Winchester Guide editor and arts journalist (The Times, etc) Donald Hutera interviews the multi-talented Antonia Franceschi as she prepares for the UK premiere of Just Dance.
Early in her career Antonia Franceschi planted her feet in two camps. Born in the American Midwest but raised in New York, this petite, blonde and street-wise young woman pointed more than a toe in films. She was a student at the High School of Performing Arts when first cast as one of the gum-chewing dancers in ‘Grease.’ After that, playing the speaking and dancing role of posh ballerina Hilary van Doren sealed her, uh, ‘Fame.’
Being a part of two popular cinematic landmarks was quite an accomplishment. But it was as a super-refined dancer with New York City Ballet that Franceschi went on to make a mark, and with the discerning eye of George Balanchine upon her. She was one of the last to work directly with the prolific choreographic genius who was born in St Petersburg, Russia in 1904 and died in New York City in 1983. Franceschi was a member of his company – the pinnacle of classical dance – for twelve years, where she estimates she danced in about fifty of his nearly 100 works.
Asked to mention just one of the many things she learnt from working with Balanchine, Franceschi serves up a solid piece of advice: ‘When a choreographer asks you to do something, you really do it. That’s what holds. Because if you do it, you keep it.’
It’s this sure and deep wisdom that Franceschi brings to Just Dance, the seven-strong neo-classical company that she is now preparing for its UK premiere at Theatre Royal Winchester on July 20. The dancers involved have an excellent pedigree, including links to Royal Ballet (where Franceschi is currently serving as an ace rehearsal director), Rambert, Richard Alston, Ballet Black and Random Dance. ‘They’re all hand-picked from different places,’ Franceschi says, ‘and they get to work with each other and learn.’
They also learn – and a tremendous amount, too – from Franceschi herself. She has lived and worked in the UK for several decades, dancing and teaching and producing and, with increasing frequency, choreographing. Working with her can be, as one of her own dancers has put it, transformative. ‘I pick them because they can do it,’ Franceschi says of her casting choices. ‘And technically I can get them there, if they have the core.’
Given all her experience onstage, working on both sides of the Atlantic not only with Balanchine but high-profile dance-makers such as Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, Michael Clark, Wayne McGregor, Mark Baldwin and Arlene Phillips, it’s not surprising that Franceschi knows ‘what a step is, and what it’s meant to be. And I can break it all down.’ She compares this guiding physical process to poetry.: ‘You strip them down to the point where you can see who they are by the way they do something.’
Last month I watched Franceschi in a London studio auditioning one male dancer and coaching another. It was quietly revelatory, and predicated on an almost mind -boggling level of detail. Low-key but concentrated, good-humoured and absolutely nurturing, it was clear that her goal was to bring out the best in each man. ‘Take your time,’ she’d say as they moved. And then, when they’d finished a phrase or passage of dance, ‘That’s it! That’s really beautiful. Just get it in your body and your head. Then it will look good on you. Because once you get the shape you can rock it.’
Afterwards, looking sleek and racehorse lean in a long-sleeved t-shirt sporting the sentence ‘Don’t let your emotions control you,’ Franceschi spoke directly and eloquently of what dance and choreography mean to her. First off, why dance? Describing herself as ‘really physical and vocally shy,’ Franceschi replied that she’s always been responsive to music. ‘It would just make me so happy to dance with music. My body always felt really good and did things. Add music – whether it’s street dance or Bach – and you’re just higher than a kite. Classical music gave me the same sort of rush. My ballet technique allowed me to release. And once you get on top of that technique, it all releases. It shifts you.’
What is it that she desires from any dancer she works with? ‘I want to see something animal, something amazing and something beautiful. I want the music and the moment. And I make sure that everything’s okay. With me they get everything they need. If I take you I will shape you.’
Are good dancers also, in some sense, good actors? ‘A lot of stuff happens onstage,’ Franceschi answers. ‘It’s about being in the moment, centred and uncluttered.’ It’s the combination of control and abandon, she adds, that makes an exciting moment. ‘But I won’t dictate your internal story.’ Instead, she avows, ‘I believe in releasing the artist. I will trigger something in them if I need to.’
For now Just Dance, which launched last year in an expansive outdoor setting in Malta, contains a handful of dances. All of the work was created by Franceschi. In the future, she says, ‘I have no interest in it being just me – my work. But if you’ve got a show, tour it. And it worked. Once you make it and somebody else wants it, you give it to them.’
Franceschi is articulate about the company’s repertoire – richly varied although stemming from a single source. ‘Kinderszenen’ is a series of city scene, twelve vignettes to Schumann that she pegs as representing ‘one night in Manhattan’ and featuring Carol Schille’s abstract paintings of the city as a backdrop. ‘The atmosphere is very New York,’ Franceschi says, ‘but I wanted to soften it.’
This is one of two works set to music by Allen Shawn, the sibling of the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. These dances she calls ‘tricky’ because in both the dancers ‘have to be so good musically.’ The other Shawn-scored piece is ‘Jazz,’ which she compares to Balanchine ‘but you throw it away,’ by which she means it’s like ‘riding a wave: you’re on top of it, you know what you’re doing, and you go, “Ah-ha! Do you know what you’re doing?” You have to earn the right to throw it away.’
‘Spheres’ is a female solo set to the first violin solo ever written (by the German Baroque composer Johann Paul von Westhoff). ‘It has such drive,’ Franceschi says. Taking its cue from the score, choreographically this pieces ‘goes in arcs and circles. In my dances I always have a subconscious issue I’m trying to solve. The woman in this one is trapped, and she’s trying to figure it out. It’s like at midnight when you can’t sleep. You’re haunted by something. Okay, so go into it. But sometimes you can’t figure it out, and so you go to bed.’
For Franceschi the premise of Shift Trip Catch, with music by Zoe Martlew, is clear: ‘You can shift if you’re in a relationship, and hopefully they’ll catch you.’ After a beat she says, with a knowing smile, ‘I’m such a romantic but I work really hard to disguise it.’
Asked about being a woman in what is in many ways a male-dominated art form, at least in terms of who in the UK is at the top of the choreographic tree, Franceschi replies with considerable insight. ‘To choreograph for ballet you should train in ballet. What’s instilled in you is to be the best. The technique is so hard, and the competition so strong. The male partner has a huge advantage. They see and dictate. They take us [the ballerina]. We’re the person being partnered, so we can’t see the whole thing.’ When dancing in a standard classical duet, Franceschi explains further, ‘I need permission. I have to wait to be asked. And so that means when I choreograph a duet I have to become the man.’
Franceschi is now in her mid-50s. As she’s matured and grown in confidence, an innate streak of rebellion emerged. ‘How many women go, “This is what I think”? We’re told, “Don’t worry about it.”’ According to her, a lot of gender-related behaviour has a lot to do with how women are hard-wiring culturally. ‘We’re sensitive, but we can push and pull too.’
Aside from launching her own dance group, Franceschi is very much looking forward to developing opportunities in her post as the director of the Danceworks International Ballet Academy, a new school for children aged 8 to 16 that opens this very month. ‘It’ll take off,’ she says, elaborating about the students who will be in her charge: ‘You have to train them, nurture them, then release them to the public and give them the credit they deserve.’
Finally the conversation circles back to ‘Grease’ and ‘Fame.’ Looking back, what does Franceschi see? ‘Because I was so young I didn’t have any clutter, so I just did everything huge, and people said yes. And I had all that training; it was like having a volcano under you. It’s the precision of having really good technique and being able to dance on top of it. It’s training and instinct and hitting the moment.’
Just Dance will be making its UK Premiere at the Theatre Royal Winchester on 20th July at 7.30pm. There are a limited number of tickets available so with a week to go before the show you will need to book quickly to avoid disappointment.
Just Dance, book here. Produced by Giant Olive/AFD.