the Ballet
Ballet Encyclopedia

Sir Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton

born: 1904
died: 1988

Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton, the great English choreographer, was born on September 17, 1904 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Through most of his childhood he lived in Lima, Peru and had no plan to dance beyond what would be required socially. This all changed one evening when he was thirteen years old. That was when he saw Anna Pavlova dance in Lima and his passion for dance was born. As he would say later on "She injected me with her poison."

Now Ashton's family wasn't so supportive of his love of dance, plus he lived in South America at a time when there wasn't too much ballet in South America, so Frederick Ashton didn't start actually dancing until he was sent to England to complete his education in 1924. Once he arrived in England, though, Ashton started studying ballet in secret with Leonide Massine.

Frederick Ashton continued training with Massine as well as with Nicholas Legat and Marie Rambert. It was Rambert who encouraged his first choreographic experiments and 1926 saw the premiere of Ashton's first ballet: The Tragedy of Fashion Ashton danced with the Ida Rubenstein Company in London in 1927 but also studied choreography with Massine and with Bronislava Nijinska. He returned to the Rambert company in 1928 and encouraged by Marie Rambert he created Capriol Suite in 1930.

Ashton joined the Vic-Wells ballet, (which later became the Sadler's Wells ballet, then in 1956 the Royal Ballet), in 1933 and distinguished himself as a good mime and character dancer in roles such as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty and "the gigolo" in his own Façade, (1931). He was also busy distinguishing himself as a choreographer, (he was the chief choreographer of the Vic-Wells ballet, a position he held until his retirement), with ballets such as Cinderella, Sylvia, Daphnis and Chloe, and the film Tales of Hoffman. By now his dancing was taking second place to his choreography.

Over the next few years Ashton continued his choreography and in 1947 his work for the opera Albert Herring delighted the the composer, Benjamin Britten, and started a lifelong artistic relationship.

Five years later Frederick Ashton became the Associate Director of the Sadler's Wells Ballet, as it was now known.

During the next ten years his contribution to ballet was great enough that Frederick Ashton was knighted Sir Frederick Ashton by Queen Elizabeth II in 1962. The very next year Ashton created a ballet called Marguerite and Armand for the new partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and was named director of the Royal Ballet, a position he held until he retired in 1970 to devote all of his time to choreography.

Although he had previously announced that he would retire when he was sixty-five Ashton's retirement was a bit of a surprise to everyone. According to Derek Rencher, a veteran character artist who created many Ashton roles "Sir Fred was someone who, every time he took a curtain call, would say "No, no" but he'd be holding his hand out for you to drag him on. And I'm absolutely certain he was expecting to be asked to stay." After Ashton retired Rencher has said of the Royal Ballet "We were a bit like a chicken with its head cut off." and even Ashton himself "felt out of touch."

Although he was feeling out of touch Ashton continued choreographing. The year of his retirement he choreographed and danced in the motion picture Tales of Beatrix Potter, (released in 1971), featuring the dancers of the Royal Ballet and three years later created dances for another of Britten's operas, Death in Venice which were integral to the work as well as creating at least four other ballets in between.

Sir Frederick Ashton's choreographic style is very distinctive with rounded and controlled arms, hip level arabesques so that the line is not contorted, and sometimes some very fluid motion. Iain Webb, who is excellent with different styles in ballet and dances many of Ashton's ballets, recalls being coached by Ashton in Façade: "He got hold of my hair at the front - very gently - and said "Now Follow Me." and he just made me go, so there was a flow of movement through the body." Indeed if you watch early footage of Ashton dancing you see an amazing fluidity in his arms, upper body, and head which probably came from his growing up in South America. Ashton's use of movement in the body and epaulment are blended with very intricate footwork make an interesting contrast with the very controlled arms and low arabesques and all together it creates the Ashton style.

It is interesting that Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine should develop such different styles, Ashton's very controlled, (even at speed), and Balanchine's being all about movement to the point that control is sacrificed when admittedly they both had the same starting point: the music. Unlike many choreographers who have a certain story to tell or set of movement they want to show off these two let the music be their guide and guide them it did.

In choreographing pas de deux's Ashton showed his timeless belief in romantic love. The low skimming lifts suggest gentle love and support between the two dancers.

After eighteen years of retirement Sir Frederick Ashton passed away on August 18, 1988 in Sussex, England.

During his life ballet brought Sir Frederick Ashton halfway around the globe to England where he was indispensable in building one of the world's greatest ballet companies, and helped to create the English style of ballet. Ashton choreographed over one hundred ballets of which over thirty are still in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet alone, it is this work upon which the Royal Ballet was built.