Holding Court

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. But the founding father was also famous for his experiment involving a key, a kite and a lightning bolt. D’Amboise chose to create a romantic pas de deux for Kaiser, then in his last years as principal dancer, and partner Lisa Sundstrom, which symbolized human electricity to reflect Franklin’s interest in that powerful phenomenon. 

For the “Swim Fins” section, d’Amboise threw in some comedy, using a phalanx of men as the waves who float the female soloist. And in the “Bifocals” section, there is a lead couple shadowed by another, which is intended to create the effect of looking through lenses with two focal lengths.  

D’Amboise decided to reinforce his Philadelphia theme with another city favorite: “I love Stokowski’s overblown arrangements of Bach,” says d’Amboise of the lush orchestrations made famous by the
legendary Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski. The choreographer used Stokowski’s
version of the Bach G Minor Fugue for the score.

D’Amboise worked closely with architects Venturi and Steven Izenour on the set design, which involved square metal poles that fly in, change directions and rotate, so that in the finale, all the pieces fit together as a replica of Venturi’s “ghost structure.”

However, the manipulation of the set pieces never ran smoothly, partly because of the antiquated backstage at the Academy of Music (now the home theater for the company). When the company revived Franklin in 1992, an attempt was made to convert the set’s operation from a manual to a computerized system, but it was not successful, so the ballet was produced with a stationary set.

The fully operating Venturi set will be back on the Academy of Music stage, which has been completely modernized in recent years. And while there are some lingering questions about a few technical issues, Kaiser, as he says, “is comfortable taking calculated artistic risks.”

With fond memories of the dancers in his original Franklin Court, d’Amboise is “looking forward to working with the new generation of dancers,” he says. “I’ll find ways to bring out the best elements of these dancers and see how interpretive this group will be.”

Lewis Whittington’s articles on the arts and culture have appeared in The Advocate, Philadelphia City Paper, American Theatre Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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