Last week, in a rehearsal room for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Frederic Franklin remembered a dance. While five ballerinas and five danseurs warmed up behind him, the 92-year-old Franklin, who has white hair and nimble feet, watched himself in the mirror and ran through some steps in a quick, muted way that almost looked jazzy. Then everyone (Franklin, the accompanist, the dancers, some observers) gathered for some photographs. For posterity. Posterity was the point.

Sponsored
Enjoy PNW beer on Cascade's DIY Bike 'n' Brews
Grab a friend and enjoy Cascade Bicycle Club's urban bike ride, a PNW microbrew lover's adventure

Franklin had come to teach a section of Raymonda, a "lost" 1946 ballet by the hallowed and prolific choreographer George Balanchine. Franklin (who lives in Manhattan and began his career in cabaret acts with Josephine Baker at the Casino de Paris in 1931) was the premier danseur at Balanchine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, performing over 45 principal roles. And he has an excellent memory.

Kent Stowell and Francia Russell sat in the back of the room, making notes, while a videographer recorded the proceedings. Stowell and Russell, who codirected Pacific Northwest Ballet for 28 years, were also Balanchine pupils (he a dancer, she a ballet master). After their 2004 retirement, they were persuaded to lead the Balanchine Rescue Project, searching for snippets of archival footage and finding dancers who could help resurrect a handful of the hundreds of Balanchine ballets that have almost disappeared. Not that the legacy of Balanchine, whose name is nearly synonymous with contemporary ballet, is at risk. His masterworks are regularly performed, especially at PNB, where he has four pieces in the 2006—2007 season.

"We are aware that Mr. Balanchine probably wouldn't have approved of this project," Russell said, adding that Balanchine never got precious about his ballets and some of them he probably never wanted to see again. So why not work to preserve the work of a less-canonical choreographer? "We are pursuing this because we're so familiar with Balanchine's work," Russell said. "Dance scholarship as a whole is so far behind music and art and theater scholarship. Ballets disappear so quickly. They won't be rediscovered like a lost manuscript."

In the dance vernacular, a choreographer makes a dance "on" somebody, transmitting an idea from the mind of one person to the muscles of another. Dance is a tradition, like circumcision, that must be physically passed on through time. Because some major companies (including the New York City Ballet, founded by Balanchine) didn't regularly record archival footage until the 1980s, most ballets live only in the bodies of dancers. If they can remember them.

Earlier in the year, the Project brought together nine dancers for two days' rehearsal to try and recover a section from Balanchine's Figure in the Carpet. They only remembered two steps. Franklin was remembering more. He led PNB's Jeffrey Stanton through a grueling series of combinations: "Coupé, assemble." By the end, Stanton looked exhausted. "That was my solo," Franklin beamed. "He did it for me. Now it's yours."

Support The Stranger

"Well, if he did it for you," Stowell laughed, "he must not have liked you very much."

brendan@thestranger.com