Antonia Franceschi may not have known exactly where life would take her, but she sure she has ended up in some pretty spectacular places. And where she is right now is just right!!
Most people, if they are old enough, know Antonia from her role as the spoiled ballerina in the movie “Fame.” But that was kind of just the beginning. After “Fame” Antonia spent 11 years in the New York City Ballet and another two decades working in Europe. And all those years on the world’s stages have given her a keen eye and life perspective that is more precious than gold.
Still, life didn’t turn out exactly the way Antonia envisioned. (It rarely does for most of us.) Antonia was the ‘It’ baby ballerina of the early 80s with name recognition and a promising career at the New York City Ballet. That potential went unrealized and for those who never saw the movie “Fame,” or New York City Ballet in the 1980s and 90s, Franceschi’s name does not resonate.
But, life is more than some familiar nods. And Antonia has turned what could have been just 15 minutes of fame into a lifetime of nuanced experiences and creative satisfaction. How many people can name George Balanchine, Natalia Markarova, Jerome Robbins, Alan Parker, and Karole Armitage as personal influences? Not many.
Fashion Reverie was given the extraordinary opportunity to reminisce, revel, and luxuriate in the meandering, sometimes slippery slope, of Antonia Franceschi’s life. And we are all the better for it. We expect our readers will be, too!!
Fashion Reverie: How did you get started in ballet?
Antonia Franceschi: I was born in Ohio and then we moved to Detroit, later to New Rochelle and finally Manhattan. My mom is a painter and she loved ballet and used to take evening classes when we lived in Detroit. I would accompany her and sit on the floor while she took class. I started to imitate her and my mom thought I had some talent and enrolled me in ballet school.
FR: How did you become one of the dancers in the movie “Grease”?
Antonia Franceschi: “Grease” happened in a very interesting way. I was a student at the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City (PA) when the school was located on 46th Street. I auditioned for both the drama and dance departments because I wanted to be a great dramatic ballerina. I was accepted into both departments, but I opted for the drama department and took ballet classes after school. I studied the Cecchetti technique with Margaret Craske. Cecchetti technique is one of the hardest techniques because you work without mirrors; you have to feel everything. The core of the training is so good that it keeps you from getting lots of injuries.
One of my very good friends Jerry Regan at PA told me about the “Grease” open call. Now mind you, I had never heard of the musical “Grease,” although it had been a successful production on Broadway. Patricia Birch was the choreographer and she gave a dance phrase and you had to replicate it very quickly. I did my phrase and they kept me and told me to come back the next day for the second part of the audition.
The next day at the audition Pat Birch told anyone under eighteen to leave. (I was sixteen at the time.) I stayed because I figured I would never get the job. A month later I was contacted that I was cast in “Grease.”
The only way I was able to take the job—all the filming was in LA—was that the film was shot during the summer. That way I didn’t get in trouble at PA. But I got kicked out of PA anyway because filming went into early fall and PA found out. It is really hysterical when you think about it because the following year I am cast in the movie “Fame,” which is about my alma mater, PA.
The good thing about “Grease” is that I earned enough money to go to Professional Children’s School (PCS), which was necessary for me because I was now studying at the School of American Ballet (SAB), being that I was expelled from PA. At the time no one knew that “Grease” would turn out to be the box office hit that it turned out to be.
FR: Now, lets talk about the movie “Fame”, we all know that you played the character Hilary van Doren. How did that all come about?
Antonia Franceschi: Because of the filming of “Grease,” I felt I had lost some valuable ballet training. So, I auditioned for SAB and got a scholarship while attending PCS. I lot of the students from PCS and SAB were talking about auditioning for the movie “Fame.” I didn’t want to lose more time in my dance training, so initially I was not interested. And at the time the ballet world frowned upon doing anything outside of the dance world.
The producers of “Fame” were having a hard time finding ballet dancers of the appropriate age to be in the ballet classroom scenes. So, a bunch of students from SAB went in and auditioned. Also, one of the casting agents from “Fame” contacted me and asked me to audition.
I went to the casting and they had me read Hilary van Doren’s abortion clinic scene. They liked my read and immediately had me read for the director Alan Parker. And just like that I got the part. I really liked the script and Alan Parker, so I thought it would be great to be in the movie.
The only thing that had me kind of freaked out was that George Balanchine would sometimes observe the morning advance class and choose dancers. I was worried that the day he scouted dancers for New York City Ballet (NYCB), I would be filming “Fame.” The day that Balanchine did come in, my filming schedule was in the afternoon. I was in Stanley Williams’ class that morning and Stanley organized the class to show off my best qualities. After filming “Fame” sequences that afternoon, a friend of mine, Cynthia Lochard—who was also in “Fame”—called me and screamed in the phone, “We’re in. We both got into City Ballet.” So, it worked out perfectly, I got to be in “Fame” and I was signed to the NYCB. Coincidentally, I didn’t go to the premiere of “Fame” in NYC because my graduation performance from SAB was the same night. But, I did go to the “Fame” after party at Studio 54 with my boyfriend in a limousine.
FR: By the time “Fame” was released you were already in the New York City Ballet. Did you know that you wanted to be a ballet dancer as opposed to an actress while you were filming “Fame”?
Antonia Franceschi: Honestly, I only wanted to be a ballet dancer and work with a genius like George Balanchine. With “Fame,” the director Alan Parker is also a genius. So, early in my career, creative masters surrounded me, and that desire to collaborate with the best has stuck with me.
Also, Hollywood turned me off when I was in “Grease.” I was sixteen and very insecure. I had acne, I didn’t have large breasts, and I didn’t think I had anything special. After “Grease,” John Travolta’s manager wanted to manage me. But, I knew at that young age I couldn’t emotionally manage being in Hollywood. I didn’t have a strong support system, my parents had separated, honestly, and I really just wanted to dance. So, I opted out of becoming an actress.
When the “Fame” television series was being developed, I was asked to be a part of the cast. But, by that time I was already in the NYCB. I didn’t realize at the time that Mr. Balanchine would be dead in three years.
Even after I got into the NYCB, Hollywood would always call. I got offered a three-picture deal after “Fame.” But, I had blinders on; you have to if you are going to have a career in ballet. When I left the NYCB, I did other things. I moved to London, I acted in plays and did some film. I even wrote a play that I choreographed and starred in.
FR: You were one of the last dancers that Balanchine personally chose for NYCB. What was it was like working with Balanchine?
Antonia Franceschi: Even though Balanchine didn’t live a long time after he chose me for the NYCB, I was so fortunate to work with him closely. When Nureyev and Patricia McBride performed Balanchine’s “Le Bourgeoisie Gentilhomme,” I was one of the six SAB students chosen to perform the work. I also was in some of Balanchine’s last ballets—“Ballade” and “Noah’s Ark.” He would talk to me a lot in class and in rehearsal. He was nicest man, but his classes were not kind to your body, everything was extreme.
NYCB, at that time, was an amazing ballet company because Balanchine chose every dancer for their unique gifts. That was my environment and everything was sugar for me. Just to be in his presence and learn from this great genius has made an indelible mark on me as an artist.
FR: How were you received at NYCB because of your early fame?
Antonia Franceschi: By the time “Fame” came out I was already in the corps de ballet of NYCB after having danced with “Markarova and Company.” While I was dancing with Markarova, she got injured and I had to dance one of her roles. Clive Barnes, the dance critic for the New York Times, predicted I would be a great star.
So things at NYCB for me were a little odd in the beginning because I was already famous. Ballet companies tend to make dancers stars because of their association with certain choreographers and/or for dancing major roles. I was already well known before joining NYCB because of “Fame” and “Makarova and Company.” There were some people at NYCB that were threatened and were not as nice as they could have been. It took a while for me to prove to certain folks at NYCB that I was serious. There was some jealousy because early on choreographers would make roles on me, which is highly unusual for a new dancer. It was a tricky time.
FR: Do you realize that to people who were not ballet fans you were more well known because of “Fame” than most ballet dancers with the exception of Nureyev, Baryshnikov and maybe Margot Fonteyn? How did you deal with that recognition early on in your career?
Antonia Franceschi: Because of the Internet and social media it is now a good thing to be famous. However, thirty years ago in the dance world you had to be humble and self-effacing. I would take the subway and people would recognize me and I would pretend I was someone else. The best compliment I ever got was this girl came up to me on the subway and said, “I hated your ass in the movie.” That comment confirmed I did my job well.
The whole world has changed since “Fame” and being in NYCB from 1980 to 1992. You can live your life in a bubble in a ballet company. I was working from 7:30 in the morning to 11pm at night, six days a week. The only people you meet are mostly those involved with the ballet world. You give everything to that world. If you had any energy left over, you’re made to feel you were not giving enough. Mr. Balanchine used to say, “What are you saving it for.”
FR: How long were you in the New York City Ballet, and what was your experience there like?
Antonia Franceschi: For most of the 11 years I was in the NYCB, I would say it was great, but very hard. One of the hardest things is that I didn’t have the success at NYCB that I wanted or that was predicted. The good thing about NYCB is that you perform a lot and dance a wide range of roles, even soloist and principal roles, while still in the corps de ballet.
I had the great disadvantage of being a transition dancer. Balanchine chose me for the company and then he passed away in 1983 and Peter Martins became the creative director. You hope things will stay the same, but they weren’t. By the time I realized how different things were I was 27 years old and too old to go to another company; which is not the case now, but back then you stayed where you were.
When Peter Martins took over NYCB, he had to learn how to run this huge institution. That said; I was never a hater; I felt I had to work harder and continue to prove myself. So I continued to work really hard, but nothing was happening. At 27, I got married and decided to get really thin, because Peter Martins liked really thin ballerinas. Immediately, I started getting soloist roles. I stayed really thin for three years but couldn’t maintain it. It was too hard counting every little calorie all day. I was worn down mentally trying to maintain my weight.
I would always get asked to do things outside of NYCB, but I would always turn things down. However, in 1992 I was offered one of the leads in a production of “Brigadoon” and some other things and I decided why not leave NYCB on a high note while I was getting all these major roles. So, I left with my dignity at the age of 30.
FR: You were in the NYCB corps de ballet for 11 years. What lead roles did dance and what roles were created on you?
Antonia Franceschi: Jerome Robbins made “Piano Pieces” for me and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous made a beautiful pas de deux for Ib Anderson and me. I did leads in Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments,” “Episodes,” a demi-soloist in “Diamonds,” Tenderness fairy in “Sleeping Beauty,” and one of the leads in Lar Lubovitch’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” When I moved to Europe I danced as a guest artist in the works of Mark Baldwin, Wayne McGregor, Michael Clarke, Arlene Phillips, and Karole Armitage for ten years and then started producing and choreographing my own work. I had a second life in Europe in my thirties that has taken me to where I am now. If I had become a principal dancer with NYCB, I never would have explored more acting opportunities and dancing with these great European chorographers, as well as realizing my gifts as a choreographer and producer, and teaching at the Royal Ballet and Rambert Dance Company.
FR: How would you describe your choreographic style?
Antonia Franceschi: When you start choreographing, your work looks like everything you have ever danced. You don’t have your own voice yet. The starting point for me, like Balanchine, is the music. My style is an amalgam of all the things I have learned from Cecchetti to Balanchine and the contemporary choreographers I worked with in Europe.
You don’t really learn to choreograph when a choreographer puts a work on you, you learn watching them work and teaching. I have worked with Richard Alston for over 15 years and I learned from him how to get people on and off stage and link movement.
FR: You continue to perform, why?
Antonia Franceschi: I continue to perform because I stayed healthy. I am so healthy because I was trained by Margaret Craske in the Cecchetti technique which when done properly keeps you from getting so many injuries. If I am asked, I will dance things that I can still dance well. I have no injuries, I have no pain and my body feels good.
I recently danced some excerpts from Balanchine’s “Serenade” and “Symphony in Three Movements” for a group piece called “Museum de Dance” at the Sofia Museum in Spain. Mark Baldwin recently made a solo for me. Still, I only perform if I think it is the right thing to do.
Antonia Franceschi: I am at a disadvantage answering that questions because I just moved back to NYC after living in London for 22 years. One of things I noticed was that there is just a quick turnover at NYCB. Balanchine rarely fired dancers. You could stay there until you didn’t want to perform any more. That is not the case now.
Also, when I was dancing I was very much on the down low about going to classes at Fordham University on my day off. Now, everyone talks about what they are going to do after they stop dancing. Dancers are now more realistic about their careers. However, the flip side of that is that maybe dance is less precious and there is less of a commitment because there are more options. And some of the magic is gone. So, there is a trade off.
FR: In your ballet for New York Theatre Ballet “She Holds Out Her Hand” one of the lead dancers was a dancer of color. That said; how do you feel about diversity in ballet?
Antonia Franceschi: When I was in “Fame” I had scene where I had to kiss Gene Anthony Ray. Now, that was back in 1979 and I was advised not to do it because it could ruin my career. I did what I wanted to do, kiss Gene Anthony Ray, because I wasn’t going to be an actress.
Now, that incident was over 30 years ago. However, I was producing a ballet program in London some years back and I brought some dancers over from the NYCB—Wendy Whelan, Peter Boal, and Albert Evans. There was beautiful poster featuring Albert Evans with the caption “New York Ballet Stars.” Albert Evans is African American and a big star with the NYCB at that time. One of sponsors didn’t want me to use the poster because a black person didn’t represent ballet to her. I went with the poster and we sold out. So, there!!
Still, even in Europe there is this embedded racism in ballet. They don’t want to see a brown or black girl in the corps de ballet of “Swan Lake” because in their minds all the swans should look the same. That is still a factor on the other side of the Big Pond.
To use Amanda Smith as the lead in my ballet was a no-brainer. She is deep, musical, and has a beautiful quality. Perhaps, I got that from Mr. Balanchine, he liked people who could dance.
FR: What is life like for you now back in the States, and what’s next for you?
Antonia Franceschi: Well, my son is 13 and I moved back because I wanted him to experience NYC and more cultural diversity. I have been substitute teaching at Barnard College and Julliard, I have two ballet commissions and I have work back in London for the summer.
I started a company called AFD Just Dance in London and we were invited to perform at the Opera House in Malta. I handpicked dancers from the Royal Ballet, Rambert, and Random DV8. We sold out, so I decided to keep the company going. We performed at the Royal Winchester and also sold out. So, voila, I had a company. I am planning to do the same thing in NYC, mix British dancers with American dancers, performing to live music. And there were other things in the works.
—William S. Gooch
Antonia Franceschi’s choreography will be a part of Barnard College/Columbia Dances at Miller on April 21 & April 22.