A chapter from Following Sir Fred's Steps - Ashton's Legacy, the published proceedings of the conference on the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and his work, held at Roehampton University in 1994, and edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau.
Following the Fred Step
The ‘Fred Step’ is known to all who have had a close association with Ashton’s choreography as it features somewhere in most of his works. From its name, it would be reasonable to assume that it takes a consistent form; but upon closer examination, one finds that it comes in so many guises that it is sometimes difficult to understand how it has come to be recognised as a single entity.
Ashton is said to have adopted it as a ‘lucky step’ after first seeing it performed by Pavlova in her Gavotte. It is defined by David Vaughan as ‘posé en arabesque, coupé dessous, small développé a la seconde, pas de bourrée dessous, pas de chat’ (1977, p. 9). However, for the purpose of establishing a ‘basic version’ against which others might be set I have enlarged upon this slightly to include the changes of level that I believe are inherent at the start, arriving at the eight-count phrase shown in Figure 1. This would match perfectly the music to which Pavlova’s Gavotte was set (Lincke’s Glow-worm Idyll, which might be more familiar when set to the lyrics ‘glow little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer’). It is also the form usually taken when performed by Ashton himself, for example as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, as Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle in Tales of Beatrix Potter, or, in 1984, when he escorted Fonteyn from the stage at the end of Salut d’amour, a moment which must surely be etched in the memory of all who were fortunate enough to have been present.
Figure 1. The basic version of the Fred Step
Limitations of time have prevented me from researching Ashton’s earlier works - that is, those for which no movement notation scores exist - so for information on these I rely upon Vaughan. His first reference to the Fred Step is in relation to Les Masques (1933), in which he says it is ‘disguised by the port de bras, arms interlinked, bent upwards at an angle from the elbows’, which was fully demonstrated in Shelley Berg and Jill Beck's conference presentation ‘Approaches to the Revival of Les Masques’. Vaughan also notes its appearance in a 1934 film, Escape Me Never, but gives no details (1977, p. 112).
I pick up the story in 1937, when the step appeared in A Wedding Bouquet, performed by Ninette de Valois playing the part of Webster, the housemaid (interesting to note here that de Valois herself used a version of it in her ballet The Rake's Progress, which she had created two years previously - perhaps the subject for further research?). In A Wedding Bouquet, Ashton uses a fairly familiar structure, whereby the step is linked with another short phrase and then the whole is repeated to the other side. Here, the pas de chat is omitted from the ‘basic version’, but it is enhanced by a pas de bourrée piqué en pointe - a surprising embellishment for a housemaid in her late thirties. Even more surprising for such a character is the fact that one version of the linking step is a series of hopped ronds de jambe en l’air. Never let it be said (as if it ever would) that Ashton was predictable. In Cinderella (1948) Ashton uses the step to wonderful effect as a vehicle for a small mise-en-scène in which the Dancing Master is attempting to prepare the Ugly Sisters (Ashton and Robert Helpmann) for the ball, first demonstrating the ‘basic version’ with absolute precision hand-in-hand with a dreamily delighted Ashton, only to be jealously snatched away by the dominant Helpmann. It is also danced by Cinderella herself, when she performs it in the kitchen to her imaginary Prince (in reality, the broom). As in Wedding Bouquet, a phrase is added and it is then repeated, but with a slight timing variation, to the other side. An interesting point here: within the added phrase there is a little hop in which the ‘supporting’ foot jumps over the raised foot, and which, on paper, bears a striking resemblance to a pas de chat (see simplified recordings. Figure 2). Although the thought never occurred to me when seeing this performed countless times ‘live’, having seen it in notation I can't help wondering if it may have started life as a pas de chat (which would have fitted perfectly with the Fred Step motif), and evolved during rehearsals - perhaps initially even through a mistake - into this rather unusual form. Sadly, one will never know.
Figure 2. Cinderella (1948). Simplified notation of ‘hop-over’ from
Cinderella’s Act I solo compared with normal pas de chat.
We move next to Daphnis and Chloe (1951), in which there are a number of quotes, one being a phrase of nine counts near the end which, I believe uniquely, replaces the finishing pas de chat with two changements. There are also several phrases of seven which are dealt with simply by omitting the last pas de chat, but one of these particularly caught my eye because the ‘linking’ step unusually precedes the Fred Step and, by finishing with the missing pas de chat, gives the Fred Step a sense of completeness - see Figure 3.
Figure 3. Daphnis and Chloe (1951), Shepherdesses. The ‘linking’ step, finishing with a pas de chat, precedes the Fred Step from which the pas de chat is omitted in order to fit the musical phrase of 7 counts (performed in a circle).
Another point of interest about this extract is that it has a most unusual type of repeat, which starts out to the other side but, by curtailing the chassé to enable an extra step to be inserted, finishes to the same side - compare Figure 4 with the top stave in Figure 3.
Figure 4. The start of the repeat of Figure 3, which, by shortening the chasse and inserting a step on count 4, manages to set out on the other leg but finish on the same leg.
Moving briefly out of chronological order, for a purpose that should soon become apparent, I shall jump to the only controversial example I know of, for which the claim by many, including Vaughan, that it is another example of the Fred Step is refuted by others in the profession. The example in question is at the end of the Scherzo in The Dream (1964) when it is ‘turned to comic effect when done very fast, by the fairy who finds herself alone on the set... and does not know which way to turn’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 342).
Figure 5. The Dream (1964). Moth at the end of the Scherzo. A pas de chat finishing with the leg out to the side, followed by an incomplete pas de bourrée and a held posé to retiré derrière; coupé to repeat.
Although it is clear that this includes most components of the Fred Step, I confess to numbering myself amongst the doubters, so I searched for reasons to justify it being identified as such. I may have found the answer in La Fille mal gardée (1960), where at the beginning of the Flute Dance one of Lise’s friends does an abbreviated Fred Step as she calls the others to join her before they all dance a repeated passage of posé développés followed by the phrase illustrated in Figure 6. This phrase not only bears a remarkable similarity to The Dream extract, but it is automatically associated with the Fred Step that immediately precedes it.
Figure 6. La Fille mal gardée (1960), Flute Dance extract. Compare with The Dream extract in Figure 5.
Perhaps this association was subconsciously retained when it was seen four years later, in The Dream?
This was not, of course, the only example of Ashton’s ‘lucky step’ in Fille, which, perhaps by coincidence, could arguably be considered one of his most successful ballets. It can also be seen in the finale, where the Friends perform the ‘basic version’ but with the pas de chat being replaced by a preparation for two relevés assemblés which round off the phrase, as well as in a fittingly ‘down-to-earth’ version for the Act I peasants, performed almost entirely en fondu. The original version of this is illustrated in Figure 7, although it has since become more expansive by taking the first posé to an arabesque with an open arm.
Figure 7. La Fille mal gardée (1960). Act I peasants, 6/8 rhythm. Performed mostly on plié and omitting the arabesque and pas de bourrée.
Seeing the step performed while holding a sickle provides an immediate link to Illuminations, which, although choreographed originally for New York City Ballet in 1950, did not include the Fred Step until it was mounted for the Royal Ballet in 1981. Here it is performed by eight girls as a variety of characters, such as a chimney sweep, postman, baker and so on, each carrying an appropriate prop. As the girls are imitating drunkards there is obviously a good deal of flexibility in interpretation, but its basic analysis is as an unusual phrase of seven, counted at half speed, comprising the full step with an accelerated pas de bourrée, repeated to the other side without the pas de bourrée.
Figure 8. Illuminations (1981). An unusual phrase of seven.
I personally found that the developpé fondu on counts ‘2-and’ provided an unexpected challenge, as they reverse the usual pattern of extending the working leg with the fondu. In my efforts to try to master the movement rather than just the notation (essential if I was to be able to teach it as part of the workshop which was, after all, the focus of the presentation) I have to confess that, more often than not, ‘muscle memory’ took over and forced my legs to follow the more familiar path.
In the autumn 1994 edition of Dance Now, issued just before this conference, David Vaughan draws attention to the pas de deux from Die Fledermaus (1977), pointing out that it includes a version of the Fred Step that finishes with a soutenu rather than the more familiar pas de chat. This occurs twice, and on both occasions it is interestingly phrased as it uses four bars of waltz, with just one count per bar (this includes a finishing port de bras and lowering to dégagé not shown in Figure 9). As a result the 8-count phrase of the adapted Fred Step, instead of being on ‘1-2-3-4 . . .’ or ‘l-and-2-and . . .’, is on an even ‘l-and-a-2-and-a-3-and...’ Although performed without emphasis, this results in the rather unusual situation of the lowering to fondu on count 2 effectively being accorded the same status as the posé arabesque and the closing to soutenu that occur respectively on counts 1 and 3.
Figure 9. Die Fledermaus (1977). Extract from the pas de deux (only the girl's movements are illustrated).
The soutenu is also featured in one of my favourite examples of the Fred Step, when it is performed by the Girl’s friends in Les Deux pigeons (1961) as they are greeting Lady Bountiful. This is rather too long a passage to include here in notation, but it is where the Friends stand in a semicircle around her as she greets them in turn, discreetly doing the first part of the step (no pas de chat), while the whole sequence is punctuated by occasional soutenus, arms in fifth, by those who have already greeted her or who are waiting to do so. Understated but totally effective – surely a hallmark of much of Ashton’s choreography.
There are many other examples of the Fred Step not touched upon here (how could I fail to mention that wonderful exit in A Month in the Country?) and even those that have been considered have only been looked at fairly superficially through their basic form and structure, while they really beg for a deeper analysis of the way in which Ashton was influenced by the context, the music and the muses. However, I hope that those that are included here have been sufficient to have given a taste of the variety of forms that Ashton gave to this, perhaps the most famous motif in the world of dance.
At the risk of stating the obvious I would like to point out in closing that just as Pavlova left an indelible mark on Ashton, so Ashton has left an indelible mark on many of today’s choreographers. A fitting example of this is David Bintley who paid tribute to the master by quoting him, through variations of the Fred Step, in his 1993 work Tombeaux. There are many references in the work, but I concentrated on three in particular, and was fascinated to notice that they were all turning steps, a form which, to my knowledge, Ashton himself never used. The first of these is in the male solo at the beginning of the ballet; another is performed initially by 16 dancers who gradually stop until just two are left to perform the final repeat; and the third is during the final pas de deux, which includes a particularly pleasing effect, as the dancers appear to use their ports de bras to cause each other to turn. In performance the connection with the Fred Step can be hard to discern, not only because of the turning characteristics but also because of their timing; but in notation form the link is more immediately available, as the basic movement can be looked at in isolation. To those who read Benesh notation to any extent, this should be evident in the following extracts from the solo and group versions.
Figure 10. Tombeaux (Bintley, 1993). Male solo at the opening of the ballet, to 9/8 music (counts are added for ease of reference).
Figure 11. Tombeaux. Extract from group section with multiple repeats of ‘incomplete’ turning Fred Step performed by diminishing number of cast.
From Pavlova, to Ashton, to Bintley, this simple sequence of infinite variety…
My thanks to Anthony Russell-Roberts, David Bintley and Robert Jude for their help and co-operation in the preparation and publication of this workshop. Also to the many Benesh choreologists whose movement scores were my primary source of reference and without whose skills, care and quiet dedication to the task of recording our dance heritage it would not have been possible.
Figures 1 to 9: Choreography © Ashton (dates as indicated)
Figures 10, 11: Choreography © Bintley 1993
Benesh Movement Notation © Rudolf Benesh 1955.
Benesh Notation Editor © The Benesh Institute, 2002
Vaughan, D. (1977), Frederick Ashton and his Ballets, London, A& C Black
Vaughan, D (1994), ‘Frederick Ashton and his Ballets: a final chapter’. Dance Now, Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp 2-13