While growing up in New York City during the early 1950s, Mark Franko and his mother took trips around the city to see the Haitian dancer, Jean-Léon Destiné, perform. It was his first introduction to French dance.
Destiné, a native of Saint-Marc, Haiti, formed the Destiné Afro-Haitian Dance Company in New York in 1949. He choreographed African- and French-inspired performances for the company.
“Watching him made me want to dance,” said Franko, the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance.
“I was a little kid, I’m talking 7 or 8 years old, so I wasn’t looking at [Destiné’s work] with much sophistication,” he added. “By the time I was 18 and started going to school, I had seen other things and was drawn to other dances. It’s only now looking back that I can see he was brilliant.”
On April 5, the New York Times announced the list of winners for the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship grant, an award given to art and science professionals. Franko, like the other 172 fellows, was awarded for his past achievements and “exceptional promise.”
Franko, who is also the interim chair of the dance studies department, was given the award for his research on Russian and French ballet dancer Serge Lifar. His upcoming book, “Serge Lifar and the Crisis of Neoclassicism,” will examine Lifar’s influence on French 20th-century ballet during the interwar period between World War I and World War II.
“I’m very eclectic,” Franko said, reflecting on his style of choreography. “I’m inspired by Haitian, traditional, ballet. … Maybe that’s why I’m a scholar, because my interests are very broad.”
Franko received his master’s degree in 1974 and doctorate in 1981 in French and Romance philology at Columbia University. Philology is the study of language in written and oral histories.
As a student at Columbia, Franko danced professionally in the Paul Sanasardo Dance Company, a modern performance group in New York City from 1964-69.
“We did yearly New York shows and we toured,” said Franko, as he flipped through a photo album filled with newspaper clippings and black-and-white photographs of himself dancing on stage. “I stayed with them for about five or six years before I became interested in studying ballet to become more technical and returning to grad school.”
Before moving to California to become the director of The Center for Visual and Performance Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1990, Franko created his own dance company, NOVAntiqua, in 1985 while also working in the French literature department at Princeton University.
“I named it NOVAntiqua, meaning new-old,” Franko said. “I was very interested in the antique aspect.”
NOVAntiqua performed several pieces inspired by French culture and dance, like Franko’s “Le Marbre Tremble,” which featured projected images of Caryatids — stone carvings of female figures often found on Greek-style buildings — by French sculptor Pierre Puget.
Franko has also published various essays and several books on dance theory and performative politics.
In 1993, he published “Dance as Text: Ideologies of the Baroque Body,” a study on French court ballet that would later inspire his forthcoming book. Baroque is an ornate style of European architecture, dance and art that was most popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“It goes back to my research on historical dance,” Franko said. “I was interested in writing a sequel to [“Dance as Text”].”
“Ballet which seems very abstract and fairly…classical and unrelated to the present becomes, in a way, a vehicle of different politics,” he added.
In 2012, Franko said his move to Temple felt like he returned home after working in Santa Cruz for 21 years.
“I came from the East Coast, I was brought up in the East Coast,” he said. “The East Coast has the vibrant dance world, you know, New York, Philadelphia, and the West Coast does not.”
Along with writing, teaching and choreographing, Franko also mentors Ph.D. students who come from around the world to study his work.
“The reason I came to Temple was because of Mark,” said Tim De Laet, a visiting postdoctoral scholar in the dance department. “He’s so essential to the field.”
De Laet, a Belgium native, received his Ph.D. in theater studies from University of Antwerp in 2016. He first discovered Franko through his books on dance theory and now works with him at Boyer.
“I can not think of anyone else who deserves [a Guggenheim Fellowship] more,” De Laet said.
Franko now plans to bring his recent choreographic work to South America in the coming months.
He added that he wants aspiring dance students to feel that they are “powerful.”
“I want them to think about themselves in relation to the contemporary world,” he said. “They should feel themselves as reflections of what’s happening.”
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