This week, to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Sir Frederick Ashton, The Royal Ballet presents a programme devoted entirely to the works of one of the most influential choreographers in British ballet.
As The Royal Ballet's former principal choreographer and director, Sir Frederick was a key figure in building one of the world’s greatest ballet companies. He played a major role in defining the style of The Royal Ballet, and in nurturing some of the Company’s greatest dancers. In his distinctive style - sometimes with more than a dash of humour, often passionate, but always wonderfully lyrical - he choreographed over 100 ballets, around 30 of which are presently in the repertoire of The Royal Ballet.
Although regarded as terribly English, Ashton was actually born in Ecuador and spent his early life in Peru, where his father was a diplomat. It was at school in Lima that the young Frederick first saw Anna Pavlova, an experience that set him on course for a career in ballet. He was determined to become a dancer, and his admiration for Pavlova remained a major influence on the style of his choreography throughout his career.
Having moved to England, Ashton studied ballet initially under Léonide Massine, then Nicholas Legat, and also Marie Rambert, who gave him his first choreographic opportunity - a ballet entitled The Tragedy of Fashion - in 1926, followed in 1930 by Capriol Suite.
Ashton joined the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1933 (the forerunner of both Sadler’s Wells Ballet and later The Royal Ballet), discovering a talent for mime, and for character roles such as Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty, and the gigolo in Façade. Some years later, he and Robert Helpman were to delight ballet audiences with their interpretation of the Ugly Sisters in The Royal Ballet’s production of his re-choreographed Cinderella.
During his time as The Royal Ballet’s principal choreographer, from 1933 to 1970, Ashton also served as the Company’s associate director - between 1952 and 1963 - then as its director until his retirement in 1970, after which he devoted himself solely to choreography. One of his most delightful creations was The Royal Ballet’s film, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, in which he memorably appeared as a most endearing Mrs Tiggywinkle.
Amongst the honours bestowed on Sir Frederick Ashton were a knighthood for services to ballet, and the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award which he received from the Royal Academy of Dance. He was also a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
The works to be presented in The Royal Ballet’s commemorative programme represent the wide range of Ashton’s creativity. The opening work, La Valse, is set to Ravel’s “choreographic poem for orchestra”, described as a tribute to the waltz. The composer himself wrote: “Through whirling clouds, couples of waltzers are faintly distinguished. The clouds disappear gradually; a huge ballroom is seen peopled with waltzing couples.”
Meditation from Thaïs is a delicately beautiful and sublimely romantic pas de deux, danced to a haunting theme from Massenet’s opera. It’s followed by the light-hearted and joyful Voices of Spring, a duet originally created for The Royal Opera’s 1977 production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Erik Satie’s beguiling piano pieces Trois Gymnopedies and Trois Gnossiennes form the musical backdrop to Ashton’s the two-part abstract work, Monotones I and II.
The programme ends with what was probably Ashton’s most heartbreaking and passionate work, Marguerite and Armand, which he created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and set to Liszt’s highly emotional Sonata in B Minor. Ashton, who described himself as “a very romantic person” referred to the work as an “evocation poetique” of Dumas’ novel, La Dame aux caméllias, which was also the inspiration for Verdi's La Traviata.
The Royal Ballet’s homage to Sir Frederick Ashton takes place at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 21st to 23rd February. For further information, and video clips of interviews, visit The Royal Opera House website.
Those not fortunate enough to be at Covent Garden for these performances can enjoy the following video clips featuring dancers of The Royal Ballet: