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Ashton the Dancer
Leo Kersley, who danced with the Rambert and Sadler's Wells companies in their early days, wrote this account of Ashton as a dancer shortly after Ashton's death. It was first published in Dance & Dancers in March 1989, and we are grateful to Mr Kersley and to Dance & Dancers for permission to use it here.
In the early nineteen-thirties, when Ballet Rambert, as Fred Ashton said at the time, was ‘the place to be’, he was their leading male dancer and remarkably good at the job too. This may be as hard to realise today as it is to discern the handsome face of the young Brahms through the photographs of the old man. But Ashton’s high standard was demonstrated by the way other dancers fought to stand behind him in class. Dancers learn roles and technique by imitating the back in front of them. Standing behind Ashton or Fonteyn in class may have been personally discouraging, but one did it in the hope that some of the magic would rub off.
When he started dancing, Fred had three pieces of luck (and without luck, dancers - like Napoleon’s generals - don’t get to first base). First, he was lucky in his training; secondly in the theatre in which he was leading man; thirdly, in the fact of the very few male dancers in competition with him at the time. He was trained by two Cecchetti disciples, Massine and Marie Rambert, and because the Cecchetti system is that laid down by a man of great muscular power, Fred’s natural elegance never deteriorated into affectation or weakness. At the time he was dancing leading roles, Fred used to bemoan his own lack of strength: he was the more delighted when in conversation my father said to him ‘Ah, yes, but your dancing’ - reversing the famous Michelangelo definition of art - ‘is sweetness tempered with strength’. Fred took to this, and for the next forty years these two yardsticks were frequently brought into play when discussing ballets, painting, music, dancers, even personalities; and I am certain that Fred also used them when casting a critical eye at his own dancing in the mirror.
Fred had a loose-jointed, delicate physique which seemed to look right in whatever position he assumed, so when practising the Cecchetti eight directions’ his body seemed to fall into the correct placing quite naturally. This facility left him free to concentrate on the real object of these set positions - i.e. to be able to present yourself to the audience in a way which made your message clear to them - a message which at that time was not primarily concerned with ‘getting your leg up’ but with saying something about the character you were intended to portray. So his croisé devant in class looked as if he had just entered the stage and was delighted to see such a good house: his écarte was sharp and imperious, his à la seconde expansive, his éffacé thoughtful and serene and his croise derriere quite cheeky. To see Fred go through the Cecchetti positions made me realise how great a dance actor Cecchetti must have been.
Equally, Fred obviously used Cecchetti’s ‘seven movements’ as they were intended to he used - as a reminder of the quality of the movement one was making which differentiated it from all the other movements. He would land solidly on the ground after jumping into an assemble, he would appear to float up and away in a sissone (which latter aerial quality was well demonstrated in the TV clip of him in Foyer de Danse).
The Marie Rambert dancers
Ashton and Pearl Argyle are the second couple from the right
Photograph by courtesy of the Royal Opera House
So his positions were speaking, and his movements varied and differently accented, and it was also very clear that he enjoyed dancing. This Fred did with great success at the Mercury between 1930 and 1935, on a small stage, to an intimate audience, and there he found his niche for he was, to coin a phrase, the perfect chamber dancer The flick of an eyelash could be seen by every member of the audience at the Mercury. There was no need to push anything to an audience which was almost breathing down one’s neck, in this pocket theatre where one could savour Fred’s quiet, reserved, polished dancing, among friends. His performance in Les Sylphides still came over at the Duke of York’s and the Old Vic, but was lost in the vast cool stretches of Sadler’s Wells, It was most telling of all at the Mercury.
Fred was also lucky to lead a small company, in a club theatre, benefiting from a continuous flow of people who were interested in all of the arts. Had he gone straight to the Wells his budding talent would have been lost in the vast open spaces: whereas after gaining invaluable initial experience at the Mercury he was able to move on to a much broader environment without being submerged and could therefore begin to make ballets on a larger scale. Though the physical confines of the stage were minute, the differing styles in which he was required to perform were infinite, yet in an unexaggerated manner only comparable to that of the good singer of French song cycles such as Souzay, for example.
Two examples of his dancing which spring to mind may help the reader to understand what I mean. In the scene on board ship in Mermaid (Andree Howard) the impression of the rocking of the boat was created by the steady inclination of the sail from side to side while simultaneously the Prince - Ashton - alternately stepped forward into a penchee arabesque and back again to lean on the mast; a simple device but perfectly effective in calling up the image of a ship at sea. This movement Fred performed with the utmost smoothness and control, and when one realises how rarely such a movement is performed so smoothly on our stages today, one realises too how much technique Fred in fact had at his disposal. And as another Prince in another Howard ballet, Cinderella, he and Pearl Argyle executed the formalised movements and stylised dances with such elegance that they seemed royalty itself personified (they had class’, in fact). This particular performance of Fred’s always sticks in my mind as the perfect example of what Noverre would have described as a danseur noble.
In a small theatre, Fred, like Massine, had the ability to hold the eye of the audience when doing nothing, as both showed so well as Eusebius in Fokine’s Carnaval. Fred used this capability to remarkable effect in his own Valentine’s Eve when, with all the other dancers whirling round him in the ballroom, one’s attention was still held by his quiet but positive dancing - like somebody talking quietly at a noisy party, one had to listen. In Les Sylphides Fred’s ‘sweetness tempered with strength’ found full scope; the continuity he established in each one of the five crossings of the stage in the solo was remarkable in that each one was carried through like a separate phrase in a great song, quite unmarred by vibrato, unnecessary rubato or stops to draw breath in the wrong place, for the choreographer in him was determined to interpret Fokine honestly, in spite of his lack of natural elevation: as with Peter Pears one heard not the singer, but the song.
Naturally when Fred joined the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935 I looked forward to seeing his Sylphides on a large stage but, although he was obviously doing exactly what he had done before, it did not travel to the gallery. (This also applied to his Dago in Façade.) He was, as I have said, a chamber dancer, luckily for us, for at 31 he became a choreographer who danced when necessary, rather than the other way round; but also lucky that he had been our leading male dancer during those early years at the Mercury, since because of this he had a good idea of what could be achieved by determination and hard work. Therefore he would have what he wanted, either in extra strength from the elegant dancer, or in elegance from the powerful one.
I hope he was looking down at the full house for his memorial service at Westminster Abbey, and only wish I could look up and see him holding forth with Michelangelo, Mozart, Britten and Pears about ‘line’ - and the ability to carry a phrase through without interpretation or affectation, so that the beauty of the complete thought comes through unimpaired.
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.