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.
As he mastered ballet technique, he began to shape it into a language of his own, as can be seen from the pieces that survive from those years: Les Rendezvous, Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet. He also began to mold the English dancers, paying special attention to a teenaged girl, Peggy Hookham, soon renamed Margot Fonteyn, who was to become his personal ballerina—he made more than thirty roles for her—and thereby the paragon of the English ballet style, his style. (Many years later, Fonteyn wrote to Ashton to say how lucky she was to have fallen into his hands: “Imagine where I would have been otherwise with my no elevation, no extension, no instep and feeble pirouettes!” She forgets to mention her weak ankles.) He also began training a partner for Fonteyn, Michael Somes. In other words, Ashton was now taking responsibility for English ballet.
His career was interrupted by the war. Predictably, he cut a poor and desperate figure as a soldier. But in 1946, when he returned to what was now the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, he created a piece, Symphonic Variations (to César Franck), that is seen as a turning point not only in his own career but in the history of British ballet. Until the middle of the twentieth century almost all ballets had detailed stories. In England in the Thirties and Forties this narrative emphasis was especially pronounced. In the ballets of Robert Helpmann, who took over as lead choreographer at the Sadler’s Wells while Ashton was gone to war, the dancers barely danced, so busy were they falling in love and getting killed. “Everything was becoming too literary,” as Ashton later described it to Kavanagh. “I thought they were losing the dancing element.” So, to reassert the expressive power of ballet itself, he made Symphonic Variations, a storyless piece in which six dancers, led by Fonteyn and Somes, conjure an unspoken emotion—a fusion of rapture and calm, one part Greece, one part Wordsworth—solely through the action of classical dancing.
Because it had no narrative, Symphonic Variations also showed with the greatest possible clarity the lineaments of what was now Ashton’s mature style. First, the elaborate épaulement, product of the combined influences of Pavlova, Nijinska, and Cecchetti, with the head, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers all exquisitely angled in relation to one another, all speaking to one another. Second, reticence, or what some English critics rather prissily call “taste.” In Ashton, lifts tend to be low—the woman may be raised just six inches off the floor—and in contrast to the American “six-o’clock” (180-degree) extension, Ashton’s ballerinas seldom raise a leg more than 90 degrees. In part, this is in service of greater expressiveness: if the woman is lifted six inches now, she can make a different impression when, later, she is raised twelve inches. But often she is just lifted six inches. Ashton was a modest man.
The other distinctive qualities of Ashton’s style are musical phrasing—a fresh, easy placement of steps against music—and a sweet naturalness of demeanor, both Fonteyn specialties. Finally, add the traits so prominent in Symphonic Variations: an allegiance to the academic ballets steps—chassé, piqué, développé, all clear, unsmudged—and a pressing but controlled emotionalism. No other choreographer, not even greater choreographers, can make you cry as Ashton can.
There was one final ace in Ashton’s pack: a gift for narrative. Strange to say, after making his announcement, with Symphonic Variations, that ballet did not need stories, Ashton went on to become the greatest storyteller in twentieth-century ballet. It is as if, in Symphonic Variations, he displayed the bones of his art, then went on to flesh them. He produced a few more pure-dance pieces, notably Scènes de Ballet (1948) and the superb Monotones (1965-1966), but they were his avocation. In 1948, two years after Symphonic Variations, he made his first three-act story ballet, Cinderella, and thenceforth he devoted his career to creating dances—Daphnis and Chloe (1951), Romeo and Juliet (1955), Ondine (1958), La Fille Mal Gardée (1960), The Two Pigeons (1961), The Dream (1964), Enigma Variations (1968), A Month in the Country (1976)—that seem as much the descendants of the English novel as of Russian ballet. They have the sense of place. They have the moral seriousness, the concern with how people treat one another. Above all, they show the complex psychology of the English novel.
The English are specialists in typological portraiture, and Ashton was a super-specialist. All his adult life he dined out on his impersonations—his Queen Victoria, his Sarah Bernhardt, his Gertrude Stein and Wallis Simpson, his Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. (His Queen Victoria, reproduced among the photographs in Secret Muses, is so exact you would swear it was she if only Ashton had been a little fatter.) These sketches, as Kavanagh explains, were Ashton’s fieldwork. His ballets are filled with the same sorts of characters, all bristling with bright detail—detail in the service not just of wit but also of charity.
The most celebrated example is the Second Stepsister in Cinderella, a character both monstrous and sweet (Ashton played the role). Another shining example is Thomas, father of the rich dolt, Alain, to whom the heroine of La Fille Mal Gardée is about to be married off, despite her love for another man. Lord of the local vineyards, Thomas is bustling and self-important, and he is not on the side of the angels, but Ashton loves him too. When the local youths tease Alain, Thomas shields the boy, soothes him, tries to cover up his folly. But his affection keeps tipping over into annoyance. Why did God send him such a blockhead for a son? Who will manage the vineyards when he is old? How will he get his earned rest, his grandchildren? It is all there, in a few gestures. Such characters, descendants of Miss Bates and Betsy Trotwood, are not what we expect to find in ballet, with its wordless logic. To quote Balanchine’s dictum, there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. But Ashton gives us fathers-in-law, and their feelings, and their feelings’ fathers-in-law.
In his mature years, and especially in the Sixties, when he succeeded de Valois as director of the Royal Ballet, Ashton was often accused of being old-fashioned. People now wanted ballets about sex and bombs and despair. (Kavanagh quotes Peter Brook writing in 1963: “We are ripe in ballet for a Hiroshima Mon Amour.”) Meanwhile, Ashton went on giving them ballets about families and love and goodness. As he wrote to Marie Rambert, in his version of Italian, while on assignment at La Scala: “Il vecchio maestro no po fare il balleto moderno e brutto e dedicato a la belleza e il lirism, que cosa fare?… Sa veccio elevo Frederico, dolce com un fico.”2 He thought it ridiculous that the value of a ballet should be judged by its subject matter: you “may as well say Chardin was a bad artist because he painted cabbages,” he retorted.
But it was not just his subject matter that made Ashton seem conservative. Compare his work to Balanchine’s, as so many critics have done. Balanchine, by virtue of his complete absorption of subject matter into movement, and his radical transformation of the academic steps, did with dance what Pound wanted poets to do with language: make it not a story but an action. While Ashton remained faithful to dance-as-narrative, Balanchine moved toward dance-as-music. (Balanchine started a ballet with its music; the choreography was his response to the music. Ashton usually started with a story and then found music to go with it.) This difference, in turn, made a difference in the kinds of emotions the two choreographers could explore. Ashton’s approach was perfect for the world of moralized feelings that he was interested in, and that the English literary tradition had prepared for him. In Balanchine, by contrast, emotion is not moral; it is not even really emotional, but physical and spiritual. Ashton, for example, often makes the division between sacred and profane love. Balanchine is above that distinction, or below it. In his work, love is a labor, a transfiguring process of body and soul. The world, with its sacreds and profanes, has nothing to do with this.
One can see the difference between the two men even in the size of the steps. Ashton favored small, precise steps. Balanchine was more a bolt-thrower. One sees the difference also in the focus of movement. Ashton stressed the ballerina’s upper body; Balanchine, the lower body. Arlene Croce, in her review of Kavanagh’s book in The New Yorker, noted perceptively that this betrays their difference in sexual orientation.3 It also betrays a difference in expressive ambition. Ashton was concerned with the body’s social parts—head, arms, hands—the parts we uncover and use in dealing with one another. Balanchine was interested in the parts we cover—legs, thighs, pelvis—the places of birth and sex, exposure and annihilation. Though Ashton admired and envied Balanchine, Balanchine’s work was actually part of that “balleto moderno e brutto” that Ashton said he could not and would not do. Balanchine’s ballets are modernist; Ashton’s, with a few exceptions, are not.
Ashton’s art, as Kavanagh shows, was a product of his temperament. He was the most civilized of men: modest, witty, psychologically acute. Fonteyn, in her memorial tribute to him, recalled his telling her “that he could not remember innocence, that he had always seen through people to their hearts, their motives and their characters, since he was a child.” He was also an exceedingly domestic creature. His house was all ribbons and flowers. (It looked, Cecil Beaton said, like “the house of an old aunt or of the girl in Spectre de la Rose.”) He collected Staffordshire corn-on-the-cob jugs and pottery cabbages. He kissed his housekeeper every night before going to bed. He sought comfort, for he was plagued by insecurities, above all about his work. Bad reviews hurt him terribly. (In his view, said the critic Richard Buckle, “anything that was not a bouquet was a bomb.”) In 1955, when he was in Copenhagen creating his Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Danish Ballet, strife within the company so unstrung him that every morning, as he walked to the theater, he would have to stop in a doorway to throw up.
His social life was organized around friendship. Ashton’s early years had been notably undomestic. His parents moved back and forth between Guayaquil and Lima. During most of his Lima years he was farmed out to acquaintances of the family. His brothers were “utter strangers” to him, he told Kavanagh. I believe that when he became part of Sophie Fedorovitch’s crowd in the Twenties, he found something that he had missed throughout his childhood—brothers and sisters, a collective in which he fit. For all his remaining years, his life rotated around groups of friends, some of these people, such as Fedorovitch and the dancer and set designer William Chappell, holdovers from the crowd of the Twenties. Many of his works were planned at weekend house parties. One of the reasons four of his ballets were set to the second-rate music of Lord Berners was probably that Lord Berners’s Palladian-style house in Oxfordshire was so pleasant to stay at, with all the friends and the French food and, on one’s night table, pornographic novels disguised as leather-bound classics.
This immersion in familial friendships probably helped to set the emotional temperature of Ashton’s work. I quote from Auden’s essay on Max Beerbohm:
The great cultural danger for the English is, to my mind, their tendency to judge the arts by the values appropriate to the conduct of family life. Among brothers and sisters it is becoming to entertain each other with witty remarks, hoaxes, family games and jokes, unbecoming to be solemn,…to create emotional scenes. But no art, major or minor, can be governed by the rules of social amenity. The English have a greater talent than any other people for creating an agreeable family life; that is why it is such a threat to their artistic and intellectual life. If the atmosphere were not so charming, it would be less of a temptation.4
Spoken like an expatriate. Ashton too, at one point, considered moving to the United States. (He adored New York, and felt that the Americans appreciated his work more than the English.) But he stayed in England, with his family of friends, and the qualities that Auden lists here—the charm, the wit, the reluctance to be solemn—can be seen throughout Ashton’s work. They do not sink it. His moral perception was too profound, his dance imagination too fertile, for that to happen. All his tastes and tendencies drew him toward the minor; still he was major. As Edwin Denby once put it, “The more trivial the subject, the deeper and more beautiful is Ashton’s poetic view of it.”
And the boyfriends? Ashton’s lifelong pattern, a familiar one, was to fall in love with some young man and then settle down into a long attack of yearning. This is not to say that he didn’t bed the boy. Usually he did. (He had a busy sex life. “Pussy is out for all she can get,” he wrote Chappell.) But then, either because the boy was heterosexual or because he lived on the other side of the Atlantic or, as the years passed, because he was forty years younger than his pursuer, Ashton was left to nurse his passion in solitude. “I never once pulled it off,” he said, with apparent bitterness. “I was always the loser.” But according to Kavanagh, that’s what he wanted to be. As he told her, he didn’t like “queer marriages—having to live with someone’s ingrown toenails.” Anyway, he was already married, to his friends. For him, the function of love was to create a mood of exalted repining that he knew was the generator of his ballets.
This pattern caused him a lot of problems. It meant that he spent much of his life unhappy. And when the beloved was a dancer in the company, it created havoc in the theater; dancers would storm into de Valois’s office with petitions protesting Ashton’s favoritism in casting. But he defended his practice, and pointed out that it was part of ballet tradition. Diaghilev did it, Balanchine did it. The personal element enlivens the art, Ashton said—“lifts the whole thing.” The upper-body fluttering of his ballerinas may have been, in part, a memory of real-life loves. Kavanagh thinks this was his idea of female sexual pleasure, a state with which he identified. (He was “bottoms,” she reports, not “tops.”) Strange to say, in Ashton’s love duets the woman’s erotic turmoil is often wound round with that mood of charity, that family feeling, which was so natural to him. It is a weird combination, almost incestuous, but very intimate, gripping.
Kavanagh’s book has one fault: too little context. On a number of matters—British ballet, modernism and antimodernism in England, the work produced by other choreographers of the period, and Ashton’s relation to them—we need a little more background. But I mention this only to show that I noticed it. It is the defect of Kavanagh’s virtues. She is sophisticated; she thinks we know all that. She writes wonderfully—the Lima years get the full, Proustian treatment—and she manages to control a huge amount of material, the product of ten years’ research. She likes gossip as much as Ashton did: she tells us what the people wore, whose nose job was a disaster (Fonteyn’s—she had to have it redone), who was well hung. But none of this comes out petty or lurid. It is tittle-tattle in excelsis, the very texture of Ashton’s life. Kavanagh clearly loves Ashton, and she does little duets with him, setting his remarks against hers. (On a teacher of his childhood: “Sweet-natured, attractive, with beautiful handwriting, Winnie Gilzean taught him—’God knows. Nothing. I was utterly unteachable all my life.”‘ What a joy to hear his voice again.) Kavanagh also likes Ashton’s world and moves easily within it. The resulting book feels very English. Actually, it feels like an Ashton ballet: a lot of bustle and detail, but gathered under a great arc of calm.
August 14, 1997
“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. ↩
“The old maestro cannot make the modern, ugly kind of ballet. He is dedicated to beauty and lyricism—what can you do? Your old pupil Frederick, sweet as a fig.” ↩
“The Loves of His Life,” The New Yorker, May 19, 1997, p. 87. ↩
“One of the Family,” in Forewords and Afterwords, selected by Edward Mendelson (Random House, 1973), p. 382. ↩