Written by Eric Trope
I most recently worked with Peter Frame when he staged the Paul Taylor solo from George Balanchine’s Episodes at Miami City Ballet (MCB) in 2014. Learning the solo from Peter was an invigorating process and unlike anything I had worked on before or had previously seen choreographed by Balanchine. I immediately recognized a freedom in this solo that existed outside the parameters of ballet technique. Danced in bare feet, the solo is a series of intricate poses and steps that seem to grow in desperation as the music becomes more and more obscure. The first day in the studio with Peter, he had us gather around and just listen to the strange Webern score. As there were no counts, he wanted us to become incredibly familiar with the music because certain instrumental cues would be the only way to understand the pacing of the piece.
Balanchine was said to describe the solo to Taylor as “like a fly stuck in a glass of milk.” In rehearsals, Peter would expand on that metaphor giving us beautiful imagery as inspiration. In one pose where we faced our palms to our body he described each hand as if we were holding a reflective mirror to our souls. Later in the piece, we scavenged the room as if searching for a lost treasure. In an iconic pose kneeling on the floor with one hand to the sky, Peter would describe how we were meant to be blocking out the sunlight. The solo happens essentially in three parts: the first section repeats itself, the body becoming increasingly desperate to escape it’s torment by the second time the passage is danced. Then, in the third section the dancer thrashes around, at one point completely giving up and sprawling on the floor until he is able to move again with what little energy he has left.
Originally, Balanchine choreographed this eight minute solo on Paul Taylor, a dancer with the Martha Graham company, in 1959. Twenty five years later, Taylor revived his role by selecting Peter Frame from company class to be the first to dance the part since Taylor himself. Peter debuted the role on May 30, 1986 while at New York City Ballet and continued to perform the work for several seasons. The New York Times described his performance: “Mr. Frame- in long white leotard and bare feet – sauntered in, dropped to the floor – emphasizing the volume of his arms – and then jiggled a bit. He seemed here to capture Mr. Taylor’s personal style.” Peter’s restaging of the solo at Miami City Ballet was the first time it was performed since he last danced the role.
Like so many of my colleagues, I was shocked and heartbroken by the passing of Peter Frame last month. As I read the many loving tributes to Peter on social media, it was incredibly moving to see how many people were affected by his loving spirit and soothing guidance. Many stories reflected on Peter’s ability to nurture students, allowing them to feel valued and seen. Others had only met Peter briefly, but he had spoken a phrase or given a comforting word that had stuck with them for years. I was so incredibly fortunate to learn from Peter not only at Miami City Ballet but also as a student at the School of American Ballet (SAB) years ago.
Peter taught the weight training class at SAB twice a week and always had a way of knowing which students needed a little extra guidance and love in his classroom. Coming to SAB, I often felt swallowed in self-doubt and insecurity. Peter picked up on this and would often pull me aside to work on a step he saw me struggling with or give me a word of encouragement while passing in the hallway. In the competitive atmosphere of the school, Peter was a comfort and light to so many of us. At the end of each class, he would ask us to give one word to set as an intention to lead with for the rest of the day. Peter would look straight into your eyes and just nod his head quietly after you spoke. In a moment, you felt more prepared and at ease to tackle whatever came your way. He always thanked the class for sharing with him.
When Peter came down to Miami to set the solo, having someone who was so supportive of me in my adolescent years guide me through the process was incredibly special. Peter encouraged each dancer to find their own unique path and wanted us to show our individual personalities in the solo. He described performing the Episodes solo as an experience that was one of the most “exciting of his career.” As we dug deeper into the part, it was easy to understand why it meant so much to soulful Peter. During the months of working on the piece, the intrinsic struggle and ‘push and pull’ of the piece became almost like a meditation for me. Peter could sense that the solo resonated with me deeply and knew that it was a very rare and exciting opportunity for me in my career. In the years since, I would often run into Peter in New York and he would always bring up our time spent at MCB, telling me how proud he was of me, and happy that I got to experience something that was so special to him.
In a New York Times interview with Peter at the time of his debut, he is quoted as saying ”I’m so happy with this…I love it. I finally feel as if I’ve got all my vitamins. There comes a time when you have to grow. I’ve been doing a lot of searching in the last year. This has given me the freedom to let things go.” Watching the solo now, it strikes me why Peter related to this work so deeply. He breathed his real life struggles into a piece about torment and wrestling with the darkness. After his performance, the Times said “it was fascinating to see Mr. Frame moving from position to position without linkage – crouch to foot-grabbing or tumbling, finally shielding himself from the unknown and jumping up, palms out as he came to rest.” I hope Peter has found his rest now. He is sorely missed by all who knew him and like so many, I will carry his lessons with me always.