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.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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