Magic and melancholy … Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (1946)
Frederick Ashton was an outsider who became an insider. Raised in South America, he moved to the UK in 1919 and went on to embody the “English style” of ballet – lyrical rather than dramatic, preferring nuance over statement – and moved into the highest echelons of English society.
Ashton was born in 1904 in Ecuador, and raised in Peru. At 13, he was smitten by ballet after seeing a performance by Anna Pavlova. At 14, he was sent to an English boarding school, which he hated, and where he was teased for his Spanish accent (he quickly lost it). He began taking classes in London, aged 20, first with Léonide Massine, then with Marie Rambert, both former members of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Rambert spotted his precocious talent for choreography, and Ashton made his first piece for her in 1926, the witty one-act A Tragedy of Fashion. In 1928, he went to France to perform with Ida Rubinstein‘s company, where he danced with both Massine and Bronislava Nijinska. Returning to London the following year, he made a string of further pieces, first for Rambert and then for Ninette de Valois, as well as working in revues and musical comedy. In 1935 De Valois invited him to join the Vic–Wells (later Royal) Ballet, where he encountered a young dancer called Margot Fonteyn. She was to become his muse, and together they embodied the Royal Ballet until Ashton’s retirement in 1970.
The first full-length British ballet … Cinderella (1948)
In the early days, Ashton was forever hanging around with artists, aristocrats and assorted “bright young things” – a blithe spirit that his work reflected. That changed in 1939, with his mother’s death and the outbreak of the second world war, during which Ashton served in the RAF. He returned to dance with a new depth, finding his mature voice in works such as Symphonic Variations (1946) and the first full-length British ballet, Cinderella (1948). He was made assistant director of the Royal Ballet in 1952 and director in 1963, presiding over its “golden age” until he was replaced by Kenneth MacMillan in 1970. The mishandling of his departure caused much bitterness, but Ashton continued contributing occasional pieces to the Royal repertory almost until his death in 1988, though he often felt more appreciated in America than in Britain. The question of how to preserve, maintain or revitalise Ashton’s legacy remains hotly debated to this day.
Though Ashton’s choreography encompasses many modes – mime, pantomime, pure classicism, popular and folk dances – you could see it as essentially influenced by three women. Foremost is Pavlova, who inspired his undying love of classical technique, and of all the “carry-on” that accompanies ballet: its airs and graces, its manners and mannerisms (Ashton’s love of the pantomime dame is the flipside to this reverence). Second is Nijinska, whose innovative use of the upper body affected Ashton’s technique, where the head, shoulders, arms and hands are much more articulated than in the more “leggy” Russian or American styles. Third is Isadora Duncan, for whom deep-felt sincerity, simplicity of action and seriousness of intent were the motives behind steps and style.
Ashton’s early works tended towards witty, chic studies of modern mores. After the war, he turned towards abstract work, concentrating on formal composition in masterworks such as Symphonic Variations andScènes de Ballet (1948). But there is always a sense of human subtext, and he soon began making more dramatic works, including Cinderella,Ondine (1958) and La Fille Mal Gardée (1960). But narrative drama was never his main interest, it was more a context in which to present nuances of character, emotion and relationship. His later works compress stories to these essentials: The Dream (1964, from Shakespeare), Enigma Variations (1968, a series of character studies based on the score by Elgar), and A Month in the Country (1976, from Ivan Turgenev).
Ashton often encoded his own biography in his ballets. Bisexual as a youth and later gay, the objects of his romantic and sexual desire – often distanced in terms of age, geography or affection – fuelled his work. Julie Kavanagh’s definitive biography Secret Muses explains the background, though you don’t need to know it to appreciate the ballets.
Whatever piece you watch, see if you can spot the Fred step, a little signature that Ashton put into many of his works, like a lucky charm. He got it from Pavlova.
Choreographer’s muse … Margot Fonteyn in Marguerite and Armand (1963)
Other than Fonteyn, Ashton’s favoured dancers included Nadia Nerina, Lynn Seymour, Antoinette Sibley and Lesley Collier among the women; Michael Somes, Brian Shaw, Alexander Grant and Anthony Dowell among the men.
His “dearest friend, closest collaborator” was Sophie Fedorovitch, who designed several ballets for him before her untimely death in 1953. Dancer and designer William Chappell remained a close friend from the mid-20s and throughout Ashton’s life.
Ashton became good friends with the Queen Mum: they would have “zonking martinis” together after picnics at Sandringham.
In his own words
“The idea so often expressed that classical technique is hampering to artistic expression is erroneous and misleading.” – Ashton, “A Word about Choreography” in Dancing Times (1930); quoted by R Glasstone (1994)
“I have been working to make the ballet independent of literary and pictorial motives … it must survive though its dancing qualities, just as drama must survive through the richness of the spoken word.” – Ashton, “Notes on Choreography” (1951) in W Sorrell, The Dance Has Many Faces (1966)
“I believe simply that a ballet must be a good work of art, that it must express the choreographer’s vision of experience as truthfully and beautifully as possible. Insofar as it does this, it will express his most profound sense of values and thus be likely to concern itself with matters of more permanent significance than topical issues. He should deal with that which is spiritual and eternal rather than that which is material and temporary.” – Ashton (1959) in Ballet Annual, quoted by D Vaughan Frederick Ashton and His Ballets (1976)
Character, emotion, relationship … A Month in the Country (1976)
In other words
“The steps do not look like school steps (though they are as a matter of fact correct); they are like discoveries, like something you do not know you can do, with the deceptive air of being incorrect and accidental that romantic poetry has.” – Edwin Denby in Modern Music (1939), reprinted in Denby, Dance Writings (1986)
“The more trivial the subject, the deeper and more beautiful is Ashton’s poetic view of it.” – Denby again, Ballet (1952)
“We all know that he was a consummate storyteller when he wanted to be, but he told his stories and created his characters through the steps: you know what his people are like and what they are feeling because of how they dance.” – David Vaughan in Following Sir Fred’s Steps (1994)
“A note of charity pervades many Ashton ballets, as does charity’s frequent partner melancholy. To that combination add wit … and restraint, and you have a fine bouquet of English traits – above all, the traits of the English novel, from Jane Austen down through Penelope Fitzgerald. Like those writers, Ashton used this equipment to unearth feelings that we barely knew we had but which, once he showed them to us, we realised we’d been living on our whole lives.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker (2004)
“Fred was not a happy man; much of his adulthood was spent half-consciously seeking unrequited emotional situations that would inspire him and activate what Petrarch called the resonance of sighs. But sorrow had its beauty: from it came the ballets.” – Julie Kavanagh in her biography of Ashton, Secret Muses (1996)
“Posé en arabesque, coupé dessous, petit développé à la seconde, pas de bourrée dessous, pas de chat.”
(The technical description of the “Fred step”.)
“Kenneth MacMillan was better.” (Believe me, some people still find the Ashton/MacMillan divide a hotter topic than whether True Blood beats Buffy. Newsflash: they’re not even playing on the same pitch.)
Resonance of sighs … Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan
Ashton is often considered the “other” choreographer to have defined 20th-century ballet, alongside George Balanchine. He is often also contrasted with Kenneth MacMillan, who succeeded him at the Royal Ballet. Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and contemporary choreographer Richard Alston have both been inspired by Ashton.Merce Cunningham also shares an affinity with Ashton, in the fleet footwork and the articulate upper body (both choreographers trace a link, via teacher Margaret Craske, to the ballet master Enrico Cecchetti).
Now watch this
Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell in Cinderella, with Ashton and Robert Helpmann in pantomime-dame mode as the Stepsisters
A recent production of the 1946 Symphonic Variations
Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Marguerite and Armand (1963), introduced by Ashton
Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan
Anthony Dowell and Lynn Seymour, A Month in the Country
Fonteyn in Salut d’Amour, choreographed for her 60th birthday gala – a memory of the many roles that Ashton made for her. Ashton joins her at the end for a gentle version of the “Fred step”.
Where to see him next
Ashton works are in several company reps. For starters try the Royal Ballet website.