Frederick Ashton Choreographer

© Magnum


Frederick Ashton (1904-1988) together with his teacher Marie Rambert and then Ninette de Valois, was instrumental in creating England’s two permanent troupes—the Rambert Dance Company and the Royal Ballet. Paradoxically, this quintessentially British choreographer was born in Ecuador and grew up in Peru. It was there as a schoolboy that he saw Anna Pavlova dance and in doing so he discovered his calling. Initially obliged to study in England and pursue a career in the City of London, he began taking his first classical dance lessons in secret in the early 1920s. Ashton began with the exceptional dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine. The latter then recommended that he study under Marie Rambert, who soon channelled him towards choreography. For his first creation, A Tragedy of Fashion (1926), he collaborated with Sophie Fedorovitch, who would become his advisor and who would also design numerous sets and costumes. He spent his first years as a professional dancer in Paris with the Ida Rubinstein Company during which time he learned a great deal from watching the way Nijinska worked. In 1930, he returned to England and became the co-founder and director of the Ballet Club, (the future Ballet Rambert) and he had his first success with Capriol Suite, followed by Façade, for the Camargo Society. At the same time, he began his collaboration with three great performers: Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Lopokova and Alicia Markova (Margot Fonteyn would come later). He, himself danced in Les Sylphides, Carnaval, and Swan Lake… Between 1931 and 1935, while still working with Marie Rambert, Ashton choreographed several new pieces for Ninette de Valois’ young company, the Vic-Wells Ballet. He ultimately would join that company as a dancer and a choreographer. It was also during this period that he made his first forays as a choreographer across the Atlantic, for the Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts. He soon accepted other commissions: Le Diable s’amuse for the Ballets Russes of Monte-Carlo, Le Rêve de Léonor for Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, Picnic at Tintagel and Illuminations for the New York City Ballet, the first Western production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Danish Ballet, and La Valse for La Scala in Milan. In addition to these invitations from abroad and his service in the Royal Air Force during the war, he remained a faithful assoiciate of Ninette de Valois throughout this period. His role as artistic director was not officially recognised until 1948. He would succeed Ninette de Valois in 1963, a position he would retain for seven years. Among other things, Ashton expanded the repertoire significantly. He added Nijinska’s Noces and Les Biches, he initiated new works from Anthony Tudor and he brought in several of George Balanchine’s ballets into the repertoire. Ashton created countless choreographic works for operas, films music hall, and stage musicals. He also directed opera productions, notably Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice in 1953. Nevertheless, ballet remained his field of choice. The outbreak of war inspired him to create the impassioned and tragic Dante Sonata. With the return of peacetime, he created Symphonic Variations. In 1948, Cinderella became the very first three-act ballet created for an English company. Daphnis and Chloé and Les Deux Pigeons would follow which, after initially receiving a lukewarm reception would eventually be regarded among Ashton’s masterpieces. La Fille mal gardée, which stands out by the way Ashton portrays the characters are portrayed as well as through the choreographic invention, is without a doubt one of his most joyous ballets and Monotones, through its calm, composed inventiveness, is one of his most dispassionate. Ashton was as adept at restoring older genres—Sylvia and The Creatures of Prometheus—as reflecting the tastes of the day—Jazz Calendar, and Sinfonietta—or creating a timeless romantic atmosphere—Apparition, Nocturne and Horoscope. His works would profoundly influence the way the artists of the Royal Ballet would dance and the careers of numerous choreographers, such as MacMillan, David Bintley or Christopher Wheeldon.

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