The opening night of La Fille mal gardée at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, January 28, 1960, was one of the pinnacles of Frederick Ashton's glittering career. The sweetness and charm of this bucolic comedy, coupled with the clever ways in which Ashton blends his own classical style with snatches of rustic country dancing, make this his most popular and appealing ballet, now danced by companies around the globe.
Ashton, who was born a hundred years ago, grew up in Peru where his father served as a South American representative for a series of English firms. It was not until 1919 that his parents shipped him off to England to a dreary provincial boarding school where he felt useless and out of place. Only after his father's suicide in 1924 (the result of financial abuses) did Ashton dare to openly express his passion for ballet. But his love of dancing had begun in 1917, when he had seen Anna Pavlova performing in Lima. Throughout his life he was fond of saying how that this first view of Pavlova had infected him with her "poison."
But if Pavlova was Ashton's abiding love his true mentor was the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. He worked under Nijinska in Paris during his first professional job as a member of a short-lived Parisian company run by Ida Rubinstein. Throughout his life Ashton acknowledged Nijinska's influences on his own style.
When Ashton began performing the ballet world was virtually the exclusive fiefdom of Serge Diaghailv; but his sudden death in 1929 threw ballet into factional disarray. Soon afterwards both Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert attempted to pick up the pieces on English soil by forming their own companies.
Rambert got Ashton started as a choreographer in 1926, but it was de Valois who turned him into a major player. Starting in 1935, Ashton linked his star to her Vic-Wells Ballet (later the Sadler's Wells, now the Royal Ballet). Remaining tied to the company for the rest of his life, Ashton succeeded de Valois as its director in 1963. He officially retired in 1970, when he handed the reins to Kenneth MacMillan.
It was while Ashton was in charge of the Royal Ballet that the company reached its pinnacle. The English style, which Ashton was so instrumental in forming, is one of lyrical delicacies wedded to precision of detail while sparkling with its own intricate bravura. His impressive one-act works such as Symphonic Variations (1946) and Scènes de ballet (1948) helped to forge this identity, which he reinforced with such diverse gems as Marguerite and Armand (for Fonteyn and Nureyev, 1963) The Dream (his take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1964), the elegiac Enigma Variations (1968), the romantic A Month in the Country (1976), and finally, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rhapsody, devised in 1980 at the behest of Princess Margaret as a present for the Queen Mother's 80th birthday. Each in its own way celebrates the company's sleek elegance.
Ironically, Ashton was not much interested in choreography to begin with‹he wanted to be "the best dancer in the world." He did have a wicked finesse with comedy and in Cinderella (1948) he found an opportunity to evoke the English tradition of the pantomime dame. Ingrained in the country's Christmas entertainment festivities, the dame is not a drag queen but a kind of dumpy caricature who serves as a foil for the true femininity of the heroine. At the premiere, the bickering antics of the Ugly Sisters, created by Ashton and Robert Helpmann, came close to stealing the show.
Much of the comedy in La Fille mal gardée stems from the heroine's mother, a clog-dancing mini-ogre with a hidden heart of gold. Again, this is a pantomime dame role for a man.
Cinderella was both Ashton's and English ballet's first full-evening work. It was also the first Western staging of Prokofiev's 1944 score. Ashton's other full-length ballets are Sylvia (1952), Romeo and Juliet (1955), Ondine (1958), and The Two Pigeons (1961). His Romeo‹another first Western staging of a Prokofiev score‹was created for the Royal Danish Ballet.
Throughout his eminent career Ashton flirted with New York. In 1934 he choreographed Four Saints in Three Acts. This Virgil Thomson opera, to a libretto by Gertrude Stein, was a huge avant-garde hit on Broadway. In the early 1950s he was twice invited to work with New York City Ballet, though he felt‹rightly or wrongly‹that George Balanchine had little respect for his talents. Ashton's final New York creation was for the Metropolitan Opera in 1981, when he choreographed Stravinsky's one-act Le Rossignol in a production designed by David Hockney.
He was knighted in 1962 and in 1977 was invited to accept the Order of Merit, the most distinguished civil recognition that can be bestowed on an Englishman. Sir Frederick died in his sleep at his county home on August 19, 1988.
Far too early in his career, Ashton decided that he was old-fashioned. For much of his later life he routinely blocked efforts to revive many of his works, claiming that they would appear faded and out of tune with the times. It was a worry that has repeatedly proved foundless. His finest ballets exude the timeless patina and enduring power found in all great works of art no matter what their age may be.