Sir Frederick Ashton used to say that New York was where he felt most loved, which is why it is so fitting that the most concentrated celebration of his centenary is taking place at Lincoln Center Festival 2004. Four different companies perform works so varied‹from the showy razzmatazz of Rhapsody and high melodrama of Marguerite and Armand to the limpid calm of Monotones I & II‹that anyone unfamiliar with Ashton's oeuvre will discover a master of extraordinary range.
Unlike his exact contemporary, George Balanchine, Ashton took delight in cultivating a dazzling life outside his profession. In the 1920s, he was drawn by the "bright young set" into the vortex of Chelsea and Bloomsbury parties; in the 1930s, he came close to marrying the American millionairess Alice Astor (a woman of as much significance to his life and career as Tchaikovsky's Mme. von Meck), who helped him to "arrive" in English society. Instantly accepted because of his unthrusting nature and brilliant wit, Ashton went on to become a much loved member of the Queen Mother's inner circle. Those who witnessed his impersonations will never forget his genius as a mimic, whether imitating Garbo in a felt hat and raincoat, enacting Pavlova's Dying Swan in a swimming pool, or conjuring up what Cecil Beaton called "the Parma-violet-scented aura" of Queen Alexandra. But while success in this world was Ashton's joy, it should not be dismissed as frivolity: the aristocratic manners and mores he observed, like his ability to capture the very essence of a person and their ambience, was his fieldwork, imbuing ballets such as A Wedding Bouquet and Enigma Variations with their vividness of character and period style.
Having spent much of his childhood in Peru, where his father was a minor diplomat, Ashton came late to dance. His first classes took place at the age of 18. Ashton always envied Balanchine's St. Petersburg training for having given him the necessary environment and background to make a great classical choreographer. His own early schooling was personal experience. Memories stored from boyhood, such as the Peruvian socialites he watched promenade in their open-carriages down the fashionable Paseo Colón, stayed with him, infiltrating his ballets in the form of sophisticated feminine allure. But it was the 13-year-old's first sight of Anna Pavlova in Lima that marked him for life. Pavlova's beauty, theatricality, and the ecstatic vibrancy of her movements was the specter behind every ballerina role he went on to create. (As his English muse, Margot Fonteyn, would later remark, "I always felt that Fred was seeing Pavlova and that I wasn't living up to her by any means.") Shortly afterwards, as a miserable inmate of an English boarding school, Ashton saw during his Easter holidays a series of matinees given by Isadora Duncan, another intensely formative influence. Although by then a "rather blowsy" 44 years old, the impact of Isadora's plasticity and her unique personality remained so vivid, that years later he was able perfectly to re-create her graceful, frolicsome Brahms Waltzes.
The way Ashton learnt to perfect his craft was equally assimilative and informal. As a corps de ballet dancer in Ida Rubinstein's company in Paris he would sit on the studio floor watching Bronislava Nijinska at work, an apprenticeship that taught him how to personalize the language of academic dance and make it live. Having seen Nijinska physically manipulate a dancer's body into positions more supple and extreme than anything in the classical lexicon, he would mould his own muses into images of his ideal. What we have come to call "the English style" was created out of precisely this mysterious tension between restrained, correct English ballerinas and the lush abandon of Ashton's romantic icons. Fonteyn was its prime exemplar, but you can see it now in the lissome arms and upper back of any corp de ballet member. Grafted onto the wittily inventive skating theme in Les Patineurs are all manner of playful conceits‹little-trip-ups of a duo of girls, or the nonchalant shrug of the Blue Boy‹an Ashton trademark. And even Scènes de Ballet, a modernist masterpiece with what he described as "a cold, distant uncompromising beauty," is packed with idiosyncratic embellishments.
If the style of the work is intensely personal, so, too, is its content. It was Ashton's emotional life that acted as the main impetus of his ballets, and the Festival will stage three of his most autobiographical. Uncharacterically bleak is the l940 Dante Sonata, expressing Ashton's own despair "about the futility of war and how nobody wins in the end." In complete contrast is The Two Pigeons, a delightful fantasy about infidelity and reconciliation, which is also a private allegory containing an encoded Valentine's Day message. In Enigma Variations, by portraying composer Edward Elgar's feelings of professional neglect, Ashton was also confiding his own insecurites about reaching the end of his career. But if the ballet is introspective it is in no sense self-pitying. If anything, it is a summation of the qualities that define the word Ashtonian, evoking, as a close friend put it, "the tranquility of late summer, a touch of Chekhov, a touch of mystery, a little magic."
Lincoln Center's celebration is opened by two companies with a particularly strong commitment to Ashton: The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, whose prodigious repertory of Ashton ballets helped give the company its cachet, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, whose director David Bintley was responsible for rediscovering the Dante Sonata. "We premiered it in London days after 9/ll," says Bintley, "and, having revived it as a rarity, found that it has a profound relevance today." Sharing the program and making its New York debut is K-Ballet Company of Tokyo, named after its founder, ex-Royal Ballet star Tetsuya ("Teddy") Kumakawa, who will perform the lead part originated by Mikhail Baryshnikov in Rhapsody, a piece that was created in honor of the Queen Mother's 80th birthday. The Royal Ballet takes over for the second week, bringing Scènes de Ballet, Marguerite and Armand, and a collection of pas de deux. In addition, the company's production of Cinderella will have its U.S. premiere with Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep, two of Ashton's favorite dancers, making their New York debuts as the Ugly Stepsisters.
Conspicuously missing from the end of each performance will be the man himself. But those who remember Ashton's incomparable curtain calls will still picture his pitter-pattering along the inside of the drapes to stir up anticipation before he appeared onstage. Then the slow, Queen Motherly wave acknowledging the adoration, a mixture of regality and the common touch. "Is this really all for me?" he seemed to be saying, "Little Freddie Ashton from Lima, Peru?" Of course it is. Happy Birthday, Sir Fred.
Julie Kavanagh is the author of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton. Her authorized biography of Rudolf Nureyev will be published in 2006.