Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton 
by Julie Kavanagh.
Faber, 675 pp., £12.99, October 1997, 0 571 19062 6
Show More
Show More

Frederick Ashton was an avid gossip, while also dreading the idea that his life – and his homosexuality – might become matters of prurient interest. He claimed to have destroyed all his personal letters, but Julie Kavanagh found he had kept almost every one. Ashton and Kavanagh, who trained with the Royal Ballet and is now London editor of the New Yorker, became close friends towards the end of his life. After his death, as his authorised biographer, she had access to The Box containing the letters, along with copious memorabilia and notebooks on his ballets. Despite his fears, he had prepared the ground well.

Ashton was born in 1904 and grew up in the faded colonial splendour of Lima. The family were financially comfortable until the father’s death, which propelled them to England in penury (and was later discovered to have been suicide). As a child, he was drawn to pretty girls, attracted by their femininity, and spent much of his time in a world of make-believe and dressing-up. In 1917 he saw Anna Pavlova dance. Although her technique was limited, even by the standards of the day, and although she was not beautiful, her stage presence, the use of her eyes and her evocation of stillness gave the illusion of pure beauty. Ashton wanted to be Pavlova, and all his ballets bore her imprint. ‘I always felt that Fred was seeing Pavlova and that I wasn’t living up to her by any means,’ Margot Fonteyn once said, explaining what it was like to have Ashton watching her dance.

Sent to Dover College at the age of 14, Ashton’s response to a teacher’s request to ‘Turn to page 54 in your geometry textbook,’ was: ‘What’s geometry?’ He claimed that he had been unteachable and got through school by cheating. He blamed his failure to learn an instrument on poor concentration, and his lack of musical training and consequent inability to read a score fed feelings of professional inadequacy.

He took his first ballet lessons at the age of 20, while working as an office boy in the City. His teacher was the volatile dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, who had left the Ballets Russes after a fallingout with Diaghilev. Massine took him on not so much for his potential as a dancer but because all dancing schools were overpopulated with girls. Both Massine and Marie Rambert, Ashton’s second teacher, had been pupils of the great Enrico Cecchetti, who had taught Pavlova, Nijinsky and Karsavina, among others, and whose emphasis on épaulement (expression in the upper body) would become an Ashton trademark. Rambert was a formidable musical theorist – she had assisted Nijinsky with the complex rhythms of Le Sacre du printemps – and her influence on Ashton was largely intellectual. In later years he said that she was, ‘a terrible dancer’; she was easily irritated by Ashton’s inability to keep time. But Ashton was her only male pupil in those days and she hung onto him.

Through Rambert, Ashton met the socialites and artists he would associate with for the rest of his life. During the Twenties, when all-night parties, partner-swapping, drugs and drink characterised the lives of his wild young friends, Ashton was too ambitious to be led far astray. He began to cultivate influential people: Ashley Dukes (Rambert’s husband), the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Maynard Keynes and his wife Lydia Lopokova, and, most important of all, the artist Sophie Fedorovitch, who, next to Fonteyn, became his closest collaborator. Many of his friends were living hand to mouth and survived only by sponging off wealthier acquaintances. Ashton became so proficient at this that he was unable to break the habit. And he was notoriously mean. ‘If Fred sent you out with £10 to buy groceries which cost £9.99, he expected the penny change,’ a friend said years later.

In 1926 Ashton choreographed his first ballet, A Tragedy of Fashion, for Rambert’s company; he and Rambert starred. It was a portrait of the age, featuring louche characters from the world of haute couture. Diaghilev liked the work enough to see it twice and invited Ashton to audition for him. One of Ashton’s greatest regrets was that he had been too nervous to take up the offer: he hovered outside the studio and eventually went home unauditioned. But, in 1928, the year before Diaghilev’s death and the demise of the Ballets Russes, Ashton went to Paris to join Bronislava Nijinska’s new troupe, which was financed by Ida Rubinstein, a wealthy Russian dilettante with dancing pretensions. His apprenticeship under Nijinska was crucial; and when, the following year, she resigned, Ashton came home to Rambert, filled with ideas. This period saw his first collaboration with the composer Constant Lambert, his musical educator and one of the founding triumvirate of the future Royal Ballet.

By the time Ashton began choreographing in the mid-Twenties, the one-act ballet had become established. Full-length ballets had been the norm until Diaghilev and Fokine developed the one-act version – with its equal partnership of dance, music and design. The change was driven by financial as well as creative factors: there was no reliable source of funding for dance. At Rambert’s tiny Mercury Theatre, Ashton learned to maximise expression in a restricted space.

Façade (1931) is the earliest Ashton ballet still performed. ‘Its continued success proves that the humour is not ephemeral,’ Arnold Haskell wrote in the Fifties. But today, more than 65 years after it was created, the humour seems trite and self-consciously cute, although this may be due to the current preference for technique over subtlety. Les Masques(1933) was the first ballet to incorporate what became known as the ‘Fred Step’ (a combination of five steps which he credited to Pavlova). It became a talisman, or a trademark, and Ashton used it in every subsequent work.

Ashton’s early sexual liaisons at school, he claimed, had involved ‘rubbidubs but no buggering’. When he grew up he experimented with heterosexuality for some years. One infatuated young dancer proposed to him, and sent love letters, which he returned after correcting her spelling. His long relationship with the wealthy socialite Alice von Hofmannstahl (née Astor) was complex: sometimes sexual, often financially motivated, yet founded on genuine friendship. Basically, he was to her what many of his lovers were to him – unattainable – and she remained his besotted friend and benefactor for many years, until her mysterious death in 1953. Ashton’s women friends were important to his work, helping him to create well-rounded female roles. Always ‘Fred’ in the dance world and ‘Freddie’ in society, he compartmentalised his working and personal lives, but there were many enduring attachments, particularly to dancers and former lovers. He was a grudge-bearer, though: ‘I’m like an old elephant,’ he said, ‘I don’t forget.’ Of Britain’s first prima ballerina Alicia Markova he remarked in the mid-Thirties: ‘She’d become frightfully grand and thought she couldn’t stoop to do my little things. We were having dinner at the Café Royal and I don’t know if under my breath I said, “Fuck you, that’s the end,” but that’s what it was.’ Kavanagh herself was snubbed for a year when Ashton felt she was overstepping the boundaries of her research.

Like his contemporary George Balanchine, who famously believed ‘Ballet is woman,’ Ashton realised his romanticism through the female form; but the inspiration for his choreographic expression was exclusively male. Demanding and dependent as a lover, and always the pursuer, Ashton derided homosexuals who set up house together. ‘Queers are tarts and mistresses,’ he said, ‘not wives.’ The secret muses of Kavanagh’s title are not the ballerinas, but Ashton’s young male lovers. Among the most influential of these dancer-lovers was Michael Somes, who, with Alexander Grant and Brian Shaw, remained loyal throughout hit career. Somes was a charismatic leading man, and partner to Fonteyn. There were inevitable jealousies within the company when Somes – at 17 – was given leading roles, but Ashton was too professional to risk his reputation by mere favouritism; talent came first and was part of the allure. Considering the youth of the dancers it is extraordinary that they should have created such mature works, but it seems that, artistically, they all grew up together. At a recent event at the South Bank, a panel of former Sadler’s Wells dancers, now in their seventies and eighties, recalled the camaraderie and family atmosphere.

When war broke out, Ashton announced that he would read the Bible and that by the time he had got to the end the war would be over. He miscalculated by four years. He was 37 when he joined the RAF as acting pilot officer, amended by Terence Rattigan to ‘over-acting pilot officer’. While Ashton and many other male dancers performed their wartime duties, Robert Helpmann took advantage of their absence to promote himself, which Ashton resented as much as the fact that Helpmann, who was Australian, did not join up. Ashton used their rivalry to subtle comic effect when they played the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

After the war, Ashton returned to the real fray with a counterblast to Helpmann’s literary ballets. Symphonic Variations premiered at Covent Garden in 1946 with Fonteyn and Somes among the six dancers. It is probably his most enduring work: neoclassical and plotless but with no hint of the ‘cold complexity’ he so disliked. Its essence is simplicity: clutter and fuss had no place in an Ashton ballet. Symphonic Variations was his manifesto: pure, serene and economical, an extension of classroom steps into poetry, and with periods of stasis (in Grecian statuary poses), as much for dramatic effect as for breathing space. Only 20 minutes long, it has been described as a marathon: during rehearsals dancers have been sick with exhaustion. It was Ashton’s first work for Covent Garden and its vast space, which he absorbs without difficulty despite the small number of dancers. The movement flows out of César Franck’s reflective and exultant score; and although there are notional themes – the seasons, death and rebirth – more than any other non-narrative ballet, Symphonic Variations conveys the choreographer’s message that there doesn’t have to be a message.

In the Fifties, with the renaissance of the full-length ballet, Ashton created, among other shorter works, Sylvia, Romeo and Juliet and, in 1958, ondine, his last major work to use Fonteyn as the principal dancer. Ondine’s slight storyline could not sustain three acts and it received mixed reviews, though the critics agreed that Fonteyn was impeccable as the water nymph. (Revived in 1988, it was only politely reviewed, and it became clear that the ballet had depended on her.) When his creative partnership with Fonteyn was reaching its zenith, Ashton began to create works for other ballerinas, such as La Fille mal gardée (1960) for Nadia Nerina – a celebration, for once, of requited love. He called it a poor man’s Pastoral Symphony. Liberated by Nerina’s technique, he created a joyous, bucolic romp, incorporating clog dancing, fearsome balances and a Sovietstyle bum lift (with the ballerina sitting high above her partner’s head, balanced on the palm of his hand).

Nureyev defected in 1961 and joined the Royal Ballet the following year – the mysterious methods of Russian ballet now became accessible. Fonteyn and Nureyev mania cast a shadow over the company, which ceased to be a galaxy and became a vehicle for two stars. Nureyev raised the standard of dancing, however, and despite the accusation that, like the First World War, he ‘destroyed a generation of young men’, he, more than anybody, was responsible for raising the profile of the male dancer. In addition, he not only extended Fonteyn’s career, but released her as an artist, challenging her English reserve. Marguerite and Armand (1963) was the only ballet Ashton made for Fonteyn and Nureyev. Ashton was jealous of Nureyev’s influence, and offended by his rudeness towards Fonteyn: Ashton always treated his ballerinas like goddesses.

Ashton took over from de Valois as director of the Royal Ballet in 1963, saying that he felt ‘like James I succeeding Queen Elizabeth’. Despite the obsession with Fonteyn and Nureyev, he insisted that the company couldn’t be run ‘for the benefit of two people’, and created The Dream in 1964 for Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell, forging an alternative, home-grown, partnership. The Dream concerns the discord between Titania and Oberon, and, no doubt as a result of Nureyev’s influence, allows the male dancer an equal share of the spotlight. A generous director, Ashton let his own Romeo and Juliet go in 1965, in favour of Kenneth MacMillan’s version. It was a wise move: MacMillan’s facility for the pas de deux was more in keeping with the overt sexuality of the time.

Inevitably, Kavanagh draws many comparisons with Balanchine. Balanchine’s work is often coolly cerebral, while Ashton is emotionally involved with the music, even in his most abstract ballet, Monotones, created in the mid-Sixties to Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies. Minimalist and mercurial, it is a small masterpiece. In the Sixties Ashton’s attitude towards the creative process was changing: ‘Up to a point I don’t care what the audience thinks, I work purely and selfishly for myself and only do ballets which please me and which I feel will both develop me as an artist and extend the idiom of the dance.’ Balanchine had a habit of marrying his favourite ballerinas, and the two choreographers’ preference for certain dancers gives a clue to their styles: a Balanchine dancer is tall and long-legged, with speed and clean lines; an Ashton dancer may be any shape or size, as long as her footwork is fleet and her upper body expressive and pliable – the child-sized Lesley Collier, recently retired, was probably the last true Ashton dancer. Balanchine never hid the fact that he did not take Ashton’s work seriously, because of his musical ignorance, although it’s significant that Balanchine avoided scores that Ashton had used. Balanchine’s background as a Maryinsky-trained artist and an alumnus of the Ballets Russes made Ashton envious and insecure. But he was a great admirer of Balanchine until the Fifties, when he felt his rival’s ballets had grown arid. For his part, Balanchine had the grace to say: ‘Mr Ashton and I may make bad ballets, but we never make incompetent ballets.’ Ashton never stopped feeling inferior, however, and every opening night found him ragged with nerves.

After Ashton’s retirement in 1970, the Royal Ballet drifted away from English classicism towards MacMillan’s psychodramas. Rival Ashton and MacMillan factions formed. Despite his protestations that he had wanted to leave the company, Ashton felt he’d been pushed. Depressed and feeling slighted, he seemed more afraid of loneliness than of death. New and grand friends, including the Queen Mother, took precedence over old companions. His tumultuous relationship with Martyn Thomas, nearly forty years his junior, could at least be exploited for his last important work, A Month in the Country (1976). Brittle and petulant, passionate and predatory, Natalia Petrovna, the bored wife smitten by her son’s young tutor, was a self-portrait.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences