As artistic director of The Royal Ballet in London, Frederick Ashton was a highly influential 20th-century choreographer. His distinct style—technically refined yet highly expressive—soon became a hallmark of English classical ballet. Ashton was prolific, creating more than 100 works over his 60-year career.
He was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to British parents and raised in Lima, Peru. At 13, he saw legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova perform in Lima, which sparked his interest in ballet. But it wasn’t until seven years later that he got the opportunity to study privately with former Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine. After additional tutelage from master teacher Marie Rambert, he made his professional debut in 1925 with a small company, the Duenna Dancers.
Shortly after, Ashton started choreographing at the behest of Rambert, who saw his potential as a dancemaker early on. Though he initially focused his attention more on performing, dancing with the Ida Rubinstein Ballet Company for a year, it wasn’t long before his talent for choreographing became clear. Through a mentorship with Polish choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, Ashton developed his voice, creating successful early works like Façade (1931) and Les Rendezvous (1933) for Vic-Wells Ballet, the fledgling troupe that would later become The Royal Ballet. In 1935, he was appointed resident choreographer of the company. He set to work creating ballets that would soon epitomize the English style, known for technical brilliance, lyricism and sophistication.
After taking a choreographic hiatus during World War II to serve as an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force, Ashton returned to Vic-Wells. He helped grow the company and develop it stylistically as it moved to Covent Garden and was renamed The Royal Ballet in 1956. He was appointed associate director in 1952, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1962 and then named artistic director of the company a year later. Ashton retired from his position as director in 1970 but kept coaching and choreographing throughout the next two decades. He died in 1988 at age 83. DT
Ashton’s ballets are known for combining crisp technique with the utmost elegance. He was specific in the use of épaulement and often included quick footwork. Though he choreographed a handful of plotless ballets, many of his works were narrative, telling stories through the movement rather than relying heavily on mime. By developing individualized movement motifs, Ashton created memorable characters. Love, friendship, humor and loyalty were frequent themes in his ballets.
In his 20s, Ashton focused equally on performing and choreographing. Photo by Orthwine, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
La Fille mal gardée (1960): For this comedic pastoral love story, Ashton experimented with challenging overhead lifts, a quintet clog dance and divertissements with props like garlands, ribbons, a maypole and an umbrella.
The Two Pigeons (1961): Fluttering, bird-like arm and leg movements added subtle texture to a classical pas de deux of supported balances, smooth promenades and sustained lifts in this ballet about the infidelity and reconciliation of two young lovers.
The Dream (1964): This one-act Ashton classic, based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is known for its brilliant corps de ballet work by a fleet of fairies, a regal pas de deux and a donkey dancing on pointe.
A Month in the Country (1976): Based on a 19th-century Russian play by the same name, this one-act ballet demonstrated Ashton’s profound ability to tell a story through a series of emotional pas de deux and solo variations. It was one of the last works Ashton choreographed for The Royal Ballet.
Ashton choreographed a solo for former American Ballet Theatre dancer Leslie Browne for the 1977 film The Turning Point, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine.
The Legacy Lives On
The Royal Ballet continues to be the primary vehicle for Ashton’s work and the English style. Many of his ballets, like Cinderella, La Fille mal gardée, The Dream and Sylvia, remain in the repertories of dozens of companies like The Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet.
“Sir Frederick Ashton,” by Elizabeth McPherson, Dance Teacher, February 2009
No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003
The Frederick Ashton Foundation: “Frederick Ashton Biography,” by Julie Kavanagh: frederickashton.org.uk
Royal Opera House: “Frederick Ashton: Choreographer”: roh.org.uk