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10 Facts About Legendary Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton That Every Dance Lover Should Know

ashton in drag

Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton gala at the Royal Opera House to mark the retirement of Sir Frederick Ashton as Director of The Royal Ballet, 24 July 1970 © Donald Southern/ROH 2012

Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who created more than 100 ballets in his 60-year career, is one of the most influential figures in the history of dance. His contributions have been recognized with numerous awards, honorary doctorates from institutions like Oxford University, and even knighthood.

Ashton has had a special connection to Chicago through the Joffrey Ballet, one of the first American companies to present his work. Robert Joffrey, who co-founded the company with Gerald Arpino, was a “great friend of Ashton,” accordingly to Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s current artistic director. “Ashton always loved the way Joffrey danced his work. It’s poetic that since they were so close that they died the same year.”

Wheater had the opportunity to work with Ashton himself. “I was a very young boy at the Royal Ballet School when I met Ashton,” Wheater said. “Benjamin Britten was asked to stage his last opera, Death in Venice, with the English Opera Group and Ashton was brought in to do all the children’s scenes.” Dance plays an important part in the opera, and Wheater was cast as one of the Polish boys in the 1973 staging at the Royal Opera House in London. (The opera premiered earlier that year in Suffolk.) “Being cast in the opera was a really big deal and a wonderful opportunity. But then to realize that we’d be working with him for many months was incredible.”

Wheater worked with Ashton on other ballets, performing and rehearsing Monotones II, The Dream, Jazz Calendar, and other works. As the Joffrey prepares to mount Ashton’s Cinderella, Wheater reflected on his time with the legendary choreographer and shared fun facts to corroborate information about his life and work.

  1. Ashton established a distinctly English style of ballet.
    Sir Frederick Ashton, Ninette de Valois, Léonide Fedorovich Massine (by Angus McBean, bromide print, 1946) Source:

    Sir Frederick Ashton, Ninette de Valois, Léonide Fedorovich Massine (by Angus McBean, bromide, 1946)

    Ashton quite literally founded the school of English ballet. In 1938, he became principal choreographer of the Vic-Wells Ballet, which later became the Royal Ballet under the leadership of Dame Ninette de Valois. Ashton is also known, perhaps above all else, as founding a uniquely English style of dance. But what exactly is “English” about it?

    Wheater explained: “There’s a kind of squareness to the lines due to the position of the shoulders over the hips and the placement of the arms. Ashton drew lines in a very architectural way, and there wasn’t a lot of loose freedom in the upper body; it had a lot of shape. Some people would describe the style as reserved, but in fact Ashton’s squareness gives a crystalline shape to the body. I always explain to my dancers that looking at his lines is like looking at etchings in glass, and we need to achieve that look. One small slip, and the clarity is gone. It’s easy for your eye to become accustomed to this clear look, and it’s obvious when it’s not there.”

  2. He grew up in South America.
    Ecuador

    A postcard from Guayaquil, Ecuador printed around the time Ashton lived there (source: delcampe.net)

    Though Ashton is considered quintessentially English, he was actually born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where his father served as British vice-consul. The Ashtons moved briefly to Lima, Peru, but returned to Ecuador in 1914. Frederick did not go to England until he was in his teens; his father sent him to Dover College in 1919. Ashton spoke Spanish and English fluently.

  3. Anna Pavlova inspired him to become a dancer.
    Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1885 - 1931) perfroming in a production of 'Chopiniana' in New Zealand. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1885 – 1931) perfroming in a production of ‘Chopiniana’ in New Zealand. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) [source: ensembleproductions]

    Ashton knew he wanted to be a dancer when he saw Anna Pavlova perform in 1917. Audiences around the world got to know Pavlova particularly through her work as a principal dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Later, Ashton would go on to study with Léonide Massine, a member of Diahilev’s troupe who later formed his own Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo members of the original company. Ashton’s dreams of becoming a dancer came full circle in 1939 when he was asked to create a new work, The Devil’s Holiday (Le Diable s’amuse), for Massine’s company.

  4. Ashton’s épaulement was everything.
    Valentino Zucchetti in Scènes de ballet © ROH/Tristram Kenton 2014

    Ashton had a recognizable style both as a dancer and a choreographer, especially because of his elegant épaulement, or placement of the shoulders. Wheater says that Ashton also had a singular port de bras, or arm movement, which was “lyrical all the way out to the fingers. He saw the body very much in a three dimensional form. Sometimes the way we use our arms, things can look quite flat. But Ashton was able to achieve a kind of articulation through his upper body that extended through his elbows, wrists, and hands” that was instantly recognizable.

  5. He has his own signature “Fred step” (which actually wasn’t his own).YouTube Preview Image

    Ashton adored Pavlova so much that he frequently incorporated a short sequence of steps of hers into his own work. What is now known as the “Fred step” is composed in technical terms of an arabesque, développé, pas de bourrée dessous, and a pas de chat.Wheater described the step in lay person’s terms: “It’s a little bit like a seesaw, you transfer your weight, and you catch both of your feet underneath you and land on both of them. You really use the weight of the upper body, and since the head is the heaviest part, you want to put it above the supporting leg each time.”For visual learners, the video above explains the step even better.

  6. Ashton was gay.
    Crop of the envelope of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

    “All of us knew that he was gay,” Wheater said. “But I didn’t have an awareness of his sexuality when I was working with him when I was very young. In fact, growing up in England, maybe because I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I didn’t even think about the fact that I was gay. We are lucky in the arts because people can be who they want to be.”

    Ashton’s sexuality was no secret, and he was not shy about expressing his feelings for men, as a letter to a male dancer, Richard Beard, reveals. He wrote to Dick describing his new work, Scènes de ballet, saying:

    “Would you kiss me tenderly and say “you did well today”…. The choreography is very classical naturally my own particular extension of the classic vocabulary with moments I think of poetry & real beauty & very much on a grand scale & a certain mystery & elegance & an aristocratic air to it all… All of it, my darling, for what it is worth, I dedicate to you with my love.”

  7. He had no qualms about cross-dressing.
    ashton in drag

    Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton in Ashton’s “Cinderella,” 1972. (Photo: “The Australian Women’s Weekly”)

    Ashton was not shy about playing travesty roles. One of his most famous drag characters was as one of the wicked stepsisters in Prokofiev’s Cinderella, which was also the first full-length ballet Ashton created. It premiered when England was still recovering from World War II, and is full of laughs, perhaps to help warm the hearts of blitz-weary audiences. The stepsisters have become some of the most memorable characters in the ballet, and one early critic described the whole work as “slapstick of celestial order.”

  8. Margot Fonteyn called him a “madman.”
    Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Frederick Ashton in rehearsal for Ondine © Roger Wood/ROH 1958

    Ashton worked extensively with Margot Fonteyn, whom Queen Elizabeth II herself appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta. In a BBC Radio interview, Fonteyn revealed that she first thought Ashton was a “madman” whose choreography was “impossible.” Wheater said he wasn’t quite so sure about that, though he commented: “In a stage call during Death in Venice he was so angry at me for talking on stage. The thing is: I wasn’t talking on stage. So I said, ‘Sir Fred, it wasn’t me talking,’ and he said, ‘Don’t be so insolent and don’t talk back.’ But I insisted I wasn’t talking because I wasn’t. Still, I never saw the dark side of him.”Marie Rambert, one of Ashton’s teachers, described him as “passionately lazy.” Wheater said, “I don’t think that applies.” In fact, Wheater remembers Ashton as an indefatigable choreographer who knew how to achieve results with his dancers, no matter how many times they had to repeat steps in rehearsal.

  9. He was a smoker.A Gala Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton in celebration of his 80th Birthday, 18 October 1984 © Donald Southern/ROH 1984

    “He used to smoke a lot,” Wheater said. “He always had a cigarette in the studio. His fingers were always yellow with nicotine. Because he wants your upper body to bend a lot, right through your upper body and through the head, he would sometimes correct us as dancers. He would come up to you with his burnt out fingers to shape your head the way he wanted, and I was always worried he would burn my head.”

  10. He was no stranger to the silver screen.
    YouTube Preview Image

    One of Ashton’s most beloved ballets was created for film in 1971: The Tales of Beatrix Potter, inspired by the works of that influential children’s author and illustrator. “When you’re a child, or even an adult, and you grow up with these characters, to see them come to life is just charming,” Wheater said. “I remember going to the premiere of that film and I knew a lot of the dancers in it. Sir Fred played Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” showing his penchant for travesty roles. “I can’t think of a better choreographer to tell the story of Beatrix Potter. The film was so successful that it was adapted for the stage when it was a ballet. It would be such a lovely thing to do at the Joffrey!”

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