being involved in the 'process' seeps in. Everything coming from somewhere or being about something is very narrative in origin and familiar. (Miss Craske also influenced me.) I always found Balanchine to be narrative, but not obvious -- musically narrative, the way you make your own story when you hear a symphony. It allows emotion and privacy both in the listener and performer.

PBI: Tell me about "POP8," your play. And, in general, about the plays you've written and the subjects that interest you as a playwright.

Antonia Franceschi: When I came to London I was exposed to a lot of theater and Shakespeare, which was fantastic. It set off a bit of poetry in me. Someone I respect in the theater asked me once 'what was it like growing up in NYC?,' and that basically got me inspired, although I didn't know it at the time. I recorded two monologues into a camera I had been using to choreograph and thus my writing started. The first speech was about what it was like riding the subway at a very young age to and from ballet (Miss Craske) down to 14th street at that time. What was said to me.... What it was like for a young girl alone.... That became many monologues later "Up from the Waste." POP8 was very much about the loss of my brother, addictions, and relationships. My writing started personal and has moved from there to incorporate fiction.

PBI: How did you end up in London? And how is London as a 'dancer's town' -- not just the dance you've been able to do, but the dance and arts to which you've been exposed?

Antonia Franceschi: I fell in love with a Londoner and didn't think about much else. Once here I realized I needed a job, as I didn't want to be dependent. I felt like an enchanted immigrant. London gives grants to artists if they can write a fab proposal. I didn't need to do this as once I became known as a dancer I was very lucky that the National Theatre Studio wanted to workshop my material, and then for "POP8," a producer helped write the grant proposal for me for his Kentish Town theatre. I absorbed tons and had the NY survivor's hustle, as well as lots of unspoken stories to tell! Also my success as a producer helped people feel I was safe. Producing was about sharing the great works with London they hadn't seen and the dancers from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. The fun was commissioning Karole Armitage and Tom Ades to make something for NY Ballet Stars.

Photo of Antonia Franceschi courtesy Antonia Franceschi.

PBI: A question that may sound trite, but has to do with your artistic identity: Having danced, acted, written plays, and made films, do you identify with one of these metiers more than another, or is it rather that, being multi-trained, you're able to choose the best medium of expression for each of your vehicles?:

Antonia Franceschi: They are all awesome. Its more about what the performance is -- whether it's a choreographer engaging one physically, or an acting part, or creating a story and place, or raising money to show someone else's brain.... It's all about falling in love with whatever it is and feeling that it needs to be seen, executed, or used to test boundaries. And of course FATE and luck! "Grease" was a means to an end. We were told by 10th grade that it was good to audition so my classmate was going down the street to audition for "Grease" after school, for an open call, and asked if I wanted to come. I hadn't heard of it but thought what the hell. I went and got a call back and then the job. Pat Birch knew I was under-aged but said it would be our secret. I needed a summer job, to be able to go to the Professional Children's School then SAB, as we didn't have money. I thought it wouldn't interfere with my ballet. It was a hard choice as I had a summer scholarship at the ABT school so I was worried all the time that I was losing time. In L.A., John Travolta's manager asked me to stay and he wanted to represent me but I ran back home. it was very wild.

When they were looking for a girl for "Fame," I kept saying no to the audition as I was afraid of losing time again. They said please come in and read, and by then everyone in my ballet class had tried out (they couldn't find someone who could act as well as dance) and I was intrigued. I went in and read the crying scene [at the abortion clinic], they said wait here and took me straight in to see Alan Parker, who screen tested me then and there. The next day I did the dancing audition for Mr. Falco, and that was that. I asked if I could take class everyday during filming and they said no. I like Alan and am very happy I took it. During filming Mr. B was rumoured to be planning to come to the school to choose for the company, and I was sure I would miss that class as I had to film. Luckily I was chosen, but didn't find out as after class I had to go to the set. I was very lucky!! I then didn't get to go with the company to Europe as I was apprenticed which meant I got chosen to dance with Makarova and Co -- which was a great blessing to be taught by her, and to get to dance her part with Anthony Dowell when she was injured! To be coached by her and her team as invaluable, and Miss Craske got to see her student dance with a fellow Brit. She trained me from 8 until 16.

PBI: "Fame" is not just about kids who want to be famous in their art, but about kids turning into adults. Your role in particular -- with that poignant abortion scene -- fits this double definition. When you were making the film, did you and your fellow cast members have any idea that you were articulating the aspirations (and struggles) of your generation?

Antonia Franceschi: Unlike "Grease," we were mostly the age we were playing in "Fame," which made a huge difference to me. So we were not aware of anything poignant!! I tried to do a great job. That's all. Falco introduced me to Maggie Black during the filming and she helped me soooo much. I didn't have much acting training so I just stayed very upset all day for the crying scene! I went on instinct, and Alan guided me. He was happy. At Performing Arts you were not allowed to work so after "Grease," they kicked me out. That was okay as I was studying acting to be a better dancer (I wanted to do Juliet), and I knew I had to go to SAB during the day thus needed to go to PCS (the Professional Children's School).

PB-I: Did you have any idea that Hilary van Doren (in her dancer's grace, anyway) would become a symbol for a generation of wannabe 'ballerinas'? Were you intimidated at all by the dance aspects of the role -- in effect playing *the* ballet student at the school, and thus representing ballet students everywhere?

Antonia Franceschi: Never thought about that. Just was happy to play a rich bitch as I knew so many on the Upper East Side growing up, and I thought it was ironic. I had pimples and they sent me to a demo and told me to lose like two pounds (reality) and I was a teenager so NO I wasn't high on myself in any way. Alan Parker was fantastic, which made it all super. Also the other dancers I knew, so I didn't feel alone as I had during "Grease." I lived alone in L.A. for four months. But I found Carmelita Meracci, who was amazing.

PBI: Did you and your co-actors feel at the time that the roles, and the predicaments of the students, were authentic to what you and your peers were experiencing? (In particular I'm thinking of the race banter between you and Coco over Leroy.)

Antonia Franceschi: I was raised in Manhattan so the black-white thing came up when I was in 5th grade and had a black boyfriend. He got flack, not me. He was pressured to break it off. Innocent times, though, as we were 10.

PB-I: There's a scene early on in the movie in which the acting teacher, addressing the freshmen students, shares the depressing stats on how many of them will actually make it as actors. Do you think it has actually gotten harder for actors and dancers to make it? As I understand it, you have also now taught dance for a while; what advice do you give to young dancers hoping to make a career of it?

Antonia Franceschi: That was exaggerated. Every teacher just tries to get their students to work really hard. When you audition for the big schools like ABT or SAB it is brutal. However, now there is no one way to get to the top. Now there is no negativity in how you get where you want to be. You can win a t.v. show and get a contract or visa versa. People don't judge classicism in the same way anymore, I think. When I was young I had to downplay my other successes so I would appear as serious as I was. People felt that if you had options like making movies you were less serious about the closed world of ballet. Less committed. This is over -- I think! For students I would say: Find a great teacher, watch great dancers in class, and work work work....

PB-I: For you, was it about 'Fame' or simply a love of dancing?

Antonia Franceschi: Gosh, first loving dancing as it feels amazing, and of course I was desperate to succeed. I found learning paramount and so fulfilling. One cant forget if one comes from an 'achieving' family also.

PB-I: Suzanne Farrell once described how, in guiding her through a porte de bras passage of "Chaconne," Balanchine told her she should open her arms like she was opening a window to the sea. Are there any similar exchanges you can recall -- where Balanchine went beyond physical corrections and brought in a poetic image to convey to you (or you as part of a corps) the feeling or physical evocation that he wanted? Did you find it true (as your character states during the abortion scene) that Balanchine only wanted skinny 'girls'?

Antonia Franceschi: Balanchine loved ALL kinds of dancers! I had lots of one on one talks with him when, say, I was early on stage for a call, and he was amazing. Talked about everything but mostly I remember him being so calm, as if nothing special needed to take place in those minutes. I really can't remember much of the talk as I was very nervous! I do remember visiting him at the hospital and that conversation I do remember perfectly. That I won't share.

PB-I: Jerome Robbins has been described by many dancers as a terror. What was your experience working with him?

Antonia Franceschi: Worked tons with him. Lucky me. Tricky question.

PB-I: What do you think of New York City Ballet today?

Antonia Franceschi: Company looks amazing. I went in January.

PB-I: From other coverage I've read about you (e.g., in Time Out London), it seems that your own trajectory prior to matriculating at the High School for Performing Arts was more akin to Leroy, Ralph, and Coco's than Hilary's. Is it true you had to join a gang for protection, and 'flirted' (as Time Out put it) with drugs? And that you kept your dance classes secret? Did studying dance really have such a stigma then, even in NY? And was dance a way out of this life for you... a distraction from an uneasy home life? (If that part of the question is not too personal.)

Antonia Franceschi: You're spot on for all those questions! Ill let you read my play sometime.

PB-I: How important was it to have a teacher like Margaret Craske?

Antonia Franceschi: Miss Craske was the best. She taught us to dance before we did barre, which was genius. You fell in love with dancing, so that then the work was worth it to make your dancing and expression easier and better. Also there were no mirrors, and the age range in the children's class was 8 to 20 so you saw what it was going to be like in every class. Copying is really important with guidance.

PB-I: What dance films have inspired you?

Antonia Franceschi: When we moved to Manhattan my mother took me to almost EVERY Fred Astaire movie possible! I watched those films over and over trying to see how he did everything. Cyd Charisse I was told trained as a ballet dancer. She was amazing to watch. Also Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films. "The Wizard of Oz."... "Oklahoma," "Singin' in the Rain," "WESTSIDE STORY"!!! So many.... My mom also took me as a birthday present to the original (I think) "Hair" on Broadway. I was a bit young and shocked, but I loved it. As an 11-year-old I was a super for the Met and saw Fonteyn and Nureyev up close from the wings. That changed my life. They were charismatic and gracious. And back-lit!

PB-I: I note that you teach yoga for dancers; what's the importance of yoga for dancers, where do you teach it, and do you teach ballet more generally and, for our London-based dancers and students, how would they get in touch to find out about your group classes or arrange individual sessions?

Antonia Franceschi: I was lucky to work with Julio Horvarth, who invented Gyrotonics, for ten years while I was at NYCB. A handful of us were chosen (six) and we went three times a week at 7:30 before going to NYCB. Invaluable material and teacher. This kind of Yoga is amazing for ballet dancers as it targets hip rotators, hamstrings -- just about all one needs to get warm, but it also strengthens and uses breathwork, which inspires the dancer to breath while they work. Widens the brain as it works in spheres. I try to pass on what he taught me any chance I get. Very often I take a couple from the company class I am going to teach, start an hour earlier and teach them the gyrokenesis or floor barre (Margeurite Wesley) as it helps them understand the ballet class I later give as it did me. I don't charge them, as I am not certified in either, just passing on information, and they can do it with me as I always physically warm-up before teaching. I have done this for Richard Alston's company for years, and send them when they are in NYC to Julio and Margeurite. Most companies I teach I do this: Rambert, the Royal ... if there is time. I don't teach any open classes in London, only privates. If your readers are interested in setting something up, they can e-mail me. I teach a blend of my teachers, depending on what the student needs and want to learn.

PB-I: What's the appeal of Ballet NY and working with co-artistic directors Judith Fugate and Mehdi Bahiri to you?

Antonia Franceschi: I love Judy and Mehdi as they were great dancers and have very strong ethics. I was also excited to work with dancers Balanchine trained! I started to choreographing in London where that is not the language. Feels like coming home, which I am very happy about.

PB-I: Upcoming projects?

Antonia Franceschi: I've been asked to do a full evening of my choreography in Malta this summer and now have other performances in England in September, so I am starting my own company, AFD Just Dance! I'm very excited. A new chapter! And I'm loving teaching at the Royal Ballet since Kevin O'Hare has taken over. They are beautiful dancers and the rep is so much of what I haven't seen -- MacMillian and Ashton!

PB-I: Anything you'd like to add?

Antonia Franceschi: Yes. I have a 10-year-old son who I adore being mom to. I understand patience now, and thankfully (for a long time now), it's not all about me.

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