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Frederick Ashton
a short biography





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Although we think of Frederick Ashton as the most English of choreographers, he was actually born in Ecuador, on September 17th 1904, and then spent his early years in Peru, where his father was a diplomat. It was while he was at school in Lima that he first saw Anna Pavlova, an event which changed his life: he became determined to be a dancer - and not just any dancer, but 'the greatest dancer in the world' - and his love for Pavlova remained a major influence on his choreography throughout his whole career.



Anna Pavlova
Photograph by courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Ashton came to England when he was 15, as a boarder at Dover College, and left school after three unhappy years only to move into a dreary job which he hated. He started ballet lessons with Leonide Massine on Saturday afternoons, and eventually persuaded his family that he should train full-time. When Massine moved away from London he sent Ashton to Marie Rambert - one of those seemingly unimportant decisions which changes history, for it was Rambert's clever eye which saw the potential choroegrapher in the would-be dancer, and entrusted him with his first ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion.


Ashton left Rambert for a year to dance with Bronislava Nijinska, another of the the major influences on his work, and when he returned he began choreographing regularly for Rambert, making works for her Ballet Club, to be performed on the handkerchief-sized stage of the Mercury Theatre. At the same time he started making work for Ninette de Valois and the Vic-Wells ballet, and in 1935 he left Rambert and joined de Valois permanently. (Poor Rambert, fated so often to develop a wonderful talent and watch it walk away.) His first major work for the Vic-Wells was the 1933 Les Rendezvous, made for Alicia Markova; when Markova left the company he focused his attention on her successor, a young girl called Margot Fonteyn.



Ashton (far right) rehearsing at the Ballet Club
Photograph by courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Ashton's career was interrupted by war service, but he returned in triumph when the company moved to Covent Garden in 1946, making one of his greatest ballets, Symphonic Variations, to show that he could master the space of a huge stage. When de Valois retired in 1963 he became Director of the Royal Ballet, introducing to the repertoire some great works from outside - Nijinska's Les Noces, Balanchine's Serenade - as well as unwittingly defining the course the company was to take in the future by asking Kenneth MacMillan to make a new version of Romeo and Juliet. His directorship ended in 1970, in circumstances still argued about but which caused him deep hurt which he never quite forgave.

He continued to make ballets for the company until a few years before his death: the last major work was Rhapsody, made for Baryshnikov in 1980. He died at his Suffolk home on August 19th, 1988.


The photograph of Frederick Ashton which appears at the top of each page is copyright Leslie E. Spatt - click here to see the full version.


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