|Birth Day:||September 17, 1904|
|Death Date:||Aug 18, 1988 (age 83)|
As per our current Database, Frederick Ashton died on Aug 18, 1988 (age 83).
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He was inspired to become a dancer after seeing a performance by Anna Pavlova.
In 1907 the family moved to Lima, Peru, where Ashton attended a Dominican school. When they returned to Guayaquil in 1914, he attended a school for children of the English colony. One of his formative influences was serving as altar boy to the Roman Catholic Archbishop, which inspired in him a love of ritual. Another, still more potent, influence was being taken to see Anna Pavlova dance in 1917. He was immediately determined that he would become a dancer.
Dancing was not a career acceptable to a conventional English family at that time. Ashton later recalled, "My father was horrified. You can imagine the middle-class attitude. My mother would say, 'He wants to go on the stage.' She could not bring herself to say 'into the ballet.'" Ashton's father sent him to England in 1919 to Dover College, where he was miserable. Homosexual, and with a distinctly Spanish accent that his classmates laughed at, he did not fit in at a minor public school of the early 1920s.
He was not academically inclined, and his father decided that on leaving the school in 1921 Ashton should join a commercial company. He worked for an import-export firm in the City of London, where his ability to speak Spanish and French as well as English was an advantage. In January 1924 George Ashton committed suicide. His widow was left financially dependent on her elder sons, who ran a successful business in Guayaquil. She moved to London to be with Ashton and his younger sister, Edith.
Despite family disapproval (and at first in secret) Ashton pursued his ambition to dance professionally. He auditioned for Léonide Massine; at the unusually late age of twenty he was accepted as a pupil. After Massine left London, Ashton was taken on as a student by Marie Rambert. She encouraged him to try choreographing. His first attempt was in 1926 for a revue staged by Nigel Playfair and Rambert's husband Ashley Dukes. The Observer commented on "an engaging little ballet called A Tragedy of Fashion: or The Scarlet Scissors, which Mr. Eugene Goossens has set most suitably to music. Miss Marie Rambert, as an impudently vivacious mannequin, and Mr. Frederick Ashton as a distracted man modist, lead the dancing. It is as chic a trifle as Mr Playfair's modish establishment leads you to expect." The costumes and scenery were by Sophie Fedorovitch, who continued to work with Ashton for more than twenty years, and became, in his words, "not only my dearest friend but my greatest artistic collaborator and adviser".
Rambert sought to widen the horizons of her students, taking them to see London performances by the Diaghilev Ballet. They had a great influence on Ashton – most particularly Bronislava Nijinska's ballet Les biches. In 1930 Ashton created an innovative ballet, Capriol Suite, using Peter Warlock's 1926 suite of the same name. The music was based on 16th-century French music, and Ashton researched the dances of the earlier era, and created a period piece with "basse danse, pavane, tordion, and bransle – smoothly mixing robust masculine leaps with courtly duets." The following year Rambert founded the Ballet Club, forerunner of the Ballet Rambert, with Alicia Markova as prima ballerina and Ashton as the main choreographer and one of the leading dancers.
Ashton's association with Ninette de Valois, founder of the Vic-Wells Ballet, began in 1931, when he created a comic ballet, Regatta for her. It received mixed reviews; The Times thought it successful as "a piece of flippant amusement", but The Manchester Guardian considered that "it completely fails … definitely a poor show". Nevertheless, Ashton was by now recognised as a choreographer of considerable talent and had gained a national, though not yet an international, reputation.
In 1933 Ashton devised another work for de Valois and her company, the ballet-divertissement Les Rendezvous. Robert Greskovic describes the work as a "classically precise yet frothy excursion showcas[ing] big skirted 'ballet girls' and dashing swain partners." The piece was an immediate success, has been revived many times, and at 2013 remains in the Royal Ballet's repertoire eighty years after its creation. In 1935 de Valois appointed Ashton as resident choreographer of her company, where he worked alongside Constant Lambert, the musical director from 1931 until 1947, and a company including Markova, Anton Dolin and Robert Helpmann. The Times describes Ashton's first years with the Vic-Wells as a richly productive period: "His Apparitions in 1936 was by many compared favourably with Massine's Symphonie Fantastique on a similar theme, and that year saw also the touching Nocturne to Delius's Paris. These works have vanished, but the following year's witty A Wedding Bouquet and Les Patineurs are still with us."
As the 1930s progressed, Ashton's career began to extend internationally. In 1934 he choreographed Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts in New York, and in 1939 he created his first ballet for a foreign company: Devil's Holiday (Le Diable s'amuse) for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He continued to create dances for other forms of theatre, from revues such as The Town Talks and Home and Beauty, to opera, including Clive Carey's production of Die Fledermaus at Sadler's Wells, and film, notably Escape Me Never, another collaboration with William Walton, following Façade four years earlier.
In 1941 Ashton was called up for war service. He was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Air Force, at first analysing aerial photographs and later as an intelligence officer. While in the RAF he was granted occasional spells of leave to carry on his work with the ballet. His collaboration with Walton continued with The Quest (1943). It was created and staged in a hurry, and Walton later said that it was not much of a success from anyone's point of view. It had a theme of knightly chivalry, though Walton observed that Helpmann in the lead looked more like the Dragon than St George. As with the 1940 Ashton-Walton collaboration The Wise Virgins, the music has survived but the ballet has not.
Another plotless ballet was Scènes de ballet (1947), which remains a repertoire piece. In 1948, at the urging of de Valois, Ashton created his first major three-act ballet for a British company, his version of Prokofiev's Cinderella. The original cast included Moira Shearer as Cinderella, Somes as the Prince, Alexander Grant as the jester, and Ashton and Helpmann en travesti as Cinderella's stepsisters. Some critics have commented that Ashton was not yet fully in control of a full-length ballet, with intermittent weaknesses in the choreography, but the comedy of the stepsisters was, and has remained, a favourite with audiences. The ballet critic Laura Jacobs called it "slapstick of a celestial order", and recalled that she and her fellow New York critics were "struck speechless by this luminous ballet."
Ashton's third full-length ballet was Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955. It was a considerable success, but Ashton resisted attempts to present it at Covent Garden, which he thought too large a theatre and stage for his intimate treatment of the story. It was not seen in London until 1985 when it was produced by the London Festival Ballet rather than at Covent Garden.
In October 1956 Elizabeth II granted Sadler's Wells Ballet a charter, giving it the title of "the Royal Ballet" with effect from 15 January 1957. This recognised the eminence the company had achieved: internationally it was widely regarded as "the leading company outside Russia". De Valois remained the director of the company, with Ashton as principal choreographer.
Ashton's state honours were, from Britain, CBE (1950), Knight Bachelor (1962), Companion of Honour (1970) and the Order of Merit (1977). Honours from other countries included the Legion of Honour (France, 1960) and the Order of Dannebrog (Denmark, 1964). He received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award from the Royal Academy of Dance in 1959. He was awarded the Freedom of the City of London (1981), and received honorary doctorates from the universities of Durham (1962), East Anglia (1967), London (1970), Hull (1971) and Oxford (1976).
When de Valois retired in 1963, Ashton succeeded her as director. His time in charge was looked on as something of a golden age. Under him, the corps de ballet was recognised as rivalling and even excelling the best anywhere else in the world. He continued to add to the repertoire with his own new productions, he persuaded his former mentor Bronislava Nijinska to revive her Les biches and Les noces, and he presented Mam'zelle Angot by his other mentor, Massine. He also brought in Antony Tudor, his English contemporary, better known in the US, to stage both new and old works. The ballet critic John Percival considered that despite the numerous glories of the company under Ashton's directorship, he was unsuited to and uninterested in management, and lacked de Valois' gift for strategic planning (though better in both these regards than his successor as director, Kenneth MacMillan). Percival believed that this weakened the company in the long term. Ashton's works for the company while he was director included The Dream (1964) (for Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley), the pas de trois Monotones II (1965), Jazz Calendar (1968) and Enigma Variations (My Friends Pictured Within) (1968).
Webster, due to retire in 1970 as general administrator of the Royal Opera House, decided that his departure should be accompanied by a change to the leadership of the two companies. Georg Solti, musical director of the opera company, was keen to concentrate on his new post as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and did not wish to renew his Covent Garden contract when it expired in 1971. Ashton had frequently told colleagues how he looked forward to his own retirement, but nonetheless was hurt by the abruptness with which his departure was arranged and announced by Webster. He stood down in July 1970 after a farewell gala organised by Michael Somes, John Hart and Leslie Edwards.
After his retirement, Ashton made several short ballets as pièces d'occasion, but his only longer works were the cinema film, The Tales of Beatrix Potter made in 1970 and released in 1971, and A Month in the Country (1976), a one-act piece, lasting about forty minutes, freely adapted from Turgenev's comedy of manners. The piece has been revived regularly, in every decade since the premiere.
Ashton's last years were marred by the death of his partner, Martyn Thomas, in a car crash in 1985 – a blow from which Ashton never fully recovered. He died in his sleep on 19 August 1988, at his country home in Suffolk, and was buried on 24 August at St Mary's Church, Yaxley, Suffolk.
It was based on a step used by Anna Pavlova in a gavotte that she frequently performed. Alicia Markova recalled in 1994 that Ashton had first used the step in a short ballet that concluded Nigel Playfair's 1930 production of Marriage à la Mode. It is not seen in Ashton's 1931 Façade, but after that, it became a feature of his choreography. The critic Alastair Macaulay writes:
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War Ashton was offered a position in New York with what was to become the American Ballet Theatre. He declined, and returned to de Valois' company, soon renamed "Sadler's Wells Ballet". He created some works along more sombre lines, including Dante Sonata, which symbolised the unending struggle between the children of darkness and the children of light. In Ballet magazine, Lynette Halewood commented in 2000, "No other work by Ashton is so disturbing and so bleak."
Ashton's second full-length ballet for de Valois' company was Sylvia (1952). Ashton's biographer Kathrine Sorley Walker considers that it works "even less well" than Cinderella, but contemporary reviews praised it with little or no reservation. In 2005, reviewing a New York revival, the critic Jennie Schulman called it a "blockbuster", "radiant" with "choreographic abundance to please even the most finicky of gods and the most demanding of balletomanes."
To perpetuate the legacy of Ashton and his ballets, the Frederick Ashton Foundation was set up in 2011. It is independent of, but works closely with, the Royal Ballet.
Currently, Frederick Ashton is 118 years, 8 months and 23 days old. Frederick Ashton will celebrate 119th birthday on a Sunday 17th of September 2023.
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