Julie Kavanagh Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."