The Choreographer and long-standing Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet, Sir FREDERICK ASHTON OM CH CBE (1904-1988), was one of the most influential ballet personalities of the 20th century.
Ashton was born in Ecuador, into a British family. His future was greatly influenced after seeing the performance of the prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova, when he was aged thirteen. Not only did it stir his interest in this art form, but served as the measure of artistic quality for every role he would later create.
Ashton started learning ballet relatively late, aged twenty-two, by getting private lessons with Léonide Massine. He then went on to study with Marie Rambert, who saw a choreographer's potential in the young dancer. In 1926, she offered Ashton the opportunity to create his first choreography. The ballet A Tragedy of Fashion perfectly showcased the prodigy's ability to express different characters using the language of ballet. Ashton spent the first few years of his dancer's career in Paris with Ida Rubinstein's troupe. There, he became an apprentice of Bronislava Nijinska, learning how to personalise and refresh the language of classical ballet. At the beginning of the 1930s, Ashton's choreographies started getting international acclaim.
In 1931, Ashton created the ballet Regatta for the company Vic-Wells Ballet. And later, in 1935, he received its Artistic Director Ninette de Valois' invitation to become the company's resident choreographer. Ashton and de Valois had an important role to play in determining the future of the company which relocated to The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden after World War II, and in time renamed The Royal Ballet. In 1963, Ashton took over the reins of artistic leadership of The Royal Ballet, and remained in the post for seven years. In addition to his own choreographies, he added several works of significance to The Royal Ballet's repertoire, such as Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces, George Balanchine's Serenade and Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. During his time at The Royal Ballet, Ashton developed the so-called 'English style' which is characterised by épaulement, elegance and nuanced lyricism.
Ashton has created over 100 works, four of which have become masterpieces – Symphonic Variations, Scénes de ballet, The Dream, and La fille mal gardeé – making Ashton one of the most significant choreographers in the history of ballet. In 1970, Ashton retired from The Royal Ballet, though he continued to choreograph for the rest of his life. In 1980, he created his last ballet, Rhapsody.
In 1962, Ashton was made Knight Bachelor, and in 1977 he was invited by the Queen to become a member of the Order of Merit. He was considered 'a national treasure' for the last years of his life. A close friend of The Queen Mother, Ashton was a respected and beloved character in society, known for his excellent sense of humour.
Photo: Roger Wood, ROH, 1958