‘Sweet as a Fig’

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…

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