As the Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton is to that company what Bournonville is to the Royal Danish Ballet. He nurtured Ninette de Valois‘s young troupe and gave it an identity through pieces created to help develop its dancers. Ashton’s creations for the Royal Ballet shaped the English style of ballet, combining classical purity with expressive qualities.
The current Royal Ballet season features such Ashton gems as La Fille Mal Gardée, Les Patineurs/Beatrix Potterand Cinderella, while the next 18 months will bring revivals of Sylvia, Rhapsody and Scènes de Ballet along withanother taster of Cinderella, Les Patineurs and Tales of Beatrix Potter. There’s also a Royal Ballet DVD of his masterpiece Ondine due this week, so it’s high time for us to look at Ashton and his incredible talent for turning different concepts, narrative and abstract, into pure classical dance.
Frederick Ashton in a Nutshell
Frederick Ashton was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1904. He spent his early years in Lima, Peru. At age 13 he saw Anna Pavlova perform and from then on he knew he wanted to be a dancer (“She injected me with her poison and there was an end of me”). A year later he was sent to boarding school at Dover College in England but he would only start taking ballet lessons six years later. By the time he started training (in secret) with Léonide Massine, the famous dancer & choreographer, Ashton was 20 years old.
When Léonide Massine had to leave England he advised Ashton to continue his studies with Marie Rambert. Ashton dreamed of becoming a great dancer, but the reality of his late start and particular physique dawned on him. Rambert had noticed Ashton’s ability with choreography and encouraged him to start creating pieces for her company. He was 21 years old when he choreographed his first ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion (1926). He used designs by Sophie Fedorovitch who became a close friend and collaborator.
In 1928 Ashton was hired as a performer with Ida Rubinstein‘s company in France, dancing under the direction of Bronislava Nijinska. There he continued to learn more about choreography and became influenced by Nijinska’s work. Returning to London he carried on developing pieces for The Ballet Club (later renamed Ballet Rambert).
Ashton’s ballet Capriol Suite was noticed by none less than Anna Pavlova. She asked him to create a piece for her but this dream collaboration never materialised as she died soon afterwards. However he did get to collaborate with renowned ballerinas Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Lopokova and Alicia Markova during his days of dancing and choreographing for The Camargo Society.
Ashton’s work also got the attention of Ninette de Valois and she started commissioning pieces for the Vic-Wells Ballet, her fledgling company and Ashton’s future home:
In September 1931 he created Regatta, first of a series of collaborations. In 1935 he was officially hired by the Vic-Wells as a guest dancer and choreographer.
During this period he created successful ballets such as Les Rendezvous (1933), Le Baiser de La Fée (1935), Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet (1937) and Dante Sonata (1940). Ashton danced in many of these pieces but created most of the principal roles on Margot Fonteyn (who would become his muse) and Robert Helpmann.
Having joined the RAF, Ashton spent several years away from the stage during World War II. He returned in time to follow Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet’s move to its new home at Covent Garden and developed what he would later refer to as his “choreographic credo” – works as Symphonic Variations (1946) and Scènes de Ballet (1948).
In 1948 he became an Artistic Director and later, in recognition of his contribution to the company, Associate Director (a more prestigious post at that time).
In 1949 Ashton’s successfully premiered his first 3 act, full-length ballet à la Petipa, Cinderella. The ballet was included in the company’s American tour and despite Cinderella’s lukewarm reception overseas, Ashton was invited by NYCB to choreograph for them.
In 1950Illuminations premiered in New York at New York City Center. With designs by Cecil Beaton, Ashton’s first ballet for a US Company was a great success and captivated American audiences.
His most successful ballet to date, La Fille Mal Gardée, premiered at Covent Garden in 1960 and is currently in the repertoire of more than 22 companies around the world.
In 1963 Ashton succeeded De Valois as Director of The Royal Ballet a position he kept for 7 years. In recognition of his services he was awarded with the perpetual title of Founder Choreographer upon his resignation.
During his directorship Ashton ensured Nijinska’s ballets Les Noces and Les Biches were frequently staged and that ballets by Tudor and Balanchine were brought to the repertoire. He also created ten further ballets including Marguerite & Armand, The Dream, Monotones I & II and Enigma Variations.
Ashton kept choreographing for The Royal Ballet well into the 80s; mainly short pieces created on specific dancers for gala events or operas. His last work was Nursery Suite (1988) for the Queen’s Sixtieth Birthday Gala. He died on 19 August 1988 at his country home Chandos Lodge in Eye, Suffolk, at the age of 83.
Ashton’s early ballets were created to develop the technical and interpretive demands of dancers from De Valois’s company. With their mix of lyricism, precision and vibrancy they were instrumental in shaping the English style: small & speedy footwork withuse of the upper body. Dancers often remark on his demanding choreography which, to audiences, should look completely effortless.
Sir Fred’s influences ranged from Pavlova and Bronislava Nijinska to his training in the Cecchetti system. He was renowned for structuring ballets; matching music to action and creating characters out of steps (good examples are Fille or Les Patineurs). He would go into rehearsal with an idea of the overall effect he wanted but without specific steps. Demanding from the dancers certain movements or shapes (ie. a tree, a fountain, etc), he would observe them, refine and revisit. The dancers were active parts of the choreographic process but it was always Ashton’s eye that would prevail.
Ashton choreographs the way that Haydn composed: he takes a motif, adds to it, plays with it, changes its dynamics, sets it against something dissimilar, turns it inside out, extends it, transforms it. Notes on the Fred Step, 2004
One of Asthon’s most recognised and admired qualities was his use of classical vocabulary in dance making. Rather than resorting to a severe transformation of ballet steps (as Balanchine did) Ashton created works that were purely classical but felt modern at the same time. In his own words:
All ballets which are not based on the classical ballet and do not create new dancing patterns and steps within its idiom are, as it were, only tributaries of the main stream.
His ballets covered a wide range of styles:
Comedy/Satire as in A Wedding Bouquet and Façade
Narrative as in Le Baiser de la Fée, La Fille Mal Gardée, Apparitions and Nocturne
Divertissements as in Les Rendezvous
Abstract as in Symphonic Variations, Scènes de Ballet, etc.
The Fred Step
Ashton might not have been overly superstitious but he always found a way to include a signature combination of steps as a personal tribute to his beloved Pavlova. Principal dancer Michael Somes said at the time “even when a new work was completed, room must had to be found for [Ashton's] signature step.”
Ashton called his lucky step the Pavlova (as it originated from a step she performed when dancing a Gavotte) but nowadays this combination is referred to as the Fred Step. It goes like this:
- Pose en arabesque: dancer steps onto one leg with the opposite leg stretched behind
- Coupé dessous (sometimes in fondu): dancer extends leg down to the front with a step, picking up and placing the other foot behind the ankle.
- Petit développé à la seconde: dancer slightly lifts foot behind the ankle along the supporting leg and extends to the side
- Pas de bourrée dessous: Leg is brought to the back and dancer performs a series of “sideway steps” with the legs interchanging and the back leg finishing at the front in fifth position (see Pas de Bourrée under)
- Pas de chat: A jump to the side with the knees bent ending in fifth position.
You can also check each of these terms separately in our Bag of Steps section.
The Fred Step can be found as early as 1933 in Ashton’s ballet Les Masques. The step is usually “hidden”, ie. it is not usually done by the principal dancer, but by a corps member or by a supporting character.
Finding the Fred Step
Cinderella: in Act I the dancing master teaches this step to one of the Ugly sisters and Cinderella later tries to copy it.
The Dream: done by Moth, the last fairy onstage, at the end of her dance as Oberon comes behind her.
A Month in the Country: done by Natalia Petrovna and her admirer Rakitin as they exit the stage arm-in-arm, with their backs to the audience.
La Fille Mal Gardée: done by the peasants in Act 1, scene one and reprised on both flute dances in Act 1, scene two. See video below:
Awards and Honours
CBE in recognition of his work as choreographer and dancer, 1950.
Knight of the British Empire, 1962
Named Companion of Honour, 1970
Member of the Order of Merit, 1977
Member of the Legion d’Honneur, 1962 (France)
Commander of the Order of the Dannebrog, 1963 (Denmark)
Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award from RAD, 1959
Gold Medal from the Carina Aria Foundation in Sweden, 1972
Honorary degrees as Doctor of Letters from the Universities of Durham (1962) and East Anglia (1967)
Honorary degrees as Doctor of Music from the Universities of London (1970) and Oxford (1976)
Some of Ashton’s Works
- A Tragedy of Fashion (1926)
- Suite de Danses (Galanteries) (1927)
- Capriol Suite (1930)
- Façade, Regatta (1931)
- Les Rendezvous (1933)
- Le Baiser De La Fée (1935)
- Apparitions, Nocturne (1936)
- Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet (1937)
- The Wanderer (1941)
- Symphonic Variations (1946)
- Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1947)
- Scénes de Ballet (1948)
- Cinderella (1948)
- Illuminations (1950)
- Daphnis and Chloë (1951)
- Sylvia (1952)
- Homage to the Queen (1953)
- Romeo and Juliet (Romeo og Julie, 1955) – The Royal Danish Ballet
- Birthday Offering (1956)
- La Valse (1958)
- Ondine (1958)
- La Fille Mal Gardée (1960)
- Les Deux Pigeons (1961)
- Marguerite and Armand (1963)
- The Dream (1964)
- Monotones I and II (1966)
- Enigma Variations (1968)
- Tales of Beatrix Potter (1970)
- Meditation from Thäis (1971)
- A Month in the Country (1976)
- Tweedledum and Tweedledee (1977)
- Rhapsody (1980)
- Nursery Suite (1986)
- Margot Fonteyn in a solo from Nocturne [link]
- Roberta Marquez, Belinda Hartley, Laura Morera, Federico Bonelli, Ludovic Ondiviela and Steven McRae in Symphonic Variations [link]
- Miyako Yoshida in a solo from Scènes de Ballet [link]
- Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Cinderella, Act II Pas de Deux [link]
- David Makhateli and Marianela Nuñez in Sylvia, Act I Pas de Deux [link]
- Katherine Healy (Juliet) and Patrick Armand (Paris) in Romeo & Juliet [link]
- Thiago Soares and Darcey Bussell in the Birthday Offering Pas de Deux [link]
- Margot Fonteyn in Ondine, Act I [link]
- Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta in La Fille Mal Gardée [link]
- Robert Parker and Nao Sakuma rehearse BRB’s The Two Pigeons [link]
- Margot Fonteyn & Rudolf Nureyev in a documentary about Marguerite & Armand (extract) [link]
- Alessandra Ferri & Ethan Stiefel in The Dream [link]
- Zenaida Yanowsky, Iñaki Urlezaga and Edward Watson in Monotones II [link]
- Thiago Soares and Leanne Benjamin in Meditations of Thäis Pas De Deux [link]
- Lynn Seymour & Anthony Dowell in A Month in the Country [link]
- Tamara Rojo in Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan [link]
- Wayne Sleep and Graham Fletcher as the twins and Lesley Collier as Alice in Tweedledum and Tweedledee [link]
- Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier in the pas de deux from Rhapsody [link]
Sources and Further Information
- La Fille Mal Gardée Programme Notes, Royal Ballet 2009-2010 Season
- ABT Biographical Notes onSir Frederick Ashton [link]
- Wikipedia Entry onSir Frederick Ashton [link]
- Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton by Julie Kavanagh. Faber and Faber, ISBN-10: 0571190626
- Ballet Biographies by Gladys Davidson. Werner Laurie, London 1952.
- Ashton Now by David Vaughan. Following Sir Fred’s Steps: Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan & Andrée Grau. Dance Books 1996. ISBN-10: 1852730471. Ballet.co [link]
- Character andClassicism in Ashton’s Dances by John Percival. Following Sir Fred’s Steps. Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan & Andrée Grau. Dance Books 1996. ISBN-10: 1852730471. Ballet.co [link]
- The Influence of Cecchetti on Ashton’s Work by Richard Glasstone. Following Sir Fred’s Steps. Ashton’s Legacy. Edited by Stephanie Jordan & Andrée Grau. Dance Books 1996. ISBN-10: 1852730471. Ballet.co [link]
- Notes on the Fred Step by Alastair Macaulay. The Ashton Archive, Danceview 2004 [link]
- Can This Choreographer Be Saved? by Mary Cargill. The Ashton Archive, Danceview 2003 [link]
- Chronological Listing of Ashton’s Ballets. Compiled by David Vaughan. The Ashton Archive [link]
- Step-by-step guide to dance: Frederick Ashton by Sanjoy Roy. The Guardian, March 2010 [link]