The secret muses of the book’s title are the boyfriends. Like so many others of the honored dead, Frederick Ashton, great choreographer, creator of the English style of ballet, has now been made the subject of a biography that fills in the love life—a story that, because he was homosexual, was kept well hidden from the public while he was alive. What is strange and wonderful about the book, however, is that it is not the usual treatment. Julie Kavanagh does not think that the sex explains the art. Still less does she believe that her subject is somehow a lesser man, an unclothed emperor, because he didn’t tell the journalists what went on in his bedroom. In other words, this is not the act of vengeance that we have come to expect from the new, tell-all biography.
Kavanagh, once a dancer, later a ballet critic, now the London editor of The New Yorker, became a friend of Ashton’s when she interviewed him for a profile in 1984, four years before his death. He authorized the book, and he knew what kind of story it would tell. Indeed, he supplied much of the information. Kavanagh repaid his trust. The book is good-spirited, evenhanded. And the title notwithstanding, the boyfriends do not walk off with the project. There were other potent influences on Ashton’s imagination—the Edwardian era (his childhood), the Twenties (his young manhood), the English countryside, Anna Pavlova—and Kavanagh gives them their due.
It is Pavlova, dancing in Lima in 1917, who opens Chapter One:
The curtains of a raised booth on stage were drawn aside and there she was, Anna Pavlova as the Fairy Doll, her deliberately slow, extra deep breaths making the sequins on her costume glint in the light. Set in a toy shop, The Fairy Doll required the ballerina to remain still until the toys came to life; yet even stationary, Pavlova danced—flickering her huge, kohl-smudged eyes and almost imperceptibly stirring her slender arms and fingers.
At last she descended from her toy stage and began to dance:
By today’s standards her technique was poor; she rarely executed more than two pirouettes, but they were done with such brio—“a sort of flurry,” in Ashton’s phrase—that she gave the effect of at least half a dozen more. Pavlova’s vibrant personality, the expressive play of every part of her body and the outpouring of ecstatic energy sent a charge throughout the auditorium, creating what one critic described as “a kind of electrification of the air.”
Ashton, age thirteen, was in the audience, and instantly he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: Pavlova. That being impracticable, he decided to be a male ballet dancer, and when that too failed, he gave up and became a choreographer. Still, he spent his life copying Pavlova. That animation of hers, that flutter, is what he would call forth from his own ballerinas. It became a hallmark of the English style. But what drew him to the Russian ballerina was more than excitation. The most beautiful detail in this portrait is the first one, of Pavlova’s slow, deep breaths causing the light to flicker over her sequined torso. There you have Ashton: the plain, laboring body lifted by its action into poetry.
Ashton was born in 1904 in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a pestilential backwater in which his father was vice-consul of the British embassy and manager of the Central and South American Cable Company. The family soon moved to Lima, and it was there that the boy grew up. His mother, Georgiana, was a vivacious woman who had spent her Suffolk childhood putting on back-yard theatricals with her sisters and cousins. “Any talent that I have comes out of her,” Ashton said. As for the father, George, he was a gloomy, silent man who worked hard, raised carnations, and was coldly strict with his sons, particularly the youngest, Frederick, whose effeminacy repelled him.
Ashton was one of those people who seem to have been homosexual from birth. He hated sports; he loved dolls. The neighboring children had to be told by their mothers not to tease and punch him. “I was buggered by all my brothers,” he told a friend. With Charlie, the brother closest to him in age, he “rather enjoyed it,” he added. And whatever his difficulties, he remembered his Lima childhood—the songs sung by his half-Inca nurse, the religious processions in the streets, the long days at the beach, “having our last dip as the huge moon rose in the black sky”—as a kind of paradise. David Vaughan, author of the 1977 Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, has speculated that Ashton’s Peruvian childhood lent him “a certain chic, a certain flamboyance” that shielded him from the contagion of English dowdiness.1
When Ashton turned fourteen, the paradise was lost. His parents sent him to England, to a boarding school called Dover College in Kent, where, for the next two years, he rubbed his chilblains and watched the other boys play rugby. His only relief was vacations, when he would rush to London, move in with some relative or other, and go to the theater day and night. Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, the Ballets Suédois, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: he saw them all, meanwhile wondering how he could become part of that world. Finally his parents, despairing of his benefitting from an education (he was a hopeless student), removed him from school and found him a job as an office boy in London. There he languished for a few more years, wanting only to dance but knowing that his father would never allow this. Then came his liberation. One morning, back in South America, George Ashton went to his office, took care of his correspondence, and blew his brains out. Georgiana returned to England, moving in with Ashton (she would live with him for the next fifteen years, until her death), and Ashton found the courage to confess his ambition to his family. With great reluctance, and only on condition that Freddie promise never to join a chorus, brother Charlie agreed to pay for lessons. And so, in 1924, at the age of twenty, Ashton began to study ballet.
Soon afterward, in 1929, the ballet world suffered a great upheaval: Diaghilev died, and his troupe, which for twenty years had been the headquarters of European ballet, disbanded. His dancers and choreographers scattered across Europe and America—a diaspora that would result in the growth of the national ballet companies of our century. France got Serge Lifar; America got George Balanchine. Léonide Massine and Bronislava Nijinska worked in various capitals. As for England, it became the headquarters of two ambitious Ballets Russes veterans, Ninette de Valois, an Irishwoman, and Marie Rambert, a Pole, both of whom soon founded companies—in de Valois’s case, the Vic-Wells Ballet (established 1931), later to be known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, later still as the Royal Ballet.
Another crucial figure on the English scene was Enrico Cecchetti, the most respected ballet teacher in Europe. Having taught the students of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet (including Pavlova) and then the dancers of the Diaghilev troupe, he had landed in London, where he was now instructing English girls in the small, sparkling steps and elaborate épaulement (the movements of the head, shoulders, and arms) that constituted the Cecchetti technique. Finally, there was a group of ballet writers and fans who in 1930, together with the Diaghilev ballerina Lydia Lopokova and her husband, John Maynard Keynes, founded a performing group, the Camargo Society, to preserve the Diaghilev legacy. This was a formidable collection of talents, none of them choreographic. In 1930 no city in the world wanted or needed a choreographer more than London did—which helps to explain why Ashton, though he had no musical training and only a brief ballet training, got the job.
In 1924, however, when Ashton started ballet lessons, that crisis was still a few years away. He had no idea of being a choreographer; he just wanted to be a dancer. He studied with Massine, then with Nijinska, whose arch and elegant styling of the upper body (she too had studied with Cecchetti) was to leave a permanent mark on his own work. He also studied, for years, with Rambert, who differed from Massine and Nijinska in that, not being a choreographer herself, she longed to develop choreographers. She pressured Ashton into making his first ballet, the 1926 Tragedy of Fashion, about a couturier, Monsieur Duchic (Ashton danced the role), who stabs himself with his scissors when his new collection is poorly received. But Ashton thought that was just a romp. He still wanted only to be a dancer.
He also wanted to have fun. In 1925, Ashton met a Polish painter, Sophie Fedorovitch, who was to be his soulmate and his frequent set and costume designer for the next thirty years. She introduced him to her friends, he brought along some of his friends, and together these people assembled a stylish, bohemian clique—painters (Edward Burra), photographers (Cecil Beaton), poets, dancers, Vogue editors—who had the sort of good time that we expect from artists in the Twenties. They moved in packs. They mocked themselves and the world. They played charades, put on theatricals, and gave costume parties where they came as snake charmers or corpses, copulated on the floor—usually with people of their own sex, for they were almost all homosexual—and drank till they dropped. Ashton was one of the more restrained members of the group. “I never saw him lying in a corner being had by a negro,” one of his friends told Kavanagh. But after his long years of outsider-hood, he threw himself with joy into the party.
That group of friends had a decisive effect on Ashton’s life and art. For one thing, they relieved him of any guilt he might have had about his homosexuality. More than that, they developed qualities in him—wit, elegance, a taste for the theatrical, a feeling for period style, an interest in manners—that were to be leading traits of his later work. They also bent his emotions in a certain way, made them the emotions of friendship rather than of other kinds of attachment.
It was soon obvious to Ashton that he was not a good ballet dancer, a discovery which hurt him very much. On the other hand, with each new choreographic assignment that he accepted, it became increasingly clear that he was a gifted dance-maker. It took him a while to absorb the academic ballet technique. (Remember, he started at twenty. Most ballet choreographers have studied the technique since childhood.) In consequence, his early works depended heavily on wit and chic. He made a Degas-dancer ballet, a Renaissance ballet, a Leda-and-the-swan ballet, but with a nice swan, not like Yeats’s rapist. (It was played by Ashton, in a feathered toque, looking as pretty as Leda.) But soon he was making dances for all three of London’s new ballet organizations—Rambert’s Ballet Club, de Valois’s Vic-Wells Ballet, the Camargo Society—and in 1935 he went on staff at the Vic-Wells.
"Ashton Now," in Following Sir Fred's Steps: Ashton's Legacy, edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau (London: Dance Books, 1996), p. 2. Vaughan's Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, which contains excellent commentary on the work, will be reissued by Dance Books of London in 1998, with its marvelously thorough catalog of Ashton's ballets updated and a new chapter on Ashton's final years.↩
“Ashton Now,” in Following Sir Fred’s Steps: Ashton’s Legacy, edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau (London: Dance Books, 1996), p. 2. Vaughan’s Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, which contains excellent commentary on the work, will be reissued by Dance Books of London in 1998, with its marvelously thorough catalog of Ashton’s ballets updated and a new chapter on Ashton’s final years.↩