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Following Sir Fred's Steps - Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan & Andrée Grau. First Published by Dance Books in 1996. ISBN 1 85273 047 1

The original book cover (above) shows Frederick Ashton rehearsing Nadia Nerina and David Blair in La Fille mal gardée. Photograph © by Zoë Dominic.

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.

My Dearest Friend,
My Greatest Collaborator

Ashton, Fedorovitch and Symphonic Variations

Beth Genné

It is impossible for me to write about Sophie Fedorovitch without the deepest emotion, for in her death I lost not only my dearest friend but my greatest artistic collaborator and adviser. (Ashton, in Fleet, 1955, p. 22)[1]

With these words Ashton paid tribute to artist Sophie Fedorovitch after her accidental death in 1953.

Sophie Fedorovitch and Frederick Ashton came from different worlds. In personality and temperament, too, they may have seemed mismatched. Fedorovitch was born and raised in Minsk, and studied painting in Cracow, Moscow, and war-torn St Petersburg. Born in 1893, she was eleven years older than Ashton. With her blunt, almost gruff manner and her solitary Spartan style of life, she had no interest in appearances or social life. Ashton, an Englishman, born in Ecuador, raised in Peru and schooled in England, was well spoken, sociable, and attracted (when they met at least) to the frivolous social world of the twenties and thirties. Yet, personally and professionally, they were profoundly connected. In this paper I’d like to examine the nature of their friendship and collaboration by discussing their work on Symphonic Variations, the ballet that Ashton considered to be their ‘most successful’ and ‘most flawless’ work (Fleet, 1955, p. 22).

Ashton and Fedorovitch met in 1925, introduced by Marie Rambert. Rambert had met Fedorovitch in 1921 in Enrico Cecchetti’s studio, where she had come to study and draw the dancers of the Ballets Russes while they rehearsed for Diaghilev’s historic production of The Sleeping Princess (Rambert, 1972, p. 119). Fedorovitch also came occasionally to watch Rambert’s dancers, and one day Rambert invited her and Ashton to lunch after class. Ashton was immediately attracted to the young Polish artist: ‘I was fascinated,’ he told David Vaughan ‘by her appearance - she was the first woman I had seen who wore her hair cut very short, and she dressed in a very singular way - she was a garçonne type, with a marvellously beautiful choirboy’s face’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 12). After lunch the two continued their conversation at the Express Dairy in Notting Hill Gate, and from that day became the closest of friends. Looking back at that afternoon, twenty-eight years later, Ashton described it as a profoundly important event in his life: ‘the greatest luck I ever had’, he has written, ‘was when she walked into Rambert’s studio . . . and I loved her from that day’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 23).

At Rambert’s urging, Fedorovitch and Ashton collaborated one year later on their first ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion. The ballet only ran for a few performances, but their experience with A Tragedy of Fashion would change both their lives. Ashton, who had perceived himself first and foremost as a dancer, began gradually to think of himself as a choreographer. And Fedorovitch, who had established herself as a painter, would come to devote her career to set and costume design. Between 1926 and Fedorovitch’s death in 1953, Ashton and Fedorovitch would collaborate on eleven works.

Fedorovitch was far more than just a designer for the Ashton ballets. Ashton discussed every aspect of the ballet with her - not just its decor and costumes, for importantly, Fedorovitch was as interested in the dance as its decor. ‘She loved the ballet for itself,’ wrote Richard Buckle, ‘not only because it gave scope for her work’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 32). Fedorovitch was a regular viewer at Sadler’s Wells and Ballet Rambert performances - not just those which contained her own decor. She saw the visiting companies. She made friends with the dancers, and tracked the development of their careers with interest.

She was also Ashton’s best friend. ‘Sophie understood Fred better than anyone in the world,’ insisted Margot Fonteyn (1975, p. 99). Fedorovitch believed in Ashton and in his talent wholeheartedly. Indeed, she was as concerned about his career as her own. She made it possible for him to continue dancing at a crucial early stage in his career. A Tragedy of Fashion had failed to result in any steady employment for Ashton, who was in dire financial straits. He needed to support his mother as well as himself. (The two were sharing a tiny two-room flat in London.) Fedorovitch persuaded a friend to give Mrs. Ashton money, and convinced her to let her son go on with his dance classes (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p. 30). She then made sure that he attended class! Maude Lloyd remembers ‘Sophie acting as Fred’s alarm clock’, calling him up every morning to make sure he got to class on time, a practice that she would continue until her death (personal communication, 1992). She lent him money to audition for Nijinska, and she found him work as an English tutor to one of her Polish friends when he desperately needed it (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p. 31). And when she died, she left him the bulk of her estate (Vaughan, 1977, p.269).

Yet despite this maternal stance, Fedorovitch did not indulge Ashton or give him unconditional praise. She was not afraid to be critical, nor did she hesitate to push him when she felt he needed it. ‘She did not spare one’s feelings when she felt that the hard word had to be said,’ wrote Ashton. ‘One accepted it because it was always right, shared with sense, and given without ulterior motive, purely for one’s private or professional well being... Amongst so much that I miss, I miss the gentle bullying’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 23).

Ashton, then, was unshakably sure of Fedorovitch’s love and support, and trusted as well her keen critical judgment. She served as a sounding board as he tried out his ideas. More importantly, she brought, in Ashton’s words ‘a real individuality and vision of her own.. . which enriched one’s choreographic conception . . . Our endless conversations before, during and after a ballet was finished are among my fondest memories... My work with her gave me my happiest times in the theatre’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 22).

The trust was mutual. Those who knew her describe Sophie Fedorovitch as an extremely shy person, who often muttered things so softly that she could be almost incomprehensible. There seems to have been no such problem with Ashton. Just as she called him every morning, he would call her every night, ‘no matter how late’, to continue their endless conversations (Vaughan, 1977, p. 269). Fedorovitch must have felt confident enough of Ashton’s understanding and friendship to open up to him, and he probably saw a side of her that few did. Ashton felt that their work together gave Fedorovitch some of her happiest moments: ‘Her happiness knew no bounds’, he has written, ‘when she believed we had reached true artistic unity’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 22).

This ideal of ‘artistic unity’ is an important one, stemming directly from the ethos of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, on whose productions both Ashton and Fedorovitch had been nurtured. Diaghilev, as we all know, had revolutionised the art of dance by making the designer an equal partner to the choreographer and composer. Ashton and Fedorovitch had thrilled to the Diaghilev productions. And Fedorovitch, in the tradition of Diaghilev’s artists, was a major contributor to Ashton’s ballets. But unlike those later Ballets Russes productions in which, as André Levinson has described, dance sometimes seemed to take second place to decor (Acocella & Garafola, 1991, p. 68), Ashton and Fedorovitch took dance as their top priority. As Ashton wrote, Fedorovitch ‘believed firmly that nothing must hide the dancing or impede the dancers, and that the background should not distract’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 22).

The hallmark of Fedorovitch’s style, then, was her simplicity and economy of means. With a few well-placed touches of colour and line, she was able to give a sense of time and place and create a mood without cluttering the dancers’ space or distracting the viewer’s eye from their movement. The limited spaces and budgets of the Sadler’s Wells and Mercury theatres, where she and Ashton mounted their earliest works, may have initially forced her into this position; but it was a position that was natural to her, and one that she maintained when creating for the much larger opera house stage.

Ashton’s and Fedorovitch’s central commitment to dancers is revealed clearly in their method of working. In contrast to choreographers like de Valois, who came into the studio with a preconceived plan, which she then set on the dancers, Ashton worked out his choreography in the studio, on the dancers themselves, using their own special qualities and ways of moving to develop his ideas.

Similarly, for Fedorovitch, the design was not a finished product, but, in Ashton’s words, ‘only a point from which to depart’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 22). Her decisions about cut and line were made only when she had seen not only how the material looked when draped on a particular dancer, but, more importantly, when the dancer ‘moved’ in the material. Matilda Etches, the couturière who carried out Fedorovitch’s design ideas, describes this process: ‘Sophie would bring her sketches... I would fold or drape a length of stuff until the mood and feeling of the sketch was captured. At the fittings.., the method would always be the same. No sooner would the costume be on the dancer than Sophie would say in her gruff voice, “move” - the dancer would move with pins falling and lengths of diaphanous stuffs trailing to the floor’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 37).

Even then, the costumes were not ‘set in stone’. Ashton remembers Fedorovitch’s willingness to modify her designs as his ideas developed from day to day: ‘She always attended as many rehearsals as possible, and as she saw the choreography develop, was capable of completely altering her conception to enhance the choreography and the dancers still more’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 22).

This process of evolution and change, with the dancer and the dance at the heart of it all, was the key to the success of the Ashton-Fedorovitch collaboration. The working methods of both were based on the constant refining of an initial idea or constellation of ideas. As Ashton has said: ‘It’s not what you put into a ballet, it’s what you take out’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. xix). Fedorovitch agreed. ‘Her method of designing’, Ashton has written, ‘seemed to be a process of elimination, clearing the stage of all unnecessary and irrelevant details (Fleet, 1955, p. 22).

Symphonic Variations

Nothing better illustrates this than the making of Symphonic Variations. By tracing the evolution of Ashton’s initial ideas for this ballet and Fedorovitch’s designs for them, we can almost watch them at work on that paring-down process that was the hallmark of their collaboration.

In 1946, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, housed before the war at the Sadler’s Wells theatre, was given a permanent home at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The move was significant: as David Vaughan has pointed out, it was one way of acknowledging the company’s place as ‘Britain’s national ballet in everything but name’ (1977, p. 202). It gave them too, for the first time, a full-size opera house stage on which to perform, and with it the capacity for much larger audiences. The inaugural performance at the Opera House, attended by the royal family, was the company’s signature work, The Sleeping Beauty, in an expansive - and expensive - new production with sumptuous costumes and decor by Oliver Messel.

Ashton marked the move with a new ballet to César Franck’s Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra. As this was their first work for the new stage, both he and Fedorovitch were aware of the significance of the occasion. And as the Sadler’s Wells resident choreographer, Ashton must have felt a special responsibility to prove to others (and to himself) that he could fill the vast new space and hold its huge audience. He was nervous, and so were his dancers. As Margot Fonteyn remembers, ‘The Covent Garden stage, so much bigger than those we had worked on all our lives, still made us all uneasy. Fred had never encountered the problem of filling a large area’ (Fonteyn, 1975, p. 99).

Ashton and Fedorovitch, as usual, worked together ‘ardently’ (Ashton’s word) on Symphonic Variations, planning every aspect of the work, holding their ‘endless conversations’ on the phone, over meals, on walks and bicycle rides. In addition to her role as set and costume designer, Fedorovitch was ‘as much involved in the choreography as the dancers’ (Fonteyn, 1975, p. 99). She also soothed Ashton as he struggled with his anxiety about the ‘weight’ of the occasion and problems of stage size. Fedorovitch ‘was beside him at rehearsals, and sat up with him at night, giving comfort and wisdom in her strange mumbling way and making him laugh when need be’ (Fonteyn, 1975, p. 99).

As usual, Fedorovitch was ready to modify her decor and costumes as Ashton’s ideas developed. This was especially needed with Symphonic Variations, for it changed many times in the choreographer’s mind before the opening date. Initially, Ashton had planned a fairly elaborate narrative, in part inspired by his studies of mystics like St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. He had planned too for a sizable corps de ballet to fill the opera house stage, but as work on the ballet proceeded, his elaborate scenario fell by the wayside and he trimmed the corps de ballet down to just six soloists — three men and three women — telling Fedorovitch not to bother working on the corps costumes (Vaughan, 1977, p. 206).

Further changes were made when the premiere of the ballet was postponed at the last minute because of an injury to Michael Somes, and Ashton, for the first time, had more time to do revisions before the opening night. These revisions and the making of Symphonic Variations were, as David Vaughan has pointed out, done in closed rehearsal for the first time, perhaps an indication of the intense level of concentration that Ashton demanded. (Before that company members had been free to watch him at work; Vaughan, 1977, p. 206.) Fonteyn remembers the particular intensity and care with which revisions were made, and Fedorovitch’s constant involvement: ‘When we started to rehearse it all again, Fred took out a lot of things and simplified and purified the choreography... I remember a lot of discussions and all sorts of different ideas and versions and several different endings, and Sophie Fedorovitch at the rehearsals and coming in each day to say what she thought’ (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p. 83). Pamela May remembers Fedorovitch’s contribution to the final moment of Symphonic Variations. At one point Ashton proposed that everyone leave the stage at the ballet’s end, but Fedorovitch argued that it should conclude with the dancers on stage in the opening pose, and Ashton took her advice. May remembers too that Fedorovitch even persuaded her to dye her hair blond to dramatise the contrast with Fonteyn’s dark and Shearer’s red hair (personal communication, 1992). In this way, everything, even ‘tiny details were discussed and reworked as though it was an architectural plan for a building that would last for ever’ (Fonteyn, 1975, p. 99).

Abstracting the English Landscape

In the end, Symphonic Variations was daringly simple and abstract. The white backcloth, punctuated by green washes of colour at centre and sides, was inscribed with a curvilinear pattern of black lines continued in a small overhead drape. The costumes, all white for the women, white with touches of black for the men, allowed them complete freedom of movement to execute Ashton’s endlessly interesting choreographic patterns. As A. V. Coton wrote: ‘Nothing whatever is stated of place, person, condition or circumstance’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 208).

Yet, however hidden, Ashton’s original scenario still underlay the dance and decor. In its initial form, the ‘dominant’ theme of Symphonic Variations was the seasons. ‘At the beginning I meant it to be winter with the three women moving alone coldly, unfertilised,’ Ashton told Richard Buckle. ‘When the man begins to dance he introduces the spring: and the last part of the ballet represents to a certain extent the fullness of summer and the plenty of harvest’ (Buckle, 1947, p. 23).

This seasonal imagery is reflected in Symphonic Variations’ set, which was directly inspired by the English countryside in spring. Fedorovitch had a country cottage, a transformed barn at Brancaster in Norfolk, where she often took refuge from the stress of London life (Fleet, 1955, p. 18). Ashton and Fedorovitch were bicycling there in the spring when, as Ashton tells it, ‘One day we came up a hill and suddenly there was the most marvellous glade, filled with sunshine, and this had the most terrific effect on us; I said, “This is the colour it’s got to be, a sort of greenish yellow” ‘(Vaughan, 1977, p. 209).

This sun-filled country glade clearly appears in Fedorovitch’s preliminary sketches, only to be gradually refined and abstracted until only a suggestion of it remains. In what appears to be the earliest of Fedorovitch’s sketches, trees lean gently in from either side of the stage.[2] Curving clusters of lines suggest a canopy of leaves. Slanting rays of sun stream down on a clearing in the middle, and a ground line which rises gently on either side may suggest the slope of the hill up which Ashton and Fedorovitch bicycled to discover this sylvan spot (Figure 1). As the design evolved these natural images disappeared, replaced by curving shapes which follow, abstract, and extend the original line of trees and shafts of sunlight. As if responding to music, these shapes take on a rhythmic quality. They dynamise the space, and the separate elements which make up the original pencil sketch move towards fusion into one unified design.

Figure 1. Sophie Fedorovitch: preliminary sketch for Symphonic Variations decor; pencil. Collection of James L. Gordon, London. Photograph by John Ross ©.

But trees are not the only source for imagery here, for this is a particularly modern countryside. Marie Rambert recalls that Fedorovitch told her that the black lines that undulate across the backdrop also reflected her fascination with ‘telephone wires patterned against the immense green fields’ of Norfolk (1972, p. 204). And Pamela May remembers Sophie ‘muttering something about electricity and the illustrations of patterns made by electrical currents she’d seen in a book’ (personal communication, 1992). In the later colour sketches for the Symphonic Variations set, the lines of wires, trees, and sunlight are conflated and increasingly simplified as Fedorovitch experiments with various configurations (Figures 2 & 3). In the final set, the linear patterns are ruthlessly pared down (Figure 4). Trees, sunlight and wires are unrecognisable, but a sense of the enclosing shape of the glade remains: the lines bend in protectively. A canopy of branches is suggested by the overhead drape. And the colour, a luminous green, retains the seasonal reference. Christian Bérard sensed it when he called the decor ‘lily of the valley’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 209). So did Diana Gould Menuhin, when she described the set as ‘vegetal’ (personal communication, 1988).

Figure 2. Preliminary sketch for Symphonic Variations. Collection of James L. Gordon, London. Photograph by John Ross ©.

The three men who pose quietly at the back of the stage for the first part of the ballet seem part of this ‘vegetal’ world. The black lines of the backcloth are picked up in their costumes at ankle, arm and torso.3 These lines connect them definitively to the backdrop, and when they finally move to the front of the stage to dance with the white clad women, they seem to be emerging from the greenery at the back of the stage, symbols - as in Ashton’s original scenario - of spring and fertility.

Figure 3. Preliminary sketch for Symphonic Variations. Collection of James L. Gordon, London. It is this sketch (I believe it to be the penultimate of the series) that Ashton had framed and hung in his house in Suffolk. When the frame was dismantled for reframing after the sale of Ashton's property, four other preliminary sketches were discovered in the backing of the frame. This is convincing proof to me that Ashton and Fedorovitch saw them as a related suite of sketches. Photograph by John Ross ©. (Internet Edition note - now that we can show these figures in colour you can see the original vibrant greens of the set and how they muted and faded with display.)

The Norfolk countryside was not the only factor in determining the ‘look’ of Symphonic Variations: the new space of the Opera House played a crucial role. As mentioned earlier, it worried Ashton and Fedorovitch. The easy way out would have been to fill the stage with a large group of dancers and extensive decor, as Robert Helpmann did in his first ballet for the new stage, Adam Zero. But Ashton and Fedorovitch treat the empty space as an asset, revelling not only in the ability of the dancers to move and stretch in the distances that separate them, but in the distances themselves. As Mary Clarke said to me, ‘Space is part of Symphonic Variations. It is a ballet, in part, about space and the distance between figures.’ In these spaces, too, there may be a hint of those ‘immense green fields’ of Norfolk that Fedorovitch loved.

Figure 4. Sophie Fedorovitch: final set for Symphonic Variations.
Based on a black and white photograph by McDougall.

Images of Classical Art

Many critics have seen Symphonic Variations as Ashton’s affirmation of classical dance, a renewing of his allegiance to the danse d’école and at the same time his own reworking and revitalisation of it. The danse d’école in part celebrates the idealised Western human body, as first articulated in visual form by ancient Greek sculptors (Macaulay, 1987, p. 6). This visual ideal was reinvestigated and renewed by Renaissance sculptors and painters at the Italian courts where dancing masters, influenced by the same ideals, developed the techniques from which ballet’s present-day vocabulary has evolved.

Resonances with ancient Greek imagery - Greek sculpture in particular - are very clear in Symphonic Variations, not only in the extended moments of stillness in which the dancers, like statues, rest on either side of the stage, but in the all-white colour scheme for the women’s costumes and in their pleating and draping. [4]Both men’s and women’s costumes fully reveal the dancers’ shapes, and Ashton has them stand with the contemplative serenity of Greek statues, not on two alert and ready-to-move legs, but in contrapposto - on one weight-bearing and one relaxed leg - the standard contrapposto pose modified slightly by crossing the relaxed leg in front. This casual pose, so at odds with traditional ballet positioning, seems at first a strikingly modern gesture, but its roots are deep in Greek artistic soil (Figures 5 & 6)[5]. Cynthia Harvey remembers Ashton telling her to do the contrapposto poses ‘as if you were a Greek statue’ (personal communication, 1994). The dancer originally at the centre of Symphonic Variations, it must be remembered, was Margot Fonteyn, whom Ashton once described as having ‘the proportions of Venus and the mind of Minerva’ (Gilbert, 1979). Ashton calls attention to those proportions with her extended contrapposto poses, and silently he draws an analogy to her sculptured predecessor, the goddess of love and fertility (Figures 7 & 8).

My guess is that this is where Fedorovitch may have had a real impact on the choreography, for she knew the vocabulary of Greek and Roman art well; her academic art training would have ensured that. And of course, within walking distance of Covent Garden were the collections at the British Museum, where rows of silent men and women stand in calm contrapposto along the Parthenon frieze.

Figure 5. Men standing near the gods, section of the east frieze of the Parthenon, c.440 BC, British Museum (Lord Elgin collection). Note the crossed foot figure second from the right. Drawing for Internet Edition by Phil Bremner ©.

But while reminiscent of Greek prototypes, Fedorovitch’s costumes, like Ashton’s choreography, are also a modern reworking of the style, and they reflect as well her own particular interests as a designer. Pleating was a favourite Fedorovitch device - almost a trademark. And the short skirts, pleated hip bands and bandeau tops of her female dancers also hint at forties fashions.

Fedorovitch’s costumes also enhance and enrich Ashton’s choreographic arrangement. Subtle differences in the draping and line of the costumes provide visual variety within an overall unified scheme, and at the same time subtly differentiate dancers’ roles - especially during the ballet’s opening, when the figures stand for so long in repose. The central male and female figures differ slightly but distinctly from the side, or pillar, figures. In the original cast, Fonteyn, who stands centre stage in the opening moments, anchors the group of three women with the V-shaped line of her skirt. The pleated band, which swathes her hips, is firmly gathered at the centre. In contrast, the hems of her companions on either side are cut on a diagonal, and the bands, which enclose their hips lack a centre accent. The men’s costumes echo this visual arrangement: the V-shaped line of Somes’ blouse, and his two full sleeves, accentuates his central position, while the diagonal cut of his companion’s tops, echoed in the black lines that loop diagonally over their hips and circle the single bare arm of each, parenthesise his figure. (This feature has since disappeared: in recent productions all men wear the same single-sleeve top.)

Figure 6. Brian Shaw in the First cast of Symphonic Variations. For this pose, Ashton seems to have drawn elements from the poses of the Parthenon frieze figures at furthest left and second from the right (see Figure 5). In Addition, the opening pose taken by the two side men in Symphonic Variations, with one arm placed diagonally across the chest and the foot in the crossed over position, is related to the figure second from the right (in Figure 5). Internet Edition note: The drawing is by Phil Bremner (©) and based on the original Baron photograph that appeared in the print edition.

But Symphonic Variations is not only a ballet about repose; it is about movement. Fedorovitch’s costumes were made to dance in - not only allowing maximum freedom of movement to the dancers, but enhancing that movement. No better example of this exists than in the ballet’s final section, which Ashton first marked ‘the summer, the earth, the light, the dance of union, the festival’. Ashton responds to much of this final allegro non troppo section of Franck’s dazzling variations with an equally dazzling series of choreographic variations on turning and circling: dancers spin on the ground and in the air, by themselves and in supported pirouettes; they circle each other and join hands in semicircular chains. In one of the most extraordinary series, the women revolve in sequence around the men while rotating themselves, like the earth around the sun. Fedorovitch’s costumes enrich this festival of circling and union. As the women turn and turn again, their skirts bell out like miniature whirlwinds, or - in line with the fertility motif - like flowers suddenly opening.

Figure 7. Margot Fonteyn in Symphonic Variations. Internet Edition note: The drawing is by Phil Bremner (©) and based on the original Zoë Dominic photograph that appeared in the print edition.

Fully part of this festival of music and dance, Fedorovitch’s set, too, swirls. We have seen how, as her design evolved from literal glade to abstract design, the lines of trees and telephone wires took on new and ‘musical’ life, seeming to swing rhythmically across the Opera House stage and over the heads of the dancers. To trees and telephone wires, then, perhaps we can now add the hint of a musical staff - or the strings of some gigantic lute playing for the festival of dancing below Actually, we can add whatever we want, for whatever the original references, the descriptive function of these lines no longer matters. ‘All these things’, Ashton insisted when describing his original scenario to Richard Buckle, ‘were only “put into” the ballet, if they were “put in”, to be eventually refined and eliminated. I did not want to load the work with literary ideas; and I was quite willing for people to read whatever they liked into it’ (Buckle, 1947, p. 23).

Figure 8. Venus Genetrix (also called Aphrodite of Fréjus), Holkham Hall, thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek prototype. Whether or not they knew this as a Roman copy, Ashton and Fedorovitch would have thought of it as a Greek type. Holkham Hall is in Norfolk, where Fedorovitch had her summer home. Reproduced by kind permission of the Earl of Leicester and the trustees of the Holkham Estate.

As with any abstract work, then, what counts in Symphonic Variations is not the story told, or message conveyed, but the feelings aroused. Ashton’s dancers offer us the beauty of movement and the joy of dancing to music in the open, untroubled space shaped by the curvilinear patterns of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set. Marie Rambert once observed that these lines ‘seem to flow out of the music and into the dancing’ (Fleet, 1955, p. 48). Thus the woman who first brought Sophie and Fred together bears witness to the artistic unity that these friends and collaborators achieved in.


1. In 1955, two years after Sophie’s death from a gas leak in her flat, her friend Simon Fleet collected a number of written tributes from her friends and admirers. Called Sophie Fedorovitch: Tributes and Attributes, it was privately published and distributed to friends. It remains a major source on Fedorovitch’s life and work. Ashton’s remarks come from this work.

2. I am grateful to Jane Pritchard, who first alerted me to the existence of this sketch and the other preliminary sketches for Symphonic Variations which were kept with the final design and which came to light when Ashton’s estate was sold. They now belong to James L. Gordon. In a letter to me, Jane Pritchard described the sketches and suggested that the more naturalistic came first. After seeing the sketches, I agree, and her suggestion seems all the more convincing in the light of Ashton’s tale of the Norfolk glade.

3. The ankle bands have disappeared from subsequent productions. This may have been done with Ashton and Fedorovitch’s approval.

4. Originally Greek sculpture was polychromatic Since the Renaissance, however, it has been white in the minds of artists, including Fedorovitch and Ashton.

5. It was, for example, a favourite Fred Astaire pose. It looks, too, like a variation of a pose that Isadora Duncan, whom Ashton particularly admired for her moments of stillness, may have used; but a version of this pose was standard in Greek relief (see Figure 5). I would like to thank my colleagues in ancient art at the University of Michigan: Elaine K. Gazda, Margaret Cool Root and Molly Lindner, as well as Ivor Guest and Mary Clarke, for discussing parts of this article with me. Any mistakes are, of course, my own.


Acocella, J. & Garafola, L. (eds) (1991), André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties, Hanover, NH, Wesleyan University Press.

Buckle, R. (1947),’ “Abstract” Ballet: a dialogue between Richard Buckle and Frederick Ashton’, Ballet, Vol. 4, No. 5.

Dominic, Z. & Gilbert, J. S. (1971), Frederick Ashton: A Choreographer and His Ballets, London, Harrap.

Fleet, S. (ed.) (1955), Sophie Fedorovitch: Tributes and Attributes. Aspects of her art and personality by some of her fellow artists and friends, London, privately printed.

Fonteyn, M. (1975), Autobiography, London, W H Allen.

Gilbert, J. S. (1979) (writer and producer), Frederick Ashton: A Real

Choreographer, BBC Television, in association with RM Productions, Munich.

Macaulay, A. (1987), ‘Notes on Dance Classicism’, Dance Theatre Journal Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 6-9, 36-9.

Rambert, M. (1972), Quicksilver: An Autobiography, London, Macmillan.

Vaughan, D. (1977), Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, London, A & C Black.


My Dearest Friend, My Greatest Collaborator  © Beth Genné
Following Sir Fred’s Steps © Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau
Internet and Adobe PDF edition of Following Sir Fred's Steps held on Ballet.co ©
No reproduction without prior written permission from the copyright holders.

December 2005
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