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Sir Frederick Ashton- a Superlative Choreographer

Updated on October 4, 2018

A Suave and Debonair Ashton

A Superb Artist

As I have written before, I took over 5 years of ballet at a small ballet school while I was in college. I did this just to see "if I could do it". In school, I mainly focused on learning technique and strengthening what I learned. Now I want to explore and study the history of ballet to add more depth and enjoyment to what I learned as a student. I have always admired Sir Fred for his artistry and wonderful ballets. Now that admiration has increased exponentially as I have discovered the hurdles and prejudices he faced early in his life and career. Anyone less focused and strong as he was would have given up. His determination and love for ballet allowed him to conquer and leap over those hurdles and allow him to be an outstanding creator of art... the art of ballet.

Ashton as a Ballet Dancer

A Mature Ashton

Ashton Dancing with Robert Helpmann and Stealing the Show in his Cinderella

Still teaching towards the end of his life

Ashton's "Sylvia"- Outstanding Ballet

In top three of my favorite ballets. The choreography and dancing is outstanding. Bravo Sir Fred
In top three of my favorite ballets. The choreography and dancing is outstanding. Bravo Sir Fred | Source

The Beginning and Blooming of Ashton's Career

The more I learn about Ashton, the more impressed I am with the hurdles he conquered early in his life.. and those later on in his life. I went back into the "archives" and watched Sir Ashton in interviews. One sees a sharp wit. One also feels an undercurrent of vulnerability. Though I am no psychologist, both can be symptoms of a "lack of confidence". However, in his case it is not a weakness but a source of strength to find the resolve to succeed and succeed he did. I can identify with this so it makes me appreciate his artistry so much more. There is always that drive to "prove them wrong" though just "who" is, is often unidentified. There is sensitivity, strength and a great deal of fun in his works.

Although, an Englishman in heart and soul, I found it interesting that Ashton was born in Ecuador on September 7, 1904.. He was the fourth of five children. His parents were George and Georgiana Ashton. George was manager of the Central and South American Cable company and vice-consul at the British embassy in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Frederick definitely came from a middle class family. In 1907 they moved to Lima, Peru. there he attended a Dominican school. In 1914, they returned to Guayaquil where he attended a school for children of the English colony. He was an altar boy at a Roman Catholic church which undoubtedly contributed to his use of ritual his ballets. The ceremony, timing and mysticism he experienced in church are seen in several of his ballets such as Symphonic Variations and Sylvia. His passion for ballet came at the age of 13 in 1917 when he had the opportunity to see Anna Pavlova dance. This reminded me of my passion for ballet coming to fruition when I was three years old and found the music to Swan Lake and played it on my mother's stereo. One just never knows......

To become a dancer was something his traditional family would not tolerate, especially his father. As Sir Fred was to say in an interview, "My father was horrified. You can imagine the middle-class attitude. My mother would say, 'He wants to go to the stage.' . She could not bring herself to say 'into the ballet'." Certainly not the first male dancer to go through this distraction. Sir Fred's father sent him to Dover college in 1919 where he was unhappy to say the least. Being decidedly gay and with an unusual accent because of the Spanish influence, made him a source of ridicule while in school. Not being profoundly academic, his father directed him to take work at a commercial company in London after his graduation in 1921. Now his ability of speaking Spanish and French in combination with his English was an advantage. Sadly, his father committed suicide in 1924. His mother was now dependent on Sir Fred's elder brothers who ran a successful business in Guayaquil. She went on to move to London to be with Sir Fred and his younger sister Edith.

Sir Fred's Formal Education Begins

Another amusing aspect of Sir Fred's education that was so similar to mine, is that his early ballet schooling was in secret. It was more necessary for his to be secretive than mine. He started his formal ballet schooling at the advanced age (in ballet years) of 20. I started mine a few months before my 20th birthday. He became a pupil via private lessons with Leonid Massine. When Massine left London, he became a student of Marie Rambert. It is said that Sir Fred lacked great strength and technique but he had an elegant aire about him that he translated into his dance. He became a danseur noble and partnered with the renowned Tamara Karsavina in Les Sylphides. Rambert foreseeing where Ashton's true gifts were waiting to be awakened, gave him the opportunity to choreograph his first ballet in 1926, "A Tragedy of Fashion: or The Scarlet Scissors". In 1930, Ashton created a unique ballet named Capriol Suite, based on music by Peter Warlock. In this ballet he successfully combined athletic masculine moves with courtly duets. The following year Rambert founded the Ballet Club, forerunner to Ballet Rambert with Markova as prima ballerina and Ashton as the main choreographer and one of the leading dancers. At this time Ashton began a working relationship with Sophie Fedorovitch. She was an outstanding set designer and they collaborated together for more than 20 years. Ashton's early ballet included La Peri (1931), Façade (1931), Foyer de Danse (1932) and Les Masques (1933)

Sir Fred's Choreography Career Takes Off

Sir Fred's association with Ninette de Valois, founder of the Vic-Wells Ballet began in 1931. He created a comic ballet he named Regatta. As I have found studying many ballets, even those we now consider genius and classic, it got mixed reviews. At this point Ashton had earned a reputation as a talented choreographer nationally but not internationally. Needless to say, he had rocketed to a level of high respect rather quickly. In 1933. he created another work for de Valois entitled, Les Rendezvous. It was an immediate success. It was judged as incorporating classical lines yet injecting a sense of fun which I find permeates many of his works. It has been revived many times and is still in the Royal Ballet's repertoire. In 1935, de Valois appointed Ashton as resident choreographer along with Constant Lambert, the musical director, from 1931 until 1947. the company included Markova, Anton Dolin and Robert Helpmann. These years were very productive. In 1936 he received wonderful reviews for Apparitions, Noctourne and Delius's Paris. Sadly , as with many works before the advent of film/video, these works have been lost. His creations of A Wedding Banquet and Les Patineurs in 1937 are thankfully still with us.

Though gay, he had an affair with American heiress Alice von Hofmannsthal. This affair was in 1936-1937. After the affair and two subsequent marriages, she remained in love with him. Even today, some gay men in ballet, and the arts in general, maintain or attempt the façade of marriage though one can only imagine the pressures back then to "play it straight".

As the 1930's progressed, his reputation grew internationally as well. He choreographed an opera Four Saints in Three Acts in New York and Devil's Holiday (Le Diable s'amuse) for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. During this time he also choreographed for other forms of theatre such as revues, plays and films.

Sadler's Wells, WW II AND Covent Garden

Right before WW II, Sir Fred was offered a position with a company that was to become the American Ballet Theatre, which he declined. He returned to de Valois's ballet now named "Sadler's Wells Ballet". Perhaps because of the weight of WW II, his works took on a dark or somber aspects. His Dante Sonata which represents the eternal struggle between the children of light and children of darkness is considered by many bleak and uncomfortable. It would be interesting to research how his personal life was progressing at this time.

In 1941, he was taken into the armed services as an intelligence officer and also was involved with analyzing aerial photographs. He was granted short leaves to continue his work in ballet. In 1943, he created, with Walton, The Quest, which was not well received. As with another Walton collaboration, The Wise Virgins, the music has survived but the choreography has not.

After the end of the war, de Valois was invited to move her company from Sadler's Wells at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Ashton's first ballet in his new surroundings was Symphonic Variations (1946). Although Covent Gardens was much larger than Sadler's Wells, he still only used 6 dancers. I have seen this production and it deserves the descriptive term, masterpiece. The 6 dancers were led by Margot Fonteyn and Michel Somes. This ballet remains in the Covent Garden's repertoire. Another plotless ballet that remains on their playlist is Scenes de Ballet (1948). In 1948 Mr. Fred, at de Valois nudging, created his first full-length, 3-Act ballet: Cinderella. This is often revived. As Ashton and Helpmann danced the roles of the ugly step-sisters to great comic affect, it was and still is an audience pleaser. It is based on Prokofiev's Cinderella. I also agree with some critics that the choreography has some weaknesses. However, I also agree that overall, it is a very enjoyable and memorable ballet. I always wish the Prince's role was "fattened" up, but it was his first full-length ballet and quite a remarkable accomplishment for that reason alone.

In the 1940's and early fifties, Ashton created works for other ballet companies. Among these works, they included, Le Reve de Paris (1949) for the Ballets de Paris and the New York City Ballet - Illuminations (1950) and Picnic at Tinagel (1952). He created dances for films such as The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). He also directed several operas such as Britten's Albert Herring at Glyndebourne.

Ashton's second full-length ballet is one of my favorite (a huge understatement) ballets: Sylvia. (1952). He created this for the de Valois company. I have watched the 2005 version with Roberto Bolle since first seeing it 2-3 years ago literally hundreds of times. It got some mixed reviews but is exceedingly popular today. In my opinion, it has all the best of classical ballet and is very demanding of it's dancers. The third act is almost "over the top" with so much going on but Ashton made it work and work beautifully.

Ashton created his third full-length ballet, Romeo and Juliet in 1955 for the Royal Danish Ballet. It was and is a successful ballet. I have seen it and it is beautifully done. What impresses me with Ashton here is that he would not present it at the Covent Garden because he staged it to be an intimate ballet and felt the huge size of the Covent Garden would take away from his intent of intimacy. He didn't want "extra" space to compete with the beauty of the ballet.

The Royal Ballet Comes to Life

In October of 1956, Elizabeth II gave Sadler's Wells Ballet a charter officially therefore becoming the Royal Ballet on January 15, 1957. De Valois remained the director and Ashton the principal choreographer. In 1960, Ashton created one of his most popular and well received ballets, La fille mal gardee. A number of ballets with that name had been presented since 1789. He used music by Ferdinand Herold. He also did his usual research and stayed with the original scenario but added his unique and wonderful choreography. It has been revived by many European companies and the US.

De Valois retired in 1963 and Ashton took over as director. Many look at this period as the golden age of the Royal Ballet. He continued to add to the repertoire while bringing in the talents of others such as his former mentor Nijinska, He also revived Mam'zelle Angot by Massine. As with many artists, management was not high on Ashton's list of likes and strengths and some felt the ballet suffered on it's administration side. Others works he created at this time were The Dream (1964), Monotone (1965), Jazz Calendar (1968) and Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within) (1968).

The general administrator, Webster, decided to retire in 1970. He decide to clean house when he left, including the forced retirement of Ashton. Though Mr. Fred had often said he looked forward to his retirement, this was not the way he had planned to leave. This is so much like Petipa.

After his retirement he still went on to make more works including, the film The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1970/71), Meditation of Thais (1971), Voices of Spring (1977), A Month in the Country (1976), Rhapsody (1980) and Varii Capricci (1983).

Ashton's final years were saddened by the death of his partner Martyn Thomas due to a car crash in 1985. As with the death of anyone you love deeply,he truly did not recover and passed on in Suffolk on August 19, 1988. Mr. Ashton left a legacy of more than 80 ballets. I have watched and studied him in interviews and he is someone I feel I could sit and talk with and have a spirited and fun conversation. He received many awards and honors including the Knight Bachelor in 1962 resulting in his title, Sir. To continue the Ashton legacy, The Frederick Ashton Foundation was created in 2011. All in all, quite a stellar career and one I intend to research and enjoy the rest of my life.


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    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      2 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks for reading my article and good luck with your article. You will find many articles on hub Pages dealing with the arts.

      If I can help you with any more info, please let me know.


    • profile image

      Cynthia Cummings 

      2 years ago

      I read and learned from your article . I liked it a lot . I am in school and writing an article on Ashton and got lots of good information from your article .


    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      3 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Thanks Len - Sir fred had long been a favorite of mine- I learned to like him better when I researched and wrote about his life and background- I've been working on a more modern choreographer and hope you will come back to read it- who it is will remain a mystery for now!! Take Care!

    • profile image

      Len Knudsen 

      3 years ago

      Hey Peter! I liked the article. Ashton has been a favorite of mine for years. Thanks for the interesting and well written article.

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      3 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Thanks for your feedback. When I took ballet, my schedule did not allow studying the history of ballet so you are doing it the correct way. You are in an excellent school for dance. I used to know a number of people in PP for dance. Keep me updated how you are doing in school. Take care.

    • profile image

      Suzanne Collins 

      3 years ago

      I am a student at Point Park for ballet/dance. I enjoyed reading your article a great deal. I am doing a research paper on him and would like to use your article for information. I think Ashton was a genius. It had to be tough being gay back then.


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