Founder of the English school of ballet, a versatile choreographer, Frederick Ashton left a valuable dance legacy and brought up a galaxy of outstanding artists and choreographers.
He dreamed of being a dancer, but became a choreographer
Frederick Ashton was born in 1904 in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. When the boy was 3 years old, the family moved to Peru. It was there, at the age of 13, that Ashton saw a performance by the great ballerina Anna Pavlova at a local theater. This turned out to be a landmark event: the boy was so delighted that he decided to devote himself to ballet. In the article “Frederick Ashton. To the Anniversary of the Great Master", researcher Marina Dudina cites the choreographer's recollections of Pavlova:
At the age of 15, Frederick went to study to the UK. However, Ashton never graduated from Dover College, where his parents sent him. He took a job in the City instead. He gave part of the money he earned to his family and spent the rest on classes with Leonide Massine, a dancer of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. It was Massine who advised Ashton to continue his studies with the ballet teacher Marie Rambert. This was the time when the English ballet school was taking shape: among the students of Rambert were big artists, whom Frederick Ashton joined.
However, he was not destined to become a famous dancer: his physique didn’t allow that. And yet Ashton's technical abilities and talent were beyond measure. With the support of Marie Rambert, he staged his first ballet. In 1926, his production A Tragedy of Fashion premiered on stage of the Lyric Theatre at the Rambert club. This debut of Ashton as a choreographer is considered the first English national ballet performance. It marked an emergence of a new choreographer and beginning of a series of dance performances under the auspices of the Rambert Theatre.
Two years later, Frederick Ashton joined Ida Rubinstein's company in Paris - this time as a dancer. The choreographer of the troupe was Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who was extremely famous a decade ago. Ashton admired the Rubinstein company and was quite critical about his own role in it:
After a year of touring with the Ida Rubinstein company, he returned to London and began a new stage in his life.
From London around the world: open to collaboration and co-creation
In England, Frederick Ashton staged several ballet "miniatures" for his teacher Marie Rambert and her Ballet Club. In the following years he collaborated with different companies: in 1931, he wrote the ballet Facade for the Camargo Society; in 1933, a production for the London troupe of Ninette de Valois. Later, he established himself as the leading choreographer and one of the artistic directors of this company, which, since 1957, has been called the Royal Ballet.
At the same time, his choreographic career didn’t end: in the London troupe, Frederick performed mainly character roles, among which was, for example, the part of the fairy Carabosse in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty.
Ashton proved himself to be a very productive choreographer. In 1939, he worked on a production of The Devil's Vacation for the Russian Ballet in Monte Carlo. He managed to find time to stage choreography for drama and opera performances, as well as for movies.
Critics noted that his work was diverse in both form and content. So, in the 1930s, he staged entertaining ballets and gravitated towards light genres. With the outbreak of World War II, more dramatic and deeper themes appear in his productions. In the postwar years, Frederick Ashton worked just as actively. He collaborated with ballet companies from Paris, New York, choreographed operas for Covent Garden, and continued to work in the film industry.
The production of Symphonic Variations to the music by Cesar Franck is believed to be one of the heights of Frederick Ashton's ballet work. The ballet premiered in 1946. Ashton's mature years included ballet masterpieces and work with the Royal Ballet, where he was the artistic director of the company. Another interesting experience of the choreographer was the ballet based on Turgenev's play A Month in the Country (1976).
The last work of the British choreographer was the one-act ballet Lullaby. He dedicated this production to the music by Edward Elgar to the Queen Mother and her daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.
Ballet master's hand
Sir Frederick Ashton died in 1988 as one of the “fathers” of British ballet. By that time, the team he directed had gained fame as one of the brightest and most distinctive ballet companies in the world.
Ashton's legacy includes over 100 ballets, many of them are truly romantic performances. The most famous and recognized as the best productions of the choreographer are Cinderella (1948), Daphnis and Chloe (1951), Sylvia (1952), Ondine (1958).
Dramatic basis is what distinguishes English ballet. You can rarely see plotless productions here, more often ballet dancers show a story on stage. It was Frederick Ashton who laid the foundation for such a concept of national ballet.
For this subtle ability to create an atmosphere of lightness, sensuality and meaning on stage, ballerina Ilze Liepa called the British choreographer “Chopin in ballet”.