The choreographer most responsible for the growth of ballet in modern-day England, Sir Frederick Ashton (1904–1988) was one of the most important twentieth-century inheritors of the classical ballet tradition, developed in France and nurtured in the late nineteenth century above all in Russia.
Much loved by dance audiences, Ashton created more than 110 ballets over his long career. Though forbidding in the level of technique they demanded from dancers, they had a direct appeal often marked by lyrical beauty and even humor. "Romantic, passionate, and funny, Frederick Ashton's choreography captures the best and worst of what it means to be human …" observed Dance Magazine writer David Vaughan. "It's a sweet, sane world as Ashton sees it. Skaters may slip and fall, but they get up. The golden age may be lost, but the joys of a country farm remain undiminished. Even a doomed courtesan's heartbreak has its own glamour. While symmetry and form have a place, they don't undermine Ashton's essential warmth and gallantry."
Raised in South America
Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador on September 17, 1904, the man who become a central figure in English cultural life spent most of his childhood in South America. His father was a low-level diplomatic official. Finally the family settled in Lima, Peru, where Ashton grew up speaking mostly Spanish; when he attended schools in England as a teenager, his classmates teased him because he spoke with a Spanish accent. He became transfixed by dance when he saw a performance by the famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in Lima in 1917.
Dance was not considered a proper occupation for young men among middle-class British families of the time, and Ashton's family refused to give him the lessons he asked for. It is probable that they also identified his homosexual orientation and tried to stamp it out. But Ashton continued to pursue his interest in dance after being sent to England. He saw the Ballets russes (Russian Ballet) led by impresario Serge Diaghilev, the leading progressive dance company of the 1910s, and in 1921 he saw the American modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Finally Ashton's brother Charlie paid for a few dance lessons, and in 1922 Ashton used money saved from his job as a translator at an import-export firm to begin studies with one of Diaghilev's lead male dancers and choreographers, Léonide Massine.
Taking up the art in his late teens, Ashton was extremely atypical in the dance world; most dancers begin their training as small children. Ashton's late start may actually have contributed to his success as a classical ballet choreographer in an age when modern dance was on the rise; the standard steps of ballet, which seemed exhausted of possibilities to creative young dancers who had studied them for years, instead represented to Ashton the exciting fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Ashton dreamed of becoming a dancer himself, but another teacher, Marie Rambert, encouraged him to develop his talent at choreography instead. By 1926 Ashton had contributed a ballet called A Tragedy of Fashion to an English musical revue, Riverside Nights.
Spending part of 1928 and 1929 in Paris, Ashton finished off his choreographic training with leading classical choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. Stung by Rambert's comment (quoted by Jack Anderson of the New York Times) that he was "bone lazy," he created over 30 works between 1929 and 1934, many of them for Rambert's Ballet Club company. Les Rendezvous, an early success, depicted lovers who meet in a park. Like his contemporary George Balanchine (also born in 1904), Ashton flirted with the idea of moving to the United States; he visited in 1934 and did choreography for the modern opera Four Saints in Three Acts, composed by Virgil Thomson to a text by Gertrude Stein. Ashton recruited African-American dancers from Harlem nightclubs to execute his innovative choreography.
Based Ballet on Ice Skating
Balanchine went on to become a giant of American ballet, but Ashton returned to England in 1935 to take a position as resident choreographer at the Vic-Wells Ballet, later renamed Sadler's Wells Ballet and, in 1956, the Royal Ballet. This new post gave Ashton the chance to create full-scale ballets; most of his works up to that point had been for smaller companies. He remained with the company for the rest of his career, becoming its artistic director in 1963. Ashton maintained a high level of productivity through the 1930s, often inspired by a young Vic-Wells ballerina named Margot Fonteyn, later regarded as one of the great classical dancers of the middle twentieth century. One of his most characteristic works from this period was Les patineurs (The Skaters, 1937), to music by Giacomo Meyerbeer. Though it had no real plot, the work was instantly accessible even to audiences with little knowledge of ballet; it depicted the various personality types—lovers enjoying the winter scenery, show-offs, fearful novices—that one might encounter on an average ice rink. Ashton also created choreography for musicals and revues in the 1930s, sometimes working with American-born tap dancer Buddy Bradley.
Another comic Ashton ballet of the late 1930s was A Wedding Bouquet, which depicted a series of mishaps that beset a small-town wedding in France; a drunk guest has to be carried out, and the final dance of the bride and groom is a parody of the pas de deux of classical ballet. Ashton put the experience of the audience in first place as he planned his dances. "I had a terror of boring people," Anderson quoted him as saying. "And I wasn't concerned with being profound. The 20's and 30's were a very frivolous period and I wasn't trying to correct this; I just went with it."
Though Ashton's choreography was becoming increasingly popular, his works were sometimes criticized as lacking in seriousness. That changed, however, after the outbreak of World War II; his Dante Sonata was a turbulent work with a tragic spirit. Ashton served in Britain's Royal Air Force from 1941 to 1946 and returned after his discharge with Symphonic Variations, an abstract work that is considered one of his most important ballets. Believing that English ballet had become too literary in its orientation, he created a pure dance work. The work had its gestation in the midst of Ashton's wartime experiences. "Fred said that if he ever got through this 'bloody war,' he would make a ballet to the César Franck score [Symphonic Variations]," dance producer Wendy Ellis Soames told Allan Ulrich of Dance Magazine. "He envisioned angelic bodies moving through space."
Many of Ashton's ballets were large-scale productions that fit fully into the graceful Russian-French tradition in which he had been trained. Another 1946 ballet, Cinderella, used the composition of that title by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev and exemplified the fairy-tale atmosphere that has endeared ballet to generations of audiences. Yet Ashton's dance language was flexible, and he responded enthusiastically to contemporary music. His Scènes de ballet of 1948 was based on a dry, rhythmically intricate composition by the modernist Russian-French-American composer Igor Stravinsky. According to Joan Acocella of The New Yorker, Ashton said he was attracted to Stravinsky's music because of its "cold, distant, uncompromising beauty."
By the 1950s, Ashton was generally considered one of the world's premier choreographers. He augmented his busy London schedule with visits to other countries, creating works for the New York City Ballet (Illuminations, 1950), the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen (Romeo and Juliet, 1955), and La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy (La valse, 1958). Fonteyn remained one of his most frequent collaborators, and the depth of the pair's creative partnership was one of the hallmarks of postwar ballet.
Created Ingenious Realization of Elgar Work
Ashton was knighted in 1962 by Queen Elizabeth II. As artistic director of what was now the Royal Ballet between 1963 and 1970, he did not let his executive duties interfere with his creativity. In fact, the 1960s were a peak period for Ashton in terms of ballets that became ensconced in the repertories of dance companies around the world. He returned to the comic vein of his earlier works in La fille mal gardée (The Girl Running Wild, 1960), which was presented in the U.S. by both the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet. In 1968 he took on the difficult task of creating a ballet based on Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, an orchestral work consisting of a series of subtle instrumental portraits of some of the composer's friends.
"In that ballet," wrote Anderson in the New York Times, "he evoked not only the loneliness of genius but Elgar's friends and family and the mood of England at the turn of the century as well, and evoked them with such simple details as the eating of an apple and the arrival of a telegram." Many of Ashton's ballets of the 1960s remained in the Royal Ballet repertory and that of the Joffrey Ballet in the U.S., renowned for its large collection of notated Ashton dances. Ashton retired from the Royal Ballet in 1970 and received the Dance Magazine Award that year.
Part of the reason for Ashton's professional longevity was his personal popularity in British high society. Never a public homosexual, he nonetheless made no secret of his orientation among his acquaintances. He had a sense of humor in person to match the one he displayed on the dance stage, and among those who enjoyed it was Queen Elizabeth II, whom he once taught to dance the tango. Ashton could mimic various well-known British personalities including the queen, who, it is said, retaliated with an Ashton imitation of her own when she heard about his routine. After his retirement, Ashton created the ballet Rhapsody for the queen's 80th birthday celebrations in 1980.
Ashton remained busy in his later years, choreographing more than 15 new ballets in addition to Rhapsody between 1971 and 1985. His Etude was featured in The Turning Point, a successful ballet film released in 1977. Retiring to a country home near the town of Eye in England's Suffolk region, he often returned to London to supervise revivals of his earlier works. He died at his country home on the night of August 18, 1988; some sources give his death date as August 19.
Ashton's ballets fell into a temporary decline in the years after his death, but as the hundredth anniversary of his birth approached, dance critics raised an alarm about the prospect that his works might be forgotten (dance can be written down in notation, but the process of reconstructing them is much more complicated than it is for music). Clive Barnes wrote in Dance Magazine that the Royal Ballet "has in practice done very poorly" by Ashton, and opined that "the lasting value of Ashton's ballets will stand the test of time if they are not sabotaged by the cruelties of history." The Ashton centenary year of 2004 brought a host of new performances of his works, as well as testimonials from the many dancers who had learned their craft as they struggled to master his graceful and appealing works.
International Dictionary of Ballet, St. James, 1993.
Vaughan, David, Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, A. and C. Black, 1977.
Dance Magazine, August 1994; December 2003; July 2004.
Guardian (London, England), august 20, 1988.
New York Times, August 20, 1988.
New Yorker, August 2, 2004.
Washington Post, August 20, 1988.
"Ashton, Sir Frederick," GLBTQ, An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture, http://www.glbtq.com/arts/ashton_f.html (December 8, 2005).