Sir Frederick Ashton

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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