Dance History

The legendary Soviet ballerina

Juliet became Ulanova's signature role (pictured with Yury Zhdanov as Romeo).

The great prima ballerina Galina Ulanova bends her body near Bolshoi dancer Ekaterina Maximova during a coaching session in preparation for Giselle. With her eyes focused on her student, Ulanova gestures with tender encouragement, and every part of her body conveys the subtleties of Giselle. In a series of still images from 1960, the photographer Albert Kahn captures Ulanova’s deep understanding of the role flowing from her body to her student’s.

One hundred and one years since her birth, Ulanova remains the image of the quintessential Soviet ballerina—the embodiment of bravura technique and glorious expression. Although she was primarily known as a performer, she became a sought-after coach in her later career, passing on the legacy of Agrippina Vaganova to Bolshoi dancers including Maximova, Nina Timofeyeva and Vladimir Vasiliev. Revered for her soulful portrayal of Juliet, a role that she originated in Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Ulanova epitomizes the Russian ideal of a strong and supple back with fluid arms. She was keenly aware of heritage and perpetually interested in furthering herself and her students for the sake of the artform, audiences and her country.

Ulanova was born in 1910 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to Imperial Ballet dancers Sergei Ulanov and Maria Romanova. Seven years later, the Russian Revolution began, and because her parents both worked, they needed a safe place for their daughter. So they brought her to the State School of Choreography (currently known as the Vaganova Academy) to be a boarding student. Her mother was her daily ballet teacher at first, followed by Vaganova. The environment at the school was difficult during the Revolution—the studios were bitterly cold and food was scarce. But Ulanova’s motto was “Talent is work” (a phrase coined by Soviet author and political activist Maxim Gorky), which she lived by throughout her training, career as a performer and later as a teacher. “I understood quite early that only work can impart lightness, beauty, inspiration to dancing,” she revealed in A Day with Galina Ulanova, by Leon Nemenschousky, in 1960.

Soon after joining the school, Ulanova was given children’s roles in ballet productions at the Maryinsky Theatre. She relished the opportunities to portray characters such as a bird in The Snow Maiden, and her performance ability was noticed. Once the dust settled from the Revolution, conditions improved. Ulanova’s family was happy with the new communist regime and Ulanova remained a devout Soviet throughout her life.

After graduating from her school in 1928, she joined the Kirov Ballet (previously named the Imperial Ballet). She continued to push herself to the utmost limits as an artist and never settled for a mediocre performance.

Ulanova’s hard work paid off—just four months after her debut with the Kirov, she was given the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Her career flourished, and numerous roles followed, including Maria in The Fountain of Bakhchaserai, Giselle and in 1940, Juliet, in the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Lavrovsky. Ulanova’s portrayal of Juliet was exquisite; she skimmed across the stage, leaping and turning as if truly weightless. Lyrical and poetic, Juliet became her signature role.

Though the world’s landscape was changing, Ulanova remained steadfast to her country. She performed for soldiers during World War II, lifting the spirits of the troops. Soviet ballet companies were state-run, and in 1944 she was ordered by those in political power to perform with what they considered to be their greatest company—the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. She adapted to the new company and the move to a new city with gusto and without complaint.

In April 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the Bolshoi visited the United States for the first time. New York Times critic John Martin wrote: “To see a legend assume the dimensions of reality before us, and in the process lose nothing of the quality of legend, is a rare and wonderful experience.” Dance Magazine critic Clive Barnes wrote, “[Ulanova] was the sensation of the Bolshoi Ballet’s first appearances outside Russia.” He continued: “Although she was nearly 50 when she first appeared in the West, the years slipped away when she danced, and the world stood still.” With Ulanova its leading exponent, Soviet ballet proved itself to be at the top of the world order.

Around 1960, Ulanova began coaching the next generation of dancers and she became ballet mistress répétiteur of the Bolshoi. Eager to pass on this rich heritage of Russian ballet, Ulanova coached with the same commitment she brought to performing. Quoted by Kahn in his 1962 book Days with Ulanova, she exclaimed, “The work of the instructor is an art, and what a great art!”

Though she retired from performing in 1962, Ulanova continued to coach dancers until close to her death in 1998. In the September 1957 issue of Ballet Today, Ulanova said: “If I live to be a hundred, I shall always remember the happiness I felt knowing that my work has brought joy to people.” Working to the best of her ability with undying energy and great humility, Ulanova inspired students to develop their strengths and hone their talents to their maximum potential.

“During that great era of Soviet ballet, there certainly were dancers with her technical capabilities, but her intensity of dramatic expression and beauty of movement are not to be matched,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, who strives to pass on Ulanova’s legacy to his Vaganova-trained students. “Her unerring devotion to her art shone radiantly through every role she assumed,” he says. “She was truly magnificent—that’s the only word I believe can be used to sum up her divine artistry.” DT

 

Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor and the dance education coordinator at Montclair State University.

Photo courtesy of Galina Ulanova Foundation Archives

How-To

The Bennington School of the Dance

1) Who was the director of The Bennington School of the Dance?

2) What were the years of The Bennington School of the Dance?

3) Name 4 major choreographers of the time period who were on faculty at The Bennington School of the Dance.

4) Name 2 students who attended the school and later became well-known dance figures.

5) Where on campus did students dance outside, and according to Hill, why did it cause a stir amongst the townspeople?

6) What style of dance was the primary focus of The Bennington School of the Dance?

7) Name one of Doris Humphrey's famous works that premiered at Bennington in 1938.

8) Who made up the largest percentage of the student body at The Bennington School of the Dance?

9) Why did The Bennington School of the Dance end, and what festival that is still active today carried on its spirit?

10) What ballet company was invited to perform the Bennington Festival in 1936 and 1937?

Bonus: Name two great modern dancers of the time period who were not part of The Bennington School of the Dance.

Answers:

1) Martha Hill 2) 1934-1942 3) Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman 4) Alwin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham 5) Commons Lawn; They were thought of as a nudist colony, because they were dncing outside in flesh-colored leotards. 6) Modern 7) Passacaglia in C minor 8) Female college and K-12 physical education teachers 9) World War II meant that the resources of the college and community needed to be used in other ways.; American Dance Festival 10) Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan 11) Katherine Dunham and Helen Tamiris

* Click here to download and print this quiz for your students.

 

For the full article on the Bennington School of the Dance, click here.

 

Film still courtesy of Windhover Center

Dance History

The man behind the method

Joseph Pilates developing his exercise technique at Jacob’s Pillow, circa 1943

Descriptions of Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1883–1967) in the 1960s create a vivid picture: white mane of hair, bright blue eyes (one was glass), mahogany skin, barrel chest, dressed in small white swimming trunks and canvas sneakers—an outfit he supposedly wore on the streets and in the studio. Eccentric? Maybe. But a master at understanding the human body? Absolutely. Pilates was and is a towering figure in the history of physical fitness and dance for his development of a method that enhances and strengthens the body’s natural functions.

Pilates had a distinct vision of helping all people become healthier. He theorized that the American lifestyle had changed following the industrial revolution, yet nothing had taken the place of hard farming labor in terms of exercise. He advocated a fitness method that balanced strength and flexibility with an emphasis on breathing and the body’s “core,” and often quoted the German poet/philosopher Friedrich von Schiller: “It is the mind itself which builds the body.”

While other exercise programs did exist at this time, Pilates’ concept was a novel idea in the early 20th century, and it particularly supported modern dance technique as it was developing in the United States. Notable dancers like Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Jacques D’Amboise sought Pilates not only for conditioning but also for healing. (Physical therapy as we know it did not emerge until the 1950s.) Those dancers who did not study with Pilates in New York may have encountered him at Jacob’s Pillow from 1939 to 1951. Today, numerous dancers make a side living as Pilates instructors.

Of Greek ancestry, Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, on December 9, 1883. Throughout his childhood, he observed natural movements in children and animals. “As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding in the leaves, watching the animals move,” he once said. Building on this interest in physicality, he became a diver, skier and gymnast and developed an exercise training system for himself. In 1912, Pilates went to England as a circus performer, but when World War I began in 1914, he was placed in an internment camp for German nationals—first in Lancaster, then on the Isle of Man.

Although food was scarce in England due to the German blockade, Pilates watched in awe as the starving cats still stretched and leaped about. Inspired, he began exercising fellow captives in the hopes to keep them physically fit, even without much food. Pilates used his own body strength to create resistance exercises for the bed-ridden patients, but soon constructed resistance equipment out of bedsprings—a forerunner to his “Universal Reformer” still used today. Pilates liked to say that when the flu epidemic of 1918 swept through England, not a single inmate succumbed to the illness, which he considered a result of his techniques.

Pilates (77) demonstrating his method

Pilates returned to Germany after the war and began teaching exercise and self-defense to the Hamburg Military Police. While there, he met German dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban, who incorporated some of Pilates’ exercises into his methods that, along with the teachings of Mary Wigman, would be spread to the United States by Hanya Holm. Holm would later work directly with Pilates in developing her modern dance floor exercises, including her warm-up that uses parts of the body to provide resistance.

In 1926, Pilates relocated to the U.S. In transit, he met Clara Zeuner (1883–1977), who would later become his lifelong partner. She recalled that on the ship, “We talked so much about health and the need to keep the body healthy, we decided to open a physical fitness studio,” which they ran together for more than 30 years on the second floor of 939 8th Avenue in New York City. Pilates instructor Mary Bowen described in Pilates Style Magazine that the studio was “plain, barren of any eros or femininity, a place to work your body. There was no chitchat; it was all about the work.”

Pilates called his teachings “Contrology,” which he developed over a span of many years and delineated in his books Pilates Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health. Contrology features six principles—concentration, control, centering, flowing movement, precision and breathing—that are mastered through 34 mat exercises, including the famous 100s abdominals. He also developed machines such as the “Wunda Chair” and the “Cadillac” to further work the limbs and core.

The fitness craze that propelled Pilates’ technique into health clubs and living rooms across the nation did not reach full swing until more than a decade after his death on October 9, 1967. “I’m 50 years ahead of my time,” he foretold. “Truth will prevail and I know that my teachings will reach the masses and finally be adopted as universal.” Although Pilates did not live to see his method become a household name, his legacy stands firm, which speaks volumes to the genius of the man behind the method. DT

Freelance writer and author Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor and the dance education coordinator at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Additional Resources:

BOOKS:

The Joseph H. Pilates Archive Collection, edited by Sean Gallagher and Romana Kryzanowska, BainBridgeBooks, 2000

The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning: Introduction to the Core Exercises, by Sean Gallagher, Romana Kryzanowska, Steven Speleotis, BainBridgeBooks, 1999

The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning, by Philip Friedman and Gail Eisen, Doubleday & Company,

Inc., 1980

A Pilates Primer: The Millennium Edition, by Joseph H. Pilates and William J. Miller, Presentation Dynamics, 1998. This is a republishing of two books by Joseph Pilates: Pilates’ Return to Life through Contrology (1945) and Your Health (1934)

ARTICLES:

“Gym Owner Has Youthful Glow at 83,” by Mary Burt Baldwin, The New York Times, April 12, 1963

“Joseph H. Pilates, Body Builder, 86,” The New York Times, October 10, 1967

“To Keep in Shape: Act Like an Animal,” by Robert Wernick, Sports Illustrated, February 12, 1962

“They all go to Joe’s,” by Doris Hering, Dance Magazine, February 1956

“The Ultimate Mind-Body Connection: First-Generation Instructor Mary Bowen blends Jungian Analysis with Pilates and Goes Where No One Has Gone Before,” by Mary Bowen, PilatesStyle.com, September/October 2009

Photos from top: by Eric Sanford, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow; by John Lindquist, courtesy of Harvard Theatre Collection

How-To

1.    Why does Joseph Pilates’ method suit dancers so well?

 

2.    Name 3 notable dancers who took class with him in New York City.

 

3.    True or False: Throughout his childhood, Pilates observed natural movement in children and animals. In fact, it was the still-active starving
cats he watched while a German captive during World War I that inspired him to begin exercising his fellow inmates.

 

4.    Name some of the odd jobs and sports he pursued as a young man.

 

5.    Who, after meeting Pilates in Germany post WWI, incorporated some of Pilates’ exercises into his methods that, along with the teachings of Mary Wigman, would later be spread to the United States? (Hint: This German dance pioneer is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of dance.)

 

6.    True or False: Pilates’ exercise program was the very first to exist in the early 20th century.

 

7.    What modern dancer worked with Pilates to develop her modern class floor exercises?

 

8.    Pilates called his teachings _____.

 

9.    Name three machines Pilates developed.

 

10.    What is the name of his famous abdominals exercise?

 

 

 

 

ANSWER KEY:

1. It works on balancing strength and flexibility with an emphasis on breathing and the body’s core.;  2. Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Jacques D’Amboise;  3. True;  4. Circus performer, physical fitness and self-defense trainer; skiing, diving and gymnastics;  5. Rudolf von Laban;  6. False;  7. Hanya Holm;  8. Contrology;  9. Cadillac, Wunda Chair, Universal Reformer;  10. The 100s abdominals

 

Read the full article on Joseph Pilates, here.

How-To

1. True or False: Anna Sokolow had her first encounter with dance during college.

 

2. Who were the two teachers that she studied under while on scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse?

 

3.What type of dancer did Sokolow often joke that she could have been, but it would not have suited her radical temperament?

 

4. What is the name of the dance company that she founded in 1933?

 

5. What off-Broadway musical did she create original choreography for in 1967?

 

6. Name the work that Sokolow created in response to the Holocaust.

 

7. In what country did she help establish a government-sponsored modern dance company?

 

8. Who recommended that Sokolow introduce the American style of modern dance to Israel’s Inbal Dance Theatre?

 

9. Where, in New York City, did she teach dance and drama for more than 30 years?

 

10. Fill in the blanks: In a 1966 essay, Sokolow wrote: “To the young dancer I want to say, ‘Do what you (           ) you are, not what you (           ) you ought to be.’”


 

ANSWERS

1. False; Her first encounter occurred at age 10 during an after-school class.

2. Louis Horst and Martha Graham

3. A ballet dancer

4. Dance Group of the Theatre Union

5. Hair (1967)

6. Dreams (1961)

7. Mexico

8. Jerome Robbins

9. The Juilliard School

10. feel; think

 

Click here for the full article on Anna Sokolow.

Dance History

Skepticism was high around modern dance’s place in the dance field in early 20th-century America, but one establishment chose to rally for this new artform. It happened in the summer of 1934, when The Bennington School of the Dance in Vermont brought together four modern pioneers—Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Doris Humphrey with Charles Weidman. The four choreographers had been working mostly independently until then, developing their own styles and techniques. As the story of modern dance has unfolded, their coming together moved American modern dance forward, from an individual recital form to a theatrical concert dance form. It inspired hundreds of students to teach, choreograph and dance their ways into modern’s next phases, and it gave Bennington College the recognition to support its still-thriving dance department.

 

In June of 1933, Bennington College President Robert Devore Leigh mentioned to Martha Hill, the arts and music division’s director of dance since the college’s opening in 1932, that he was looking for a way to keep the campus functioning during the summers. Hill, a former Graham company member, suggested a dance school. (An official dance department was not established until 1936.) She was quickly named director with former Teachers College and New College faculty member Mary Josephine Shelly as administrative director. Hill, who passed away in 1995, recalled in a 1990 interview: “We took a big breath and put out publicity about it, not in a big way. We had to close the doors at 100 students because we could not house any more!”

 

At the workshop’s beginning, there was a strong focus on introducing the techniques of modern dance to college and K–12 physical-education teachers, who were mostly women and made up the majority of students. Many had never before seen modern, and by 1939, participants had come from 48 states and other countries to study closely with these groundbreaking choreographers and teachers. Students watched the four artists perform and develop their revolutionary techniques (Graham focused on oppositions in the body; Humphrey and Weidman on the idea of fall and recovery; and Holm on the use of space), with the first-ever opportunity to study with all four—students rarely crossed camps before then.

 

Male students also began to take interest. Choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Merce Cunningham attended the school in 1939, when it was held at California’s Mills College to help strengthen modern dance in the West. In addition to modern, over the next eight years, Bennington offered courses in ballet, dance composition, music, dance notation, stagecraft and dance history.

 

Makeshift studios were formed out of the common areas in the colonial-style houses used as dormitories, and performances took place on campus in the 150-seat Commons Theatre and in the town of Bennington at the 500-seat Vermont State Armory. Students also danced outside on the college’s lush-green Commons Lawn, causing a stir among the townspeople who saw them. “The story was that we were thought of as a nudist colony by people in town, because here we were dancing in flesh-colored leotards, practically naked after the tutus of ballet,” Hill recalled, in a 1992 interview with Bennington College faculty member Rebecca Godwin.

 

The pastoral landscape also offered downtime opportunities for faculty. In her book, Graham shared the story of how she loved to drive around the campus and town in a Model-T Ford. She wrote that it scared Hill, who once exclaimed, “Pray! With Martha’s driving, that could be the end of the history of modern dance.”

 

Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and Holm were joined by an illustrious group of faculty members and lecturers: dancers and dance teachers José Limón, Erick Hawkins, Hortense Lieberthal (Zera) and Bessie Schönberg; composers Louis Horst (Graham’s music director) and Norman Lloyd; New York Times dance critic John Martin; and Lincoln Kirstein. The school provided the faculty with sound summer employment while the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and the four choreographers had the chance to create new dances with their resident companies.

 

These masterworks premiered at the workshop’s culminating Bennington Festival (held in the Armory), which kicked off with Graham’s Panorama (1935). By 1937, the festival had expanded to show works by the school’s emerging, invitation-only fellowship artists: Limón, Esther Junger and Anna Sokolow. And the festival’s positive response made it possible to invite performances from outside genres and groups. For example, Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan—a group of 12 American Ballet dancers—premiered in 1936 and returned in 1937. During the festival in 1938, all four artists debuted new dances, which included Humphrey’s Passacaglia in C Minor, that reflected the school’s five successful years.

 

Unfortunately, the summer experiment could not last forever. As World War II engulfed the nation, resources from the college and community were needed in other ways. And the program’s reshaped format (called the School of the Arts from 1940 to 1941), featuring only one of the original four choreographers, was not as successful as planned. The summer of 1942 would be the last for the workshop and its festival. But the school was such a hotbed of ideas and creativity, that its spirit was reignited in 1948 as a collaboration between New York University and Connecticut College with many of the same faculty, including Hill as director. The performance festival of the workshop was called American Dance Festival, which became the name used for the entire school and festival currently housed at Duke University in North Carolina.

 

In her autobiography, Graham called Bennington “a wonderful place where we were given the freedom and possibility to make our dances.” But when asked if the people involved realized how important the summer school was while in progress, Hill answered, “Sometimes. Most of the time, we were too busy to recognize what we were into.” Little did they know their contributions would forever change the face of American modern dance. DT

 

 

Additional Resources

 

ARTICLE:

“Martha Hill on Early Dance at Bennington,” by Rebecca Godwin, Quadrille, Volume 25, Number 1, Winter 1992–93
 

 

BOOKS:

Bennington College: In the Beginning
, by Thomas Brockway, Backcountry Publications, 1981

Blood Memory,
by Martha Graham, Doubleday, 1991

The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900–1995,
by Elizabeth McPherson, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008

Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance
, by Janet Mansfield Soares, Wesleyan University Press, 2009

Modern Dance in America: The Bennington Years,
by Sali Ann Kriegsman, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982
 

 

FILM:


USA: Dance—Four Pioneers
, Ohio State University, 1965

 

Elizabeth McPherson is an assistant professor at Montclair State University and is currently writing a book on The Bennington School of the Dance.

 

photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival Archives

Teachers & Role Models
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Pearl Eileen Primus (1919–1994) was an ambassador of African dance and the African experience in the Caribbean and United States. Her Trinidadian heritage, combined with extensive studies in the Caribbean, Africa and the American South, became the lens through which she taught and choreographed. Confronting stereotypes and prejudice through movement, she advocated dance as a means of uniting people against discrimination. “When I dance, I am dancing as a human being, but a human being who has African roots," she declared of her work.

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How-To

One of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, Sir Frederick Ashton (1904–1988) was the driving force behind what became known as the English style of classical ballet. He worked extensively with The Royal Ballet, from its very beginnings as the Vic-Wells Ballet, and created an aesthetic that was distinctly British in its refined, expressive quality and vast amplitude of movement, yet appealed to audiences around the globe.

Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on September 17, 1904, Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton was the fifth of six children (one being a half-brother) to George, a British Embassy vice-consul, and Georgiana Ashton. He remembered his father as distant, cold and serious, but his mother as vivacious, humorous and witty—and his inspiration. Ashton, however, spent little time with either parent growing up. Instead, he was cared for by servants.

The family moved to Lima, Peru, when he was 3 years old, where they socialized with other British exiles, serving tea and trading English reading materials to preserve their national pride. Ashton began taking dance classes as a leisure activity, but he learned more about folk dancing and skipping than ballet technique.

At age 13, Ashton saw Anna Pavlova perform at the Municipal Theater in Lima, and his life was forever changed by her grace and charisma. Dance became Ashton’s secret passion, as he knew his father would not approve of a theatrical career.

In 1919, Ashton was sent to Dover College in England, the equivalent of a secondary school in the US, where he endured an unpleasant experience. He found joy only in the Saturday social dance lessons and school holidays spent in London exploring museums and watching performances by Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Ballets Suédois. Three years later, Ashton quit school and found work as a translator for an import-export company.

Tragedy struck the Ashton family in 1924 when Ashton’s father committed suicide. Afterward, his mother came to live with him in London. During this time, he answered former Diaghilev dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine’s advertisement for a trial series of ballet classes. Ashton hid his dance studies from his mother and, to her knowledge, only began taking regular lessons after he experienced a minor mental breakdown. (A doctor informed her that Ashton must study ballet or risk going insane.) He later studied with Margaret Craske and Marie Rambert, each of whom left an indelible mark on him: Craske through her adherence to Cecchetti teaching that emphasized épaulement and expressive gestures, and Rambert through her encouragement and support of his choreography.

In 1925, Ashton made his professional dancing debut in a concert at the Palace Pier in Brighton, England, as a member of the Duenna Dancers. The following year, Rambert coaxed him to create his first ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion, for her fledgling company Ballet Rambert (originally known as the Ballet Club). However, performing remained his first love. He joined The Ida Rubinstein Ballet Company in 1928 and toured across Europe for a year, while working intensively with choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the great Vaslav Nijinsky.

Ashton soon realized that he would never be a great classical dancer, so he moved back to London and devoted his attention to choreography. In 1935, he became the resident choreographer for the Vic-Wells Ballet, one of several companies he worked for after his return. The works he produced exhibited a sophisticated style of English elegance and lyricism later epitomized by prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, the foremost female interpreter of his work.

Four years later, Britain entered World War II and Ashton enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1941, serving as an intelligence officer, among other positions. When the war ended, he returned to the Vic-Wells Ballet as it moved to Covent Garden and soon blossomed into The Royal Ballet. Ashton became the company’s lifeblood, infusing it with numerous works that defined its aesthetic through his own.        

Highlights of his choreographic career at The Royal Ballet include Les Patineurs (1937), a lightweight, wintry ode to ice skating or ice dancing; Symphonic Variations (1946), a neoclassical ballet that leads audiences on an emotional journey; Cinderella (1948), a full-length ballet known for its “Englishness,” especially the tradition of casting men as lead female roles; and La Fille mal gardée (1960), a lighthearted love story based on the 1789 original by Jean Dauberval.

Ashton’s choreography was witty and at times poignant, yet delightful overall. In particular, he had a comedian’s sense of timing for setting up sequences in which one character does not see what the other is doing. For instance, when Lise, the title character of La Fille mal gardée, is trying to get keys out of her sleeping mother’s pocket, she drums up an excuse, such as swatting flies, for hovering over her mother every time she awakens. To add to the fun, the mother, Widow Simone, is always danced by a man.

Ashton was somewhat superstitious and included in most of his ballets a move that became known as “the Fred step”—a short pas de chat sequence borrowed from Pavlova, which varied according to the context he chose. The step became his talisman.

After serving as The Royal Ballet’s associate director for 11 years, he was named director in 1963, just one year after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He retired in 1970, but continued to coach his ballets and choreograph sporadically, including the acclaimed A Month in the Country (1976), based on the Ivan Turgenev play, and a solo for then American Ballet Theatre soloist Leslie Browne, for her role as Emilia Rodgers in the film The Turning Point (1977). Ashton spent the remainder of his time gardening and socializing with friends. He died in his sleep at his country home in Eye, Suffolk, on August 19, 1988, at age 83.

His ballets, well-loved by dancers and audiences alike, have entered the repertories of established companies such as the Paris Opéra Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, The Australian Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada and ABT, in addition to The Royal Ballet. Ashton believed that ballet is “an expression of emotions and ideas through dancing,” and he strived to create works with themes or stories told through movement, with a minimum of mime sequences. His rare ability to distill human experience into dance touched people on a powerful emotional level and enabled performers to discover a deeper sense of artistry.

After Ashton’s passing, Fonteyn wrote: “He was, above all, a very human human being, and for that, as much as for his extraordinary talents, he was beloved by all.”

Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

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