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.
Few letters survive from Frederick Ashton to his friend and mentor, Marie Rambert. She did, however, keep material of real importance to herself, and among her collection of papers at the Rambert Dance Company archive are two written at significant times in Ashton’s life. Although neither is dated and the envelopes in which they were sent have not survived, the first originates from late August 1928, when Ashton had been in Paris for about a month as a member of Ida Rubinstein’s company; the second was written in the summer of 1935 and explains Ashton’s decision to become a full member of Ninette de Valois’ Vic-Wells Ballet. To place the letters in context it is important to remember the range of Ashton’s experience during the first decade of his career in dance - a decade of enormous variety and opportunity, opportunities that Ashton would generally seize, and which provided the base for his subsequent career.
The decade under consideration begins in 1925 when, on 10 April, twenty-year-old Frederick Ashton stepped on stage at the Palace Pier, Brighton, as a member of the Duenna Dancers for a special Good Friday performance; it runs through to the autumn of 1935 when Ashton accepted the ‘security’ provided by de Valois, becoming chief choreographer and a principal dancer for the Vic-Wells Ballet.
It gave me a regular salary, which I hadn’t had before, and I was immensely appreciative of the luxury of using proper dancers at last and having proper facilities. (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p. 76)
Even before this decade began, Ashton had seen the dancers whose images infiltrate so many of his works. Anna Pavlova had excited him with her ‘extraordinary grace and plasticity’ (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p.76) in Lima, Peru, in spring 1917; and later, in London, he would watch her at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In April 1921 Isadora Duncan inspired him with her ‘marvellous tragic impact’ and wonderful run. ‘Even when she was galumphing around she was still very impressive’ (McDonagh, 1970, p. 18). And he had had the opportunity to see Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on many occasions. Precise choreographic details from the performances he saw found their way into his own later choreography - the Gavotte Pavlova enchaînement which became the signature ‘Fred Step’1 and the rose petals streaming from Duncan’s hands as she ran downstage2 are the most obvious examples, but films documenting early ballets, such as Mars and Venus3 clearly show the influence of Massine and Nijinska. Some of the reviews of A Tragedy of Fashion suggest it could be regarded as a spoof on Ballets Russes choreography, a perfectly valid interpretation when another item in the Riverside Nights revue was a send-up of Chekhov.4 In the long run, however, it is the style and movement quality of the great performers he saw, and the choreography in which they danced, that had a lasting impact.
At the outset of his training Ashton took a few Cecchetti-based classes from Léonide Massine before being sent to Marie Rambert for tuition. When Ashton could afford it, he took classes with other teachers, for example with Nicolas Legat, but Rambert welcomed him back even when he could not pay for class. Quickly they became real friends, and she was enormously supportive of his early endeavours. As Ashton acknowledged in one of his last interviews, Rambert was ‘an extraordinary cultured woman, well-read and…. her presence alone was a constant source of stimulation’ (Wohlfahrt 1988, p. 56). Rambert’s concern to develop her students’ all-round awareness of the arts, so that they acquired a full cultural education, surely influenced Ashton’s own self-educative preparation for productions - what he often referred to as his ‘homework’ - immersing himself in relevant music, literature and visual arts. It is a view expounded in his first article on choreography in the Dancing Times in May 1930:
Anyone contemplating the arrangement of a ballet should first become so well acquainted and imbued with the spirit of whatever period he chooses to portray as to allow the style to flow naturally and unselfconsciously through his work, inspired by the music, and avoiding always exaggeration of style which leads to mannered as opposed to truthful conception. Thus saturated he is free to take inspiration from whatever conflicting sources it may come, and frequently these may be as diverse as the painting of Breughel, or provincial musical comedy. (Ashton, 1930, p. 124)
Although the pictorial and literary base for Ashton’s works could be significant - and his earliest choreography included Capriol Suite (partly inspired by Arbeau’s Orchésographie), and La Péri, Foyer de danse and Four Saints in Three Acts evoking Persian miniatures, sketches of ballet dancers by Degas, and the paintings by artists as varied as Giotto, Goya and El Greco respectively - it is a mistake to overemphasise the importance of narrative and pictorial elements in ballets of great choreographic beauty. Ashton himself claimed:
And consciously, all through my career, I have been working to make ballet independent of literary and pictorial motives… If the ballet is to survive, it must survive through its dancing qualities…. it is the dance that must be paramount. (Ashton, 1951, p. 33)
This belief in the importance of choreography in its own right was one he shared with Rambert, and through her teaching he acquired a real appreciation of style. They both loved the choreography of Marius Petipa and many of Rambert’s classes would end with enchaînements drawn from variations from The Sleeping Beauty.
Within the 1925-35 decade Ashton worked on many stages. Among them were the tiniest venues in London, including the Trocadero, where he danced in his own and Buddy Bradley’s choreography in late-night cabaret for a year, April l932—335; the Mercury, where Marie Rambert’s Dancers gave three long seasons in 1931, and another in 1934; as well as regular Ballet Club performances on Sunday evenings and Thursday matinees;6 and the Arts Theatre where he appeared in Lydia Lopokova’s 1930 Masque of Poetry, Music and Dancing.7 But he also performed and later choreographed for the largest London venues. These included productions in huge cinemas - the Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion and the Regal at Marble Arch - performing divertissements accompanying films; and variety programmes at the London Coliseum and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden during the 1928 Italian Opera season. In addition he was seen at major British touring venues with the Nemchinova- Dolin Ballet in the autumn of 1927,8 as well as the other major European opera houses in Paris, Brussels and Milan during the 1928-29 tour with Ida Rubinstein’s company. Ashton’s appearance in such a great range of presentations, both artistic and commercial, enabled him to learn his craft very thoroughly.
Ashton had considerable experience as a performer before joining Ida Rubinstein’s company. What he gained most from the experience of working with that particular organisation was an apprenticeship as a choreographer. Ashton had begun to choreograph in London by being bullied to arrange works for Rambert, whose own perceptive eye guided his efforts; but in the Parisian studio, with Bronislava Nijinska he could study a master choreographer at work. Nijinska created seven original ballets while Ashton was a member of the company,9 and regularly taught daily class. As Ashton later said ‘her classes were sort of choreographic lessons’, and in two interviews he observed:
The thing that a choreographer needs is an eye. He has to do his training through his eye… Nijinska, in particular, helped me tremendously. I never took my eyes off her when I was with Rubinstein. I used to come and watch all her rehearsals, just to see her work. I used to sit in the corner all day long, just watching her. (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p.31)
I was totally captivated by her personality, by the way she spoke and tackled problems. To someone like myself who had meanwhile decided to become a choreographer, she probably transmitted more than to a dancer. (Wohlfahrt, 1988, p. 56)
From the readily accessible information on Ida Rubinstein’s company it is difficult to judge its true merits. The most frequently quoted source is Diaghilev’s dismissive letters to Serge Lifar, damning every aspect of the productions during the opening season of four performances at the Paris Opéra (Lifar, 1954, pp. 269-73). Diaghilev’s opinions were those of a jealous rival whose own company would follow Rubinstein’s into the Opéra,10 and certainly newspaper reviews were more enthusiastic. Nevertheless the company was hindered by Rubinstein’s insistence on starring in each ballet. Her determination and stellar personality could not compensate for lack of technique in ballerina roles, however carefully choreographed. Ashton described her as ‘absolutely hopeless…. All the work that we did, building up for her entrances, would always sag right down’ when she appeared (McDonagh, 1976, p. 15).
Frederick Ashton in Les Enchantements de la fée Alcine by Léonide Massine, with Ida Rubinstein’s company. Photograph © Rambert Archive.
When Ashton wrote to Rambert, the dancers had been rehearsing with Nijinska for about a month. The letter, eight pages long but all one paragraph, is writtenin a way that suggests the ink just flowed from Ashton’s pen as he tried to convey the excitement of the work. At the top he has added a postscript: ‘Please excuse grammatical errors, spelling & punctuation & writing, in fact everything’. The letter is written from the apartment he had been lent by Lennox Berkeley, 4 rue du Ruisseau, in the eighteenth arrondissement, north of Montmartre. Later he moved to the Hotel St Georges in the centre of Paris.11 He repeatedly recalled that at this time he lacked money for regular baths (Macaulay, 1984, p. 3),12 but while with Rubinstein he could certainly afford to buy books (Morris, 1994, p. 131; Nugent, 1994) and sheet music – his Gymnopédie No. 2 by Erik Satie, acquired in Paris in 1929, survives in the Rambert archive.
The first page of Ashton’s letter to Marie Rambert in 1928.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Rambert Archive ©.
The letter reads:
My very dear Mim
I hope you won’t consider that you have had to wait a long time for this letter but if so it is only that I might have the more to say to you. Life is very strange here or so it still seems to me & I never realised before how really far Paris is removed from London, as a town itis more beautiful but for everything else give me London, from a work point of view Paris it is undoubtedly better no distractions and no friends, but rather lonely at times & though in my heart of hearts I am not liking life here I feel as though I had known no other, so concentrated is it on one purpose & there seems no other existence outside the “village” life of the Salle Janffroy. The Company is very large & the competition very keen indeed, but I am by no means the worst dancer & I think that though Nijinska has no especial reason for liking me from the point of view of work or life she is not entirely negative to me & that is already something in so big a company. Nijinska is a wonderful woman more wonderful than I had even imagined, her efficiency is overwhelming & her knowledge & vitality something quite super-human & inspiring. She gives a brilliant class, very difficult & never dull & in doing it one realises over & over again that the best system of dance training is obviously Checcetti (I can’t spell his name, disgrace!) her arms are I should say entirely based on his & her bar is the same except that she introduces various sorts of developees before the petit battement which one afterwards does in the centre & she very seldom makes us do rond de jambes en l’air. Nearly all her steps in the centre are jumping, she demonstrates the whole time & smokes incessantly her own jump is wonderful & gives one some idea of what Nijinski’s jump was like in quality. She is a beautiful dancer & a dancer above all her ugliness. We have two groups for classes & they take place alternate weeks at & after them we rehearse till lunch & back at 3 or 4 till dinner & then back at 9 or 10 till 11.30 or . Generally one doesn’t rehearse more than twice a day sometimes 3 as she takes people in groups till the ballet is finished & then calls full rehearsal. Rubinstein never appears, she has been once to look on only, & has now gone away for a holiday. But I have been going 3 times a day as I have been understudying. She has finished one ballet & as would be my luck it is Russian rather Childrens Tales-Firebird-Noces like people pile themselves on each other but we do real vigorous dancing 6 men. The music is by Rimsky-Korsakoff. The second she has just begun is rather Carnaval like & romantic & is by Shubert-Liszt. I haven’t done anything in that yet but understudy in the corner. Massine arrives on the 1st September I hope he will be kind to me.13 For I am being very diffident & feel really of no count as a dancer as yet and I fully realise what a wonderful experience it is I think better than Diaghileff because of the lessons. I also realise how little strength I have, what a meagre physique I have, I get thinner instead of fatter or more muscular and how hard & long one must work to be anything as a dancer & how the years do tell in it. I also realize how much worse I should be without your excellent teaching & grounding as I see I have more finish than most people & I hope God will give me muscles in time. I am more ambitious than ever and I long & pray that I will succeed, but life is hard and there is so much against me one thinks. I must stop now I am tired, if there is anything you would like to know please ask me as I may have not told you something you would like to know. Well dear Mim, I think of you a lot & I wish you were here many things would amuse you as they do me, and I am constantly more than grateful to you for making it possible for me to enter this Company. My love to you. Fred
It is conspicuous that men writing about Nijinska usually find it necessary to comment on her appearance. George Sari, a colleague of Ashton’s in Rubinstein’s company, wrote:
Oh! what a genius! Personal beauty does not count with Nijinska - everybody adores her and no one stops to ask, ‘Is she beautiful? her eyes? her hair? her lips?’ To say she is Nijinska - the artist, the genius, is to have said all! (Sari, 1928, p. 9)
His report confirms many of the details in Ashton’s letter and adds:
Rules are rigid but everyone adheres to them and the rehearsals are truly wonderful! All the women of the company rehearse in black tunics with flesh tights and shoes, whilst the men wear black tights and white shirts. (ibid.)
The works Ashton refers to are La Princesse cygne (The Swan Princess), inspired by the opera The Tzar Sultan in which, according to the programme, Ashton danced as one of eight men (Les Jeunes Gens), along with another British dancer, Rupert Doone, and three young Polish graduates of the Warsaw Opera Ballet who would become notable dancers in the 1930s: Shabelevsky, Jasinsky and Matlinsky. The Carnaval-like work was La Bien aimée (The Beloved), where indeed Ashton appeared as one of the carnival masquers who arrive at the end of the work.14 In most works for Rubinstein, Ashton appeared in groups of four to nine named dancers, rather than with the anonymous corps de ballet.15
While the first letter was written at a time of an exciting private experience Ashton wanted to share with Rambert, the second is an explanation of changing public relationship.
After his season with Ida Rubinstein’s company Ashton returned to a variety of jobs in London, including helping Rambert with the foundation of the Ballet Club. His choreographic work became more individual, and, following the creation of Capriol Suite and Pomona, Ashton was acclaimed by Arnold Haskell as ‘the first young choreographist of importance to develop after the close of the Diaghileff era’ (1931, p. 448). Although closely associated with Rambert’s work Ashton only choreographed five ballets,16 and a further two divertissement items for the Mercury stage. These were chamber works specifically designed in detail for the tiny space and sophisticated audience. Ashton’s work for the Mercury was complemented by ballets choreographed for larger venues. As a freelance choreographer Ashton was kept busy, but he undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity to take up a full-time position within an ‘artistic theatre’ where it was no longer necessary to compromise, as he felt he had to in the commercial theatre to ‘abandon technique and originality in favour of broad general effects’ (Ashton, 1933, p. 4).
1935 was a year of realignment in the world of British ballet. The newly-established Markova-Dolin Company,17 a full-time touring venture presenting eight performances a week, drew on the resources of both the Vic-Wells Ballet and the Ballet Club. It was against this background, and the annual visits of the Ballets Russes companies, the establishment of a new group by Leon Woizikovsky,18 as well as his decision to accept de Valois’ offer of a full-time job, that he wrote to Rambert from Scotland:
I have come to the conclusion that civil war has broken out in the world of ballet, & there is nothing more destructive in the world than civil war, much worse than a foreign invasion. In the peace of Argyllshire I see it all like a messiah (not Marguerite but probably like Baron Aloisi19) I shall be powerless to avert the inter-consumption of ourselves. Like a future teller I thing [sic] that the next twelve months must be for you a period of stocktaking. I dont think that you should beat yourself against the prison bars in fits of bitterness, nor do I think that you should stop your great work of course but I think that you should go slowly in a neutral way & watch the results of the warfare & like America step in at the right moment20 I would not enter the guerrilla & risk a defeat because Sadlers Wells & Markova have more ammunition with which to fight, & now I see that Leon has also a company & altogether there is too much activity. I would have your season at the Ballet Club. I wonder if you believe that I say this in deep consideration & because I really love you & do not like you to be outside anything I do.You know that I realise that you are the most powerful & be outside anything I do. You know that I realise you are the most powerful and constructive influence in my life & I would really never do anything to hurt you that was in my power. But my strength is limited & I am no colossus like Massine I [?] sadly realise & I doubt if my slight form would be able to hold such powerful genius. I know that it hurts you that I go to Sadlers Wells but you also I hope realise that if I do go I must work to the best of my ability. I hope that you are not too upset about Façade but that is not really my doing but Willie [Walton] who wants royalties. For my part it also gives me a good dancing part to hold my own against Bobbie & Harold. But I can write no more now all this seems so petty compared to the great loss of poor Nijinska.* How really terrible. I hope god will grant her great works to distract her poor suffering mind what relief can she possibly have & what comfort can there be for her, she adored her son as you know. La vie La vie.
Do write to me soon.
*Leon [her son] was killed motoring with Nijinska sitting at her side. Singaevsky [her husband] driving & her daughter seriously injured near Paris
Rambert did, indeed, follow Ashton’s advice and continue her experimental and chamber presentations. The following January saw the creation of Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas. Façade, originally created for the Camargo Society, which had become a popular work in the Rambert repertory (and indeed remained so until 1968) was the only Ashton work danced by both companies in the 1930s. Music was by William Walton and in the final ‘Tango Pasadoble’ Ashton had given himself a strong character-role in which to stand up to comparison with the Vic-Wells leading dancers - Robert Helpmann and Harold Turner. The news of Nijinska’s tragedy serves as a reminder that Ashton followed Nijinska’s life and career with interest, eventually enabling her to mount Les Biches and Les Noces on the Royal Ballet dancers in the 1960s. Her influence on Ashton can be seen in a number of ways, and during his first season with the Vic-Wells Ballet Ashton re-used the score and narrative of one of the ballets he appeared in with Rubinstein’s company - Le Baiser de la fée - and choreographed another, Apparitions, with thematic similarities to La Bien aimée. In these and the other works choreographed in the first seasons at the Vic-Wells he took full advantage of the resources available to him, but his success, and the overall development of his choreographic skill, undoubtedly drew on the experiences of his first decade in dance when Rambert was such a constructive influence in his life.
I would like to thank Anthony Russell-Roberts and the Rambert Dance Company Archive for permission to reproduce the two letters in their entirety.
1. None of the recent reconstructions of the Gavotte Pavlova contain the ‘Fred Step’ enchaînement.
2. Ashton specifically included this in the last section of Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan and adapted the idea in, for example, Voices of Spring pas de deux.
3. The films recording early Ballet Club productions made by Pearl and Walter Duff may be viewed at the National Film and Television Archive, London, and at the Dance Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York.
4. This sketch ‘Love Lies Bleeding or The Puss in Russian Boots’ was item 10, following A Tragedy of Fashion after an interval in Riverside Nights. Chekhov was as topical as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes then performing at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. Nigel Playfair, Manager of the Lyric Hammersmith, had directed one of the first British productions of a Chekhov play, The Wedding, at the Grafton Galleries in 1917 (Marie Rambert performed in the same entertainment); had given The Cherry Orchard a month’s pre-West End run at the Lyric from 25 May 1925; and a Chekhov season had just been presented across the Thames from Hammersmith at Barnes Theatre.
5. Contracts for all but star performers at the Trocadero where performances began at nightly except Sunday ran for a year. ‘Magic Nights’, in which Ashton featured opened on 4 April 1932 and the following production, ‘Revels in Rhythm’, on 3 April 1933.
6. Regular Sunday evening, and Thursday matinee performances began at the Ballet Club on Sunday 10 January 1932. The 1934 public (rather than club) season ran 15 May-27 June.
7. For the Masque of Poetry, Music and Dancing, which ran for eight performances from Wednesday 10 December to Tuesday 16 December 1930, Ashton choreographed and appeared with Lopokova and Harold Turner in the ballets that closed each half: ‘Follow Your Saint: The Passionate Pavan’ and ‘Dances on a Scotch Theme’.
8. Ashton was with the Nemchinova-Dolin Company performing in variety from 5 September to 24 December 1927. During that period they gave two seasons at the London Coliseum 5 September-8 October, and 28 November-24 December. In the interim they undertook engagements in regional theatres including Bristol Hippodrome (week beginning 17 October); the Palace Theatre, Leicester (14 November) and Manchester Hippodrome (21 November).
9. Les Noces de Psyché et de l‘Amour, La Bien aimée and Boléro were performed at the opening programme of the Ida Rubinstein Ballet at the Théatre Nationale de l’Opéra, Paris, on 22 November 1928. Le Baiser de la Fée was added at the second on 27 November; and Nocturne and La Princesse cygne at the third on 29 November. La Va/se was premiered on tour at the Théatre de Monte-Carlo on 15 January 1929.
10. For their first, 1928, season at the Opera, the Ida Rubinstein Ballet performed on 22, 27, 29 November and 4 December. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed there on 20, 24, 27 December and 3 January 1929.
11. In a letter of 9 October 1928 from Edward Burra to Barbara Ker-Seymer he writes: ‘We have done nothing but rush from end to end of the town searching for Fred after penetrating about 40 miles into Old Montmartre (the heart of the apache quarter you know) to the Rue de Ruisseau we were told… that he had removed a day or two ago to the Hotel St. George Rue Bonaparte…’ (Chappell 1985, p. 46)
12. By contrast with Ashton’s repeated comments that dancers in the company were poorly paid, Jasinsky, in an oral interview at the Dance Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts comments on the luxury of receiving a full year’s salary when performing so rarely and a return fare from Poland!
13. Massine created two works for the Ida Rubinstein Ballet. David was premiered on 4 December 1928 and Les Enchantements d’Alcine received its first performance at the Opéra on 21 May 1929.
14. Schubert-Liszt was the working title of this ballet as confirmed on Benois’ designs for the ballet. For reproductions of some of these see Barran (1994).
15. Nijinska later paid tribute to Ashton’s contribution to the company when she said that ‘in character dances he was among the best. He stood out by his exact rendering of style and his flawless accuracy in the details of my choreography. Ashton did not dance solo parts… but he knew how to render individual what he did in ensembles… He was also very musical’ (Dominic & Gilbert, 1971, p. 10).
16. La Péri (1931), The Lady of Shalott (1931), Foyer de la danse (1932), Les Masques (1933) and Mephisto Valse (1934).
17. The Markova-Dolin Ballet (1935-37) was commercially funded by Mrs Henderson and Vivian Van Damm Productions Ltd. Its first performance was at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne, 11 November 1935.
18. The Ballets de Leon Woizikovsky operated in 1935 and 1936, then becoming the nucleus of Colonel de Basil’s ‘second’ Ballets Russes company for touring Australia. They opened a season at the London Coliseum on 10 September 1935.
19. The reference to Marguerite is unclear. Baron Aloisi (1875-1949) was much in the news in 1935 as an Italian advocate of the League of Nations whose mission was destroyed by the rise of Mussolini and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.
20. A reference to the American intervention in the 1914-18 war.
Ashton, F (1930), ‘A Word about Choreography’. Dancing Times, May 1930.
Ashton, F (1933), ‘Ballet and the Choreographer’, Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells Magazine. December 1933.
Ashton, F (1951), ‘Notes on Choreography’ in W. Sorell (ed.) The Dance Has Many Faces, 3rd edn, 1992, Chicago, A Cappella.
Barran, J. (1994), An Exhibition of Designs for the Russian Ballet, London, Barran,
Chappell, W. (ed.) (1985), ‘Well derie”. The Letters of Edward Burra, London, Fraser.
Dominic, Z. & Gilbert, J. S. (1971), Frederick Ashton: A Choreographer and His Ballets, London, Harrap.
Haskell, A. (1931), ‘A Note on the Choreography of Frederick Ashton’, Dancing Times, January 1931.
Lifar, S. (1954), A History of Russian Ballet From its Origins to the Present Day, trans. A. Haskell, London, Hutchinson.
Macaulay. A. (1984). ‘Ashton at Eighty, Dance Theatre Journal, Autumn 1984.
McDonagh, D. (1970), ‘Au Revoir?, Ballet Review, Vol. 3, No. 4.
Morris, G. (1994), ‘Ashton’s London Library’, Dancing Times, November 1994.
Nugcnt, A. (1994), ‘For Freddy, Yes for Freddy..’, Dance Now Vol. 3 No.3. Autumn 1994, pp. 26-33.
Sari, G. (1928), ‘Impressions of Nijinska’, The American Dancer, December 1928.
Wohlfahrt, H.-T. (1988). ‘Der Tänzcr muss mit der Technik Gefühle übertragen, Ballett-Journal/Das Tanzarchiv, Vol. 5 No. 1, December 1988. (I am grateful to Claire de Robilant for translating this interview for me.)