Holding Court

Article excerpt

Pennsylvania Ballet adds dance to Philadelphia's celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th anniversary.

March 3-11, 2006, as the city of Philadelphia embarks on a yearlong celebration of Benjamin Franklin's tricentennial, Pennsylvania Ballet brings back Franklin Court, the highly successful ballet that Christopher d'Amboise created during his four-year tenure as artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. Not seen in 14 years, the work has an interesting history of its own.

Franklin Court was initially produced in 1989, during a rocky time for the company. D'Amboise had just been appointed director and wanted to create something distinctly Philadelphian. "By the end of that first season, [after surviving] organizational traumas, we added Franklin to the last program as representing the kind of work I wanted to bring in," says d'Amboise. "It was a perfect way to prove we were on track."

Inventor, printer, one of the drafters of the Constitution, statesman-Benjamin Franklin's life offered ample material with which to work. The resulting 30-minute ballet, a collaboration between renowned architect Robert Venturi and d'Amboise, had costumes by Frankie Fehr and music by Franklin contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach.

Choreographically, Franklin Court is "pure, classically based dance, beautifully crafted for two principal pairs and eight couples in the corps de ballet, all done with a hierarchy of men and women appropriate for Franklin's era," says current Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser, who succeeded d'Amboise in 1994. "It's clever in its use of the set, with abstract pieces flying overhead. Part of the success was not knowing how these pieces would come together in the end."

D'Amboise also wanted the choreography to make a dramatic statement. Fearing that a historical narrative, "with dancing Bens running around, would have been insipid," he strove instead to represent the range of Franklin's accomplishments.

While strolling through Philadelphia's Old City in search of inspiration, the choreographer happened upon the site of Franklin's former home. The building had been razed in 1812, but on the site is the airy "ghost structure" that Venturi designed for the city's celebration of the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. The steel frame outline of the shape of Franklin's home seemed like the perfect "metaphor for the abstract way you can interpret something concrete," says d'Amboise.

Because Franklin was as famous for his inventions as he was for his statesmanship, d'Amboise highlighted a few of them, such as bifocals and swim fins, as figurative themes to introduce the ballet's sections. …