Tuesday, 17 September 2013

An outsider who became an insider

Sir Frederick Ashton was inspired to dance at the age of 13, when he saw a performance by the legendary Anna Pavlova.

He went on to become one of the most distinguished choreographers of the 20th century, creating more than 100 ballets over an illustrious 60-year career, and collaborating with the great and the good including Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Marie Rambert, Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Robert Helpmann, Rudolf Nureyev, Sir Cecil Beaton, and even Gertrude Stein.

From The Guardian:
He 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.

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.
However America had George Balanchine, who, in a parallel timeline to Sir Fred, co-founded a most important ballet company (his the New York Ballet Company, Fred's - with Dame Ninette - the Sadlers Wells Company that became The Royal Ballet).

From The New Criterion:
Ashton didn’t have ballet in his body the way Balanchine did - a consummation as metaphysical as it is muscular (a consummation Ashton devoutly wished). He compensated with imagination, with stylish port de bras, and with ballets that were often heavily scripted, their clever, edgy librettos written by Edith Sitwell and Gertrude Stein.

Indeed, Ashton’s ballets are often quite pointed, full of elaborate punctuation and exclamation. While Balanchine, from the beginning, understood the pointe as a form of divination, a key into ether (in the first bars of Serenade, when the stage of seventeen women snap their toes open into first position, you feel as if the lock on eternity has sprung), an Ashton pointe was an end in itself, a still point of perfection (in Ashton’s Cinderella, Act Two ends with a rich, Leonardo-esque web of stage perspectives, lines and eyes of dancers all aimed toward Cinderella’s empty pink-satin pointe shoe, symbol of la danse). Balanchine knew ballet from the inside out. Ashton was working from the outside in, trying to fill that shoe.

In her comprehensive biography (to which Sir Freddie gave his - often reluctant - support) Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton, writer and dancer Julie Kavanagh explores the great man's personal as well as professional life, and found that his relationships with his male lovers (many of them skilled dancers in his own productions, his "secret muses") were often unsatisfying.

He was rebuffed by Fonteyn's (professional) partner Michael Somes, and wrote longing letters in his pursuit of the American Richard Beard. As the author writes, "the unattainable was then, as it continued to be for Ashton, the only enduring attraction." He did, however, appear to find some semblance of happiness with Martyn Thomas, an interior decorator. Their relationship endured for two decades until Thomas's death in 1985.

It is Sir Frederick Ashton's artistic legacy for which his legend endures, however. And here are just a couple of examples...

A piece Sir Freddie used to dance himself on occasion, here's his famous comic choreography for "The Clog Dance" from La Fille Mal Gardée (music by Peter Ludwig Hertel):

The beautiful Les Patineurs (music by Giacomo Meyerbeer, arranged by Constant Lambert):

And, finally - choreographed for her 60th birthday gala by Sir Freddie, here's Margot Fonteyn in Salut d'Amour - he even joins her in triumph at the end!

"Choreography is my whole being, my whole life, my reason for living, pour into it all my love, my frustrations, and sometimes autobiographical details."

"I never stop observing."

Sir Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton OM, CH, CBE (17th September 1904 – 18th August 1988)


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, my dear!

      Now please excuse me, I must practice my "Fred Step"...



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