Julie Kavanagh Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton
Julie Kavanagh is an English dance critic and biographer.
Julie Kavanagh's biography of British choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904–1988) is a solid contribution to the study of this artist who was a major force in the art of dance in the twentieth century. The clarity of the prose in Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton and the perceptive reading of Ashton's life and its expression in art have been attributed to Kavanagh's grounding in the art. Kavanagh is a dance critic, the London editor of The New Yorker, and a former member of the Royal Ballet company—which Ashton headed for much of his career. One of Ashton's closer friends in his final years, Kavanagh gained the confidence of her subject and enjoyed a rapport that resulted in an intimate yet objective life of the man and his art. As a journalist, she maintains an objective detachment in Secret Muses which is admired by most reviewers. The book covers the choreographer's life from his childhood in Peru under the stern and melancholic presence of his father George Ashton, a diplomat and businessman who was consternated by his son's effeminacy, to Ashton's triumphs in New York and London and his final years as a giant of English cultural life. She notes that Ashton's life-course was set when, as a youth, he saw Anna Pavlova of the Ballets Russes dance in Peru. Kavanagh reveals that Ashton wanted to be Pavlova, but it wasn't until after his father's suicide, when Ashton was in his teens, that the boy dedicated himself to dance. By then it was too late to develop as a dancer, but without the usual training, and relying on scant knowledge of the technique of the art, and of music, Ashton nonetheless pursued his passion. Ashton's romantic relationships as well as his life-long associations with prominent dancers and British royalty become the "secret muses" of Kavanagh's title. Secret Muses has been welcomed by most critics for its extension of the study of an important artist, and its contribution to the history of ballet. Kavanagh's technique, journalistic rather than academic, relies on interviews, films, and her own astute observations. "She brings us not just the man's struggle but the man himself, in all his complexity," wrote Arlene Croce. Terry Teachout noted an absence of academic rigor that at times results in omissions and underexplanation, but praised the book as "invaluable" and applauded Kavanagh for the "skill and sensitivity" with which she "evokes the imaginative world" of Ashton's ballets. The journalistic approach does not sacrifice the quality of Kavanagh's research. One critic appreciated the Kavanagh's presentation of a "panorama of secrets," which serve to "reveal the world of the man and the artist in a clear light."
SOURCE: "Oh to Be a Little Freddie Ashton from Lima, Peru," in The Spectator, November 9, 1996, p. 53.
[In the following review of Secret Muses, Keates observes the private and professional features of the figure of Frederick Ashton that emerge in Kavanagh's biography.]
Lurking within the exotically bedecked, lavishly appointed saloons and antechambers of this palatial work, a novel or a film script eternally seeks to escape. At its opening a small boy watches a famous ballerina dance in a South American theatre and yearns to be the very creature who has so entranced him. By the close, having understandably failed to dance like Pavlova, he has instead gained celebrity as the creator of a brilliantly idiosyncratic choreography whose elegance and wit, entrancing to audiences, have given the Royal Ballet a memorable identity. In the space between, as if this were not already crammed enough with the hero's evident dedication to his art, he contrives to develop two very different private and public faces. As Fred he is the restless pursuer of attractive though not always available men, who may or may not love him in return, while as Freddie he becomes one of those beguilers of tedium, picnic guests and boon companions over cocktails within the orbit of royal intimacy at Clarence House and Kensington Palace.
'Freddie', his grander acquaintances keep assuring Julie Kavanagh (and protesting rather too much in the process), 'wasn't a snob', but a pardonable sense of having made it socially was undoubtedly enhanced by some fairly ordinary family beginnings as the son of a farmer's daughter married to a post office clerk turned business manager. A childhood in Peru lent the required touch of glamour, however, and the positively casebook homosexual formation of dressing up in mummy's frocks, amitiés amoureuses with little girls next door, a joyless stint at a Kent boarding school, was completed with Ashton père's mysterious suicide in Guayaquil when his son was 19.
George Ashton's hopes for Fred can scarcely have involved ideas either...
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SOURCE: A review of Secret Muses, in The Economist, March 15, 1997, Vol. 342, no. 8008, p. S15.
[The following review briefly assesses Kavanagh's depiction of Frederick Ashton and his world in Secret Muses.]
A man can sometimes be defined more by the qualities he lacks than by those he possesses. Frederick Ashton, whose career, together with those of Margot Fonteyn and Ninette de Valois, virtually describes the history of English ballet, might be expected to have been a formidably authoritative figure, a match for the professionals he collaborated with, something high-powered along the lines of a George Balanchine or a Serge Diaghilev. Not at all: constitutionally lazy, never able to read a score, bored by teaching, vague at times as to the exact steps he wanted, Ashton ambushed his elusive muse more obliquely. He knew what he was after, but what Julie Kavanagh brings out in this sympathetic and perceptive biography is his informality, his indirectness, his comparatively uneducated instinct for dance. In its old-fashioned Englishness, it was of a piece with his lightness of temperament, his genius for witty fooling: his impersonations (the long-nosed Edith Sitwell, say, or the galumphing Isadora Duncan) were legendary.
All this is fitting in a choreographer whose ballets are themselves regarded as quintessentially English—in the loose sense of the word. The qualities so often...
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SOURCE: A review of Secret Muses, in Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1997, p. 524.
[The following short review points out the strengths of Kavanagh's portrait of Frederick Ashton's life.]
A slavishly detailed but lightsomely written life of the British ballet-maker.
Kavanagh, London editor of the New Yorker, explains in an afterword that Ashton alternately authorized and forbade her project, chagrined to be reminded by her of his mortality. "It's the finality of it—knowing you're grabbing as much out of me as you can before I die," he once complained. And she has grabbed it. The intelligence and novelistic command of this book about the man who helped to invent modern English ballet is equaled only by the depth of Kavanagh's research. Her enviable ease and glamorous settings range from Ashton's first glimpse, as a boy in Lima, Peru, of Anna Pavlova, to his apprenticeship with Bronislava Nijinska in Paris in the '20s, to his American stints and sundry European wanderings, and his irrepressibly multiple sexual selves. We're treated to the chronicle of Ashton's dances (Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet, Monotones, et al.) as he worked with Marie Rambert of the Ballet Club and Ninette de Valois of the Vic-Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet, which he eventually directed). And we're regaled with his legendary late-night wit. Kavanagh reports high times in the '30s: "Spotting a minor playwright performing fellatio on a major playwright in a corner of a typical theatrical party, Ashton quipped to Bunny Roger, 'Look! There's K—trying to suck some talent out of E—.'" Her secondary characters alone seem reason enough to look for this life someday in a movie theater: Margot Fonteyn, Maynard Keynes, Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Gertrude Stein, Rudolf Nureyev, and the Queen Mother. But in all the crush of this crowd, she also singles out Ashton for memorable, consistent portraiture. Gamin, crank, romantic, he "was not a happy man," she says. "Most of his adulthood was spent half-consciously seeking unrequited emotional situations." Kavanagh explores them vividly.
Both Ashton's wiles and his ballets make this irresistible reading.
SOURCE: "Scenes de Ballet," in The New York Times, May 18, 1997, p. 14.
[In the following review, Teachout praises Secret Muses for Kavanagh's "skill and sensitivity" while objecting to a lack of "concise critical interpretation" in the treatment of her subject.]
Time was when Sir Frederick Ashton's ballets seemed built to travel. The Royal Ballet danced them to loud acclaim at home and abroad, while the Joffrey Ballet went so far as to offer occasional all-Ashton bills. The visionary decadence of "Illuminations," the genteel surrealism of "A Wedding Bouquet," the crystalline mysteries of "Monotones": all were once staples of the dance life of American balletomanes. Even now, if one were to ask the 10 leading dance critics in America to name the 10 most important choreographers of the 20th century, it's a safe bet that Ashton would make every list.
But times have changed, and Ashton's American reputation, less than a decade after his death, is based mainly on memories. The Royal Ballet's scheduled performances of "Cinderella," "La Valse" and "Daphnis and Chloe" at this summer's Lincoln Center Festival will mark the first time any of Ashton's ballets have been seen in New York since 1994, and the first time in 20 years that "Cinderella" has been danced anywhere in this country. The Joffrey today is an Ashtonless shadow of its former self—the current management prefers dancing to the music of the artist formerly known as Prince—and it has been four years since American Ballet Theater last presented its staging of "Symphonic Variations," Ashton's signature piece, in New York. In the dance capital of the world, England's greatest choreographer has been reduced to the status of a poor country cousin.
It is for this reason above all that the publication of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton is so welcome. Nothing is half as likely to put Ashton back in the limelight as an intelligent, gossipy biography, and this one resounds with the clatter of very big names being dropped from a very great height. Ashton knew everybody from Evelyn Waugh (who—surprise—didn't like him) to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and among the closest friends of his old age was Julie Kavanagh, now The New Yorker's London editor, to whom he spoke frankly and in scandalous detail about his life, loves and ballets. Virtually from the beginning of their acquaintance, Ms. Kavanagh made no bones about wanting to write a biography, and he cooperated fully (if fitfully), granting her access to his papers after his death, in 1988.
The result is a book that reveals, among many other things, the close relationship between Ashton's sex life and his casting choices. Whether such information sheds much light on his art is hard to say, but there can be no question of malice: if one has to have a posthumous whistle-blower, it would be hard to pick a more sympathetic one than Ms. Kavanagh. Her obvious affection for Ashton is irresistible—it is difficult to read Secret Muses without longing to put the book down every few pages and look at one of his ballets—and she has captured his fey, quirky personality with enviable precision, in part because she seems never to have hesitated to ask the kind of embarrassing question that leaves most interviewers fumbling for euphemisms.
On one unforgettable occasion, Ms. Kavanagh even dared to inquire whether Ashton had ever slept with Antony Tudor, the choreographer of "Pillar of Fire." "Ugh!" he replied, grandly throwing in a "theatrical shimmy," then topping it with this cyanide-coated cherry: "I found him desperately unattractive. I couldn't have touched Tudor if he'd been scented in myrrh."
But Secret Muses is the work of a journalist, not a scholar, and there are times when it suffers accordingly. The bibliography and source notes are sketchy, and Ms. Kavanagh has not bothered to include a basic checklist of ballets by Ashton. And while most modern biographies suffer from overexplanation, this one errs in the other direction: the facts are all here, but readers unfamiliar with the larger context of Ashton's career might at times have been better served by a more explicitly interpretive approach.
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SOURCE: "The Loves of His Life," in The New Yorker, May 19, 1997, pp. 78-87.
[In the following essay, Croce discusses the development of Frederick Ashton's career and his contributions to British ballet alongside comments on Kavanagh's treatment of these themes in her biography.]
Biographies of artists are notably tricky to write: the greater the art, the less there is for the biographer to get hold of. The artist's life is absorbed by that other reality which is the art, and what's left over—the husk of a life—is comparatively uninteresting. When the artist is a dancer or a choreographer, the biographer is faced with the special task of commemorating someone whose...
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SOURCE: "Enigma Variations," in The New Republic, November 10, 1997, pp. 33-38.
[In the following essay, Aloff considers Kavanagh's contribution to an understanding of Frederick Ashton's work, comparing Secret Muses to a previous study of the same subject.]
The choreographer Frederick Ashton—one of the greatest ballet masters in history—was born in 1904, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to a couple who were natives of England. Around the age of three, he moved with his family (including three older brothers and a younger sister) to Lima, Peru, where he stayed until going to boarding school in England at the age of 15. Ashton never returned to Lima, yet over the course...
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