Julie Kavanagh

Start Free Trial

Jonathan Keates (review date 9 November 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of a career as a choreographer at a time when ballet, for all its cachet as the hot new art form, was deemed notoriously unmanly, or of idle hours spent partying among the Bright Young Things with the designer Sophie Fedorovich and the dancer William Chappell, who became the boy's first serious lover. Quietly but sensibly Kavanagh insists that we understand just how much of Ashton's best-known work is informed by this energetic mondanité further fuelled by cosseting from millionairesses like Alice von Hofmannsthal (née Astor), who lured him to bed with the aid of silk shirts 'in Gatsby-like quantities', and frolics amid the let's-pretend-we're-surrealists world of the Sitwells, Lord Berners and Cecil Beaton.

If sex and socialising were itches needing constant scratching, so too was Ashton's creativity as a dance-maker, quite astonishing in its eclecticism, inventiveness and profusion. Among the ballets Kavanagh so dashingly revives for us on the page, from his first success, A Tragedy of Fashion, part of a Nigel Playfair revue at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1926, to works such as Les Sirènes, an allusive charivari to a pastiche score by Berners, with dancing seagulls and a yodelling Robert Helpmann, much has no doubt dated hopelessly as such things do, yet what would we not give to see The Wise Virgins, that 'daring exercise in stasis', Dante Sonata, hailed at its wartime première as a landmark in English dance, or even the sublime Stravinskian hotchpotch of Persephone?

Genius, as well as his readiness to feed old hatreds, made Ashton enemies as well as admirers....

(This entire section contains 874 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

American balletomanes will be unhappy with the image this book projects of their idol Georges Balanchine as a jealous troublemaker, who, despite Fred's evident admiration for him, tried to sabotage rehearsals forLes Illuminations in New York and failed to turn up for the première. Small wonder that when another of his American ballets, Picnic at Tintagel, lost its sets and costumes in a warehouse fire, Ashton sourly observed that Balanchine probably lit it himself.

Kavanagh is likely to be unpopular too with the Does-It-Re-ally-Matter type of biography reader who grows uncomfortable whenever the subject's sexuality is too keenly glanced at. She is marvellously candid in dealing with the sequence of lovers, from Chappell and Waller Gore to the hugely sympathetic Brian Shaw and the altogether more capricious Alexander Grant, if only because the experience of these passions was such an essential inspiration to the choreographer. Of course we don't need to know that the muse of Les Deux Pigeons was a young American Ashton picked up in a bar, or that certain other balletic ideas were prompted by a yearning for the glacially unattainable Michael Somes, but without such details the book, considered purely as biography, would lose its point.

For as such this is a triumph of design, expressiveness and commitment, Ashtonian indeed in the zest and glamour with which Kavanagh invests everything she touches. Any decent chronicle of a life ought to make a reader envious, not simply to have met the subject, but to have lived out in some way the existence described. The best possible tribute to Secret Muses is to say that it makes us long, from start to finish, to have been Frederick Ashton.

The Economist (review date 15 March 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 noted in them—their understatement, their lyricism, their tenderness, elegance and wit—are the very things that shrivel in the blast of professional absolutism. To anyone not acquainted with English manners, and especially with the high frivolity cultivated in sophisticated circles during the 1920s and 1930s (Ashton's formative decades) he seemed merely amateurish, even silly. Balanchine, rooted in the great Russian tradition, never took him seriously.

And yet, although Ashton stood in awe of Balanchine's training at the Maryinsky school, and lamented his own attenuated and hampered attempts to learn ballet, in his own way he was rooted too. As a boy in Peru, where his father was a businessman, he had seen Pavlova, and was enslaved. From then on he wanted to recreate her spirit, her expressiveness of line and gesture, her play of hand and eye and throat and upper body. It was a language—he would have said "poetry"—which he felt belonged essentially to women. And yet, as Ms Kavanagh demonstrates, it expressed also his own homosexual romanticism. He loved it wherever he met it, whether in Pavlova on stage, or at her tea-table in Hampstead. In fact he drew equally from the world outside the ballet, a vanished world of grand ladies and houses (much dwelt upon here) where the poise of a cigarette was the equivalent of a pirouette—a fact which, he knew, put many of his ballets outside the range of modern performers.

A large part of this book is also about the young men who, increasingly, became the "secret muses" of the title. Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Fonteyn are no secret, but Ms Kavanagh has uncovered much material about Ashton's male loves. On the whole, beyond what they tell us about Ashton's endless quest for something impossibly rare and beautiful—the quest itself being everything—the men themselves are the least interesting part of an already long and minutely researched book. In her "Afterword", Ms Kavanagh concedes that they may be a red herring in the task of understanding the ballets they inspired, but she more than makes up with her full and eloquent accounts of Ashton's choreography, difficult as that is to convey.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 April 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Terry Teachout (review date 18 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Ms. Kavanagh, for example, acknowledges that Ashton regarded George Balanchine with a volatile mixture of envy and rivalry, and that he was "profoundly influenced" by his American counterpart for a brief time after World War II. Yet simply to say this is to understate the fact that in making such plotless, music-driven dances as "Symphonic Variations" (1946), "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales" (1947) and "Scenes de Ballet" (1948), Ashton was temporarily turning his back on the whole culture of British ballet that had made his own early work possible—a departure without which he never could have come into his artistic maturity.

That Ashton bloomed late is perhaps less surprising than that he bloomed at all. He was born in Ecuador in 1904, the fourth son of an expatriate British diplomat and businessman who was melancholic and philistine, a dangerous combination. Ashton, who spent much of his childhood in Lima, Peru, was 13 years old when he first saw Anna Pavlova dance: "Seeing her at that stage was the end of me. She injected me with her poison and from the end of that evening I wanted to dance." But George Ashton was disgusted by the boy's increasingly obvious effeminacy, and it was not until after he committed suicide in 1924 that his youngest son began studying ballet. This late start ruled out a career as a virtuoso soloist: it was choreography or nothing.

The success of Ashton's early dances doubtless owes much to the fact that all those present at the creation in 1931 of what eventually became the Royal Ballet were obsessed with the still fresh memory of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and specifically with Diaghilev's commitment to the ideal of what Richard Wagner called the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which movement, music and decor are fused into a unified whole. It was taken for granted that British ballet should be a collaborative synthesis of the three arts, guided by the firm hand of a Diaghilev-like figure. This role was filled by Constant Lambert, the brilliant but erratic composer-conductor-critic who served as the company's musical director. Not only did Lambert usually choose the music Ashton choreographed, but he also wrote, individually or in collaboration, the scenarios for many of Ashton's key works of the 30's and early 40's—precisely the discipline the young Ashton needed, though the time would soon come when he chafed under it.

Only after the war did Ashton emerge decisively from Lambert's shadow with "Symphonic Variations," whose symphonic score, simple costumes and backdrop and fine-drawn classicism added up to a comprehensive rejection of Diaghilev chic. It was as though he first felt compelled to pare down his movement vocabulary to its essence—the same ruthless self-simplification that Balanchine, who was only a few months older than Ashton, had undertaken 18 years earlier when he made "Apollo" for the Ballets Russes—before adopting the more expansive integration of dance and drama seen in "Cinderella" (1948), "La Fille Mal Gardee" (1960), "The Dream" (1964) and "A Month in the Country" (1976), the romantic story ballets that have charmed dancegoers around the world and that, taken together, seem likely to constitute their maker's chief claim on posterity.

While the course of Ashton's artistic development is faithfully chronicled in Secret Muses, the dots are mostly left unconnected: Ms. Kavanagh is more at home piling up fascinating facts than knitting them together into a concise critical interpretation. Similarly, she suggests that Ashton's ballets are no longer being danced convincingly without explaining why this should be the case, save to remark in passing that under the regime of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Ashton's successor as director of the Royal Ballet, "English classicism had already begun its evolution into the present-day Royal Ballet dance style, its purity replaced by what Arlene Croce calls MacMillan's expressionistic body language."

This bald statement, which demands a great deal of discussion, gets none at all, and begs a closely related question that also goes unasked by Ms. Kavanagh: Why has Ashton's style proved so fragile? Some of his colleagues apparently thought it was a simple matter of laziness. One reason Balanchine's ballets are so widely and effectively performed is that the dance world is still full of ballet masters and mistresses who took class every day from the man who made them, in the process internalizing his stylistic principles; Ashton, by contrast, disdained the daily grind of teaching, and the results can be seen on the increasingly rare occasions when his ballets are danced in America.

Why was Ashton so reluctant to teach? Could he have suffered from lingering doubts as to the ultimate value of his choreographic method? In a review of Bernard Taper's 1963 biography of Balanchine, Ashton admitted the feelings of inadequacy with which he regarded Balanchine's rich dance heritage: "Balanchine has had all the necessary environment and background for the making of the great choreographer he is. Unlike myself, who had to make all my opportunities from the beginning, and fight my way against every kind of prejudice, in order to be allowed to dance." Yet Ashton told Taper he "feared for the future" of Balanchine's plotless dances, which he believed harder to maintain than story ballets—by which he presumably meant his own—and which he thought would start to disintegrate after Balanchine's death.

In fact, the opposite has happened: the Balanchine style has become the lingua franca of late-20th-century classical ballet, even as Ashton's more immediately accessible work vanishes before our eyes. The tale of how this came to pass may not be as sexy as that of who was entwined with whom on the casting couch, but it is in the long run far more important.

Still, any scholar who seeks to write about Frederick Ashton will henceforth take this invaluable book as a starting place, and will profit endlessly from the skill and sensitivity with which Ms. Kavanagh evokes the imaginative world of his ballets. Witness, for example, her loving description of Ashton's daily routine at Chandos Lodge, the country retreat where he planned his later dances: "Ashton used to insist that his country routine was entirely inert. 'I do nothing. I sit and stare.' But, as he sat for hours on the terrace, listening to music, sipping martinis and chain-smoking, his mind was all-seeing, projecting visions of filigree arms and Garboesque profiles, lyrical youths and love-smitten heroines, on to the backdrop of his darkening lake and garden." A biographer who understands her subject as well as that can be forgiven a great many sins of critical omission.

Arlene Croce (essay date 19 May 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 whole glory is to have disappeared completely, in art as well as in life. The great artists of dance disappear into legend, and they tend to blur together in our minds. Who now can really say what made Pavlova different from Spessivtseva—or, for that matter, from Taglioni or Grisi? The two great classical choreographers of our time, George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton, are still distinct personalities to us, but to future generations they may be as indistinguishable as Coralli and Perrot. The materia of ballet is remade by each era's masters; all that survives is a tradition and, when tradition goes, a kind of faith.

Frederick Ashton died in 1988, five years after Balanchine, his exact contemporary. (Both were born in 1904.) Ashton's fate was harder: he lived to see his works molder and the end come to the company he had helped to create—England's Royal Ballet. Or, rather, he lived to see his classical tradition supplanted by another one, rooted in expressionism, which kept the company going but in the opposite direction. The great virtue of Julie Kavanagh's biography, Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton, is that it is written from within Ashton's tradition. Kavanagh was herself a dancer; she married a dancer; and though she came along dangerously late in Ashton's life and is two generations removed from him, she believed in his kind of ballet—in the classicism that was his dearest dream and the object of his life's struggle. Ashton was continually having to fight the tendency to a Germanic expressionism that eventually conquered the Royal Ballet, but, by fighting ceaselessly on behalf of the purer, the more musical, the more truly English style, he brought the company to a peak of artistry it may never attain again in our lifetime.

It says much for Kavanagh's perspicacity that Ashton's struggle is alive in her book. Relying heavily on interviews and films, she brings us not just the man's struggle but the man himself, in all his complexity and quotability. Crucial to her success is her ability to infer the correct relationship of the Ashton she knew to ballets no longer being danced, or no longer under his supervision. And she got there just in time. Some of her best sources—friends, colleagues, former lovers—had not been interviewed about Ashton before and have since died. Nothing of his personal life had ever got into print; his observers were circumspect. Then, too, they seem to have operated within the same aesthetic constraints that he did, viewing the art as the essence of the life. A statement that Ashton made to an interviewer in 1953, quoted in David Vaughan's Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, might well have served Kavanagh for an epigraph: "Choreography is my whole being, my whole life, my reason for living. I pour into it all my love, my frustrations, and sometimes autobiographical details. To me, in many ways, it has more reality than the life which I live, and I couldn't conceive of existing unless I could do choreography." Vaughan's book (1977) dealt indispensably with the man and his work from long and direct personal experience, but it was not a biography in the strict sense; neither was the only other book-length study, John Selwyn Gilbert's Frederick Ashton: A Choreographer and His Ballets (1971).

Classical art, no matter how self-effacing the artist, cannot go on generating critical studies indefinitely—much less can the art of choreography. This first life of Ashton, as its title indicates, is in the revelatory spirit of current biography—it's the kind of thing that is normally written when an "authorized" or more discreet version has already been done. Kavanagh had Ashton's cooperation, but it wavered, was sometimes grudging, and was even withdrawn at one point. (How their friendship and this temporary rupture came about is told in an Afterword.) He knew the kind of book she would be writing, and finally he let her do it, probably because she fitted the pattern of his world; also, the truth about his personal life fitted ineluctably the pattern of his work. And the truth had better be told now, he must have reasoned on his good days; there is no time for revisionism in dance. In Secret Muses the dance epoch now ending coincides with the new candor in biography, to their mutual enhancement. The secrets that are revealed are almost in the nature of a déformation professionnelle, so intimately connected are they to Ashton's ability to function creatively. But they will come as a surprise only to those who never saw the ballets.

Which is not to say that Kavanagh's book contains no surprises. The secret muses existed in fact as well as in the romantic fiction of Ashton's imagination. They were the young men he courted, and they were secret mainly because until 1967 homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Ashton, uninhibitedly gay among friends, maintained a public decorum. (When John Gielgud was arrested, in 1953, Ashton's reaction was unsympathetic: "He's ruined it for all of us.") As a performer, he delighted in travesty impersonations—Carabosse in "The Sleeping Beauty." the shy Ugly Sister in "Cinderella," Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle in "The Tales of Beatrix Potter." They were an outlet for his queen-ship and his gift for parody. A brilliant parlor comedian, he kept people in stitches with his impressions of Ida Rubinstein and Edith Sitwell. The role of imperious dowager suited him, but in sexual matters he was not one to whom others could pay court. Recalling his school days for Kavanagh, he says, "There were people who were in love with me whom I hated, because I was very romantic, you see, and had the Greek point of view about the Ideal One." He was always the pursuer, never the pursued.

Most of his idols were dancers, and most of them are named in the book. Love letters to and from the choreographer are copiously quoted, and the course of each affair, whether consummated or not, is charted alongside the creation of each ballet, as if the two were interdependent, as, indeed, they were to Ashton. Because of Kavanagh's tact and fluency, the subject of homosexuality never grows oppressive. There is too much buggery in the early chapters, just as there is too much royal name-flinging in the late ones, but the excesses are Ashton's, as he experiences in bohemian London the folly and dissipation necessary to an artist in his twenties, and then, after a half century's faithful service to the crown, hobnobs with the Sandringham set. Where the book distinguishes itself from the academic type of tell-all biography is in its lack of aggression. Kavanagh does not presume to inform us what the ballets are "really" about. She does not claim that they arc disguised homosexual fantasies or that the ideal erotic image each of them contains holds any meaning except in Ashton's mind. She does not confuse sexual and erotic energy. She is simply saying that Ashton had to be in love in order to do his best work.

Nothing hinged on its being homosexual love; Balanchine, who was heterosexual, operated artistically the same way Ashton did. That there had to be a "muse"—someone who controlled their affections and for whom the work was made—was the big "secret" of both men's lives. Kavanagh has some conceptual difficulty with the word "muse," applying it to anyone who inspired Ashton, male or female. But it was not by accident that the two greatest choreographers in the world were known as women's choreographers. The fact that Ashton was in love with Margot Fonteyn's partner Michael Somes did not hinder him from making superlative roles for Fonteyn. And Alicia Markova, Pearl Argyle, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Antoinette Sibley, and Lynn Seymour also had reason to be grateful to him. To me, this says something about the femininity of the classical tradition. Ashton, who loved men, was as committed to it as Balanchine, who lived women. Ashton may have believed that his men inseminated the female in him—this is, in fact, the theme of "Symphonic Variations," the ballet that most people consider his masterpiece—but he served Terpsichore and her alone. Even as he is writing his most ardent and aphrodisiacal love letters to the dancer Dick Beard, the Sadler's Wells company is having to bring in guest choreographers for the male dancers; according to Ninette de Valois, the director, "Fred wasn't interested in the men, he never was. He was principally a woman's choreographer." And he was so by choice as well as by nature. His endorsement of the female principle in "Tiresias" stands, despite the ballet's failure, as a defining moment in his repertory.

Terpsichore came to Ashton in the person of Anna Pavlova, when he was twelve years old. In a key episode, covered by Kavanagh on the very first page of her book, he saw Pavlova dance and was immediately converted. Years later, after he had become a choreographer, he met Pavlova and laid his sword at her feet. He remained obsessed with her for the rest of his life—Kavanagh says he wanted to be her. "Every ballerina role he would go on to create was done so in the shadow of his muse. As Margot Fonteyn … remarked towards the end of her life, 'I always felt that Fred was seeing Pavlova and that I wasn't living up to her by any means.'" But, of course, Fonteyn was as much Ashton's muse as any living woman could have been. Along with Pavlova, she embodied the image of the ballerina which Ashton cherished, born from the female principle that he found within him. The masculine principle, which he couldn't furnish himself, had to come from outside.

Frederick William Mallandaine Ashton was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the youngest of the British vice-consul's four sons, and the prettiest. "I was buggered by all my brothers," he once told a confidant, who, Kavanagh reports, was startled less by the disclosure than by Ashton's matter-of-fact way of making it. To Ashton, the more important thing to know about his childhood was that it was South American. In Lima, Peru, where the family moved when he was three, he was immersed in Spanish-colonial culture. Walking with his half-Inca nurse on the Paseo Colon, he studied the way Peruvian beauties comported themselves in their open carriages. He spoke Spanish fluently and fell headlong for a girl called Panchita—the only woman, he said later, he ever really loved. Not until I read Kavanagh's book, which delves deep into family history, did I realize that Ashton, the architect of English classical style, was born in Ecuador and brought up in Peru, while Fonteyn, the quintessentially English ballerina, had a mother who was half Brazilian (Fontes) and a husband who was Panamanian. Even odder is the fact that in all the years of their collaboration they never made anything of the Latin strain they had in common, apparently regarding it as a given, a resource to be relied upon, never exploited. In 1975, Ashton supplied Fonteyn and David Wall with a pièce d'occasion, a pas de deux to music by Villa-Lobos, to be performed in Rio de Janeiro. It was very slight—Fonteyn was well past her prime—and Kavanagh does not even mention it. The only other time Ashton seems to have called directly upon his Latin background was in 1934, in his choreography for the legendary first production of the opera "Four Saints in Three Acts," by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. As Stein wrote later, "He does know what it is to be a Peruvian, and that made it possible for him to … make a religious procession sway and slowly disappear without moving."

Ashton believed that he had inherited his talent from his mother, whom he resembled, and whose girlhood on the farms of Suffolk he memorialized in "La Fille Mal Gardée." His father, a moody, introverted man, who eventually committed suicide, never spoke of his past life in England, or of his first marriage there. In 1948, a son by that marriage revealed to Ashton that their father in his youth had claimed to be the illegitimate offspring of Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, the liberal politician whose career was destroyed by an adultery scandal in 1885. Ashton investigated, and learned the truth—that George Ashton had been the son of a penurious cabinetmaker—but he preferred to keep it quiet or at least open to question: "My father might have been the son of an aristocrat and a chambermaid, for all I know." When, in his seventies, Ashton began seeing a good deal of the Royal Family, his friends speculated on the exact degree of his snobbery, finally deciding that he was less a snob than a courtier. Though he derided the lower-class origins of David Webster, Covent Garden's general administrator ("that Liverpool department-store manager"), it was because, in the opinion of his good friend Isaiah Berlin, he considered Webster "a vulgarian, coarse and inartistic—all of which was true." To Berlin, Ashton was a kind of court jester:

He was gay—in every sense—he was charming and had a delicate and extremely sharp wit. He liked society, he had an acute sense of the ridiculous and he told stories with great charm and point, and that pleases society. People like people who amuse them. He was taken up not because he was a wonderful choreographer or a great dancer, but because he was delightful. He sang for his supper and I think he knew this. But he enjoyed the supper very much too.

Ashton was in fact the purest of the Betjeman-Britten type of Renaissance courtier which flourished during the Second World War and the subsequent reign of young Queen Elizabeth. (A photograph of Ashton in seventeenth-century costume for an early ballet. "Capriol Suite," his narrow, long-chinned English face set off by a ruff, to my mind captures his essence.) His close friendship with the Queen Mother was the cause of his breakup with Kavanagh. Her paper had printed an off-hand comment that he made to her about the shabbiness of the carpets at Sandringham. That this remark actually gave no offense in the royal household did not matter: the book deal was off. Ashton and the Queen Mother loved to gossip together, tango together, and drink Martinis together. For the benefit of outsiders, he gently mimicked her "little shudder of pleasure as she took the first sip of her gin Martini, one plump hand placed upon her chest." He adopted her royal wave for his curtain calls. Of all the congratulatory messages he received on being given the Order of Merit, hers was the most gratifying to him. Ashton, who could never get over the fact that royal friendships had been bestowed on him, "little Freddie Ashton from Lima, Peru," took his O.M. with utmost seriousness; when the notification came, in 1977, he burst into tears. A dethroned king (in 1970, Webster had, with de Valois's connivance, forced him from the directorship of the ballet), he lived in fear of being forgotten.

The citation was a recognition of fifty years of achievement, a record comparable to Petipa's in Russia and Balanchine's in America, but Ashton, completely untrained in dance until the age of twenty, had had much farther to go than Petipa or Balanchine. He spent his adolescence not at a ballet academy but at Dover College, in England, where Kavanagh depicts him, far from the sunshine of Peru, pining to become a dancer, "a chilblained, miserably displaced public schoolboy." After he left Dover, he worked in London as an office boy, went at night to the theatre, and in 1924 answered an ad offering a trial dance lesson from Léonide Massine. His father's suicide that year had liberated him, but it also landed him with the care of his mother, from whom the lessons had to be kept secret. Even after she became reconciled to the dancing that was reshaping her son's life apart from anything she had ever known, and apart from her, Mrs. Ashton continued to live with him. With the family fortune lost, and with no means to begin a new life, she became increasingly dependent. Son and mother were together until she died, in 1939, and were often quite poor.

The world of ballet at that time had many figures in common with the world of society, and with other worlds—fashion, literature, the arts in general, and that arriviste formation called café society, which no longer exists. Diaghilev had created this coalition in London, as he had in Paris. The two cities were socially so cohesive that when he died they lost no time in forming new ballet ventures, such as the Camargo Society, which brought London's prime movers together in 1930. Its guiding spirit, the economist John Maynard Keynes, was married to the former Diaghilev ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Their union was the symbol of that cultural consensus which, even before the founding of the Camargo Society, enabled Ashton to begin making ballets within two years of having taken his first ballet lesson. Massine had sent him to Marie Rambert's studio, which was the incubator of British ballet. Ashton wanted only to dance; he had to be pushed into becoming a choreographer—by Rambert at first, and then by de Valois and Constant Lambert. They were the visionaries, and their sights were focussed on a national dance theatre. Ashton went along the path they marked out for him. Lucky he did. In a few years, Diaghilev would be dead, and the dispersal of his aides and choreographers might have done Ashton out of the job he was meant to have. (The launching of the Camargo Society was attended by Balanchine and Boris Kochno.)

By the age of thirty, Ashton had become a master of ballets that reflected the social scene he was part of—lightweight stuff about lords and ladies and escapades among the gods, frivolous West End revues, elegant vaudevilles like "Façade," spirited imitations of Balanchine like "Les Rendezvous." Kavanagh is good on the ballets, and she is better on the social scene. A sprawly, sometimes untidy writer with a tendency to overquote the reviewers (including this reviewer), she is also uncommonly ambidextrous, a Nancy Mitford of ballet, mingling gossip, social history, and critical commentary. London in the twenties and thirties—Mitford's era—is re-created from personal accounts rendered at first hand, not mined from books, and Kavanagh has read the books, too. Whether her milieu is Mayfair, Notting Hill Gate, or the heart of old Bloomsbury, the pages sparkle.

The cast of characters includes Sophie Fedorovitch, the scenic designer, who lived in one room and slept in a reclining chair; Olivia Wyndham, who gave parties dense with absinthe and cocaine; Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland, the editors of British Vogue and the reigning tastemakers in matters of fashion and sex. "Just as people are called fag-hags now," Ashton told Kavanagh, "I used to be escort to a host of lesbians." The photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer, who was then a painter, liked Ashton because she could behave freely with him, without the reserve expected by "normal" men. "With the young men we knew, our mothers would say, 'Don't you think so-and-so is being rather familiar?' if he took your arm. But of course we all took each other's arms and kissed each other. When you're a dancer, there's no difference between the sexes. And the same with artists, we were the same."

Ashton also attracted women who wanted to marry him. One of Kavanagh's nuggets is Rose Paget, hopelessly tall for a dancer and hopelessly in love with Ashton. She was a marquess's daughter and a duke's granddaughter; her aunt was Lady Diana Cooper, the sometime actress, and another symbol of the age's interlocking worlds. Rose Paget had no illusions about Ashton's sexual nature, and she wanted him to have her money. Marriage to her would have been the salvation of him and his mother, but although he could be aroused by the beauty of women—in the mid-thirties, Kavanagh says, he was "swinging both ways with the regularity of a metronome"—he did not take Rose Paget seriously. Nor did he respond in a more than token fashion to the advances of Alice von Hofmannsthal, Rose's more artful and determined rival. Alice, with her Astor millions, was one of the richest women in the world, and one of the most mixed up. Her vicissitudes punctuate the story of Ashton's life like a series of catastrophic explosions in the distance. Rose Paget was unfortunate; Alice von Whoever was tragic. Spurned by Ashton, she married or cohabited again and again, adopting each time the preoccupation of her husband or lover. (Philip Harding was a Communist, so she became one, too.) Through it all, she remained faithful to Ashton by becoming an outstanding patron of ballet, both in London and in New York. Their lifelong friendship was shattered by her mysterious death, in 1956.

David Pleydell-Bouverie, because he sponged off Alice and mistreated her, is one of only two people whom Kavanagh regards with scorn. The other is Robert Helpmann, notwithstanding his talent as an actor and mime. Helpmann's monstrous egotism brought out the querulous, hysterical streak in Ashton, and, while Kavanagh recognizes that their backbiting and rivalizing "fuelled their most famous interpretations," in "Cinderella," and "helped to generate a masterpiece," "Symphonic Variations," she basically doesn't enjoy the spectacle of their backstage relationship and blames Helpmann for it. The side of Ashton's homosexuality that she responds to is the erotic side—the passionate, anguished, vulnerable side of Ashton in love.

At the same time that Ashton was being pursued by importunate women, he was pursuing the elusive young Michael Somes. An Adonis even by ballet standards, Somes was, as it turned out, not very gay and not very kind. He kept Ashton palpitating while he himself sought out young women. His romance with the dancer Pamela May broke Ashton's heart. But, as Kavanagh points out repeatedly, Ashton needed to be brokenhearted: the drama of unfulfilled desire stimulated his imagination as did nothing else, and he chased unattainable men all his life. Somes was not the first, although he may have been the one whose unattainability brought Ashton his first large experience of creative frustration. Out of unrequited passion for Somes came the choreographer's greatest period of growth, the decade beginning with "Le Baiser de la Fée," in 1935, interrupted by the war, and crowned by the première of "Symphonic Variations," in 1946.

During this period, the frivolity vanished from Ashton's life and from his world. His mother's death, the war, and Somes combined to create in him a more sombre outlook and sense of responsibility. Just as he was beginning to explore the metaphysical side of bullet—the only choreographer apart from Balanchine to do so—the war broke out, and he was inducted into the Royal Air Force, at the age of thirty-six. Ashton's military service brought him frustration of a different sort. As an intelligence officer who "didn't know the front from the back of an [English] aeroplane—let alone a German one," Ashton was forced to while away the war, dreaming of ballets he couldn't stage, agonized at the thought of Helpmann, who had escaped the draft, getting to be the mainstay of the Sadler's Wells, instituting changes, even daring to choreograph.

Ashton's return to power after the war, the restoration of the opera house at Covent Garden, with the Sadler's Wells company taking up residency there, and the opening performance of "The Sleeping Beauty" (broadcast on the radio) have been enshrined among the ballet legends of our time, along with the company's glowing New York début, three years later. Behind these events lies the curious tale of Ashton's infatuation with Dick Beard, a young American dancer with Ballet Theatre. During that company's London season in 1946, Ashton spotted Beard in the corps of "Pillar of Fire," the Antony Tudor ballet starring Nora Kaye. He mentioned Beard to Kaye, and Kaye, who thought Ashton the world's preëminent ballet genius (where this left Tudor, the creator of Kaye's greatest roles and at one time Ashton's most formidable competitor, is a question worth pondering), agreed to be his go-between. Kaye not only worshipped Ashton's genius; she was in love with him. This love of hers, she wrote him from New York, "will very likely be the great tragedy of my life. And as I am resigned at last to the inevitability of unrequited frustration, I am campaigning to at least make your life a full one. I am very chummy with Dick at this point and have talked him into the 'wonder' of you—a sacrifice, for I fully realize the outcome."

The lengths to which Kaye was willing to go in order to perform her sacrificial service of maneuvering Beard into Ashton's clutches are no less remarkable than Ashton's calculating use of her—and of Beard, then only twenty. This entire Jamesian episode is narrated by Kavanagh with the help of the Ashton-Beard letters, which lay bare Ashton's seduction strategy in all its aspects—charming, desperate, devious, full of rococo appeals to glorious youth from desiccated middle age. Ashton is firing up his creative engines. It is not surprising to learn that among the ballets of this fertile period, running from the "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales," which he dedicated to Beard, through "Scènes de Ballet" and "Cinderella," to "Illuminations" (done for New York City Ballet, where Beard had landed), there was a "Don Juan," short-lived and, according to reviewers, strangely unemotional. Ashton may have known himself to be a cold-blooded Don. Though the temperature of the letters themselves is not cold, he performs so many verbal acrobatics and indulges so many conceits (Kavanagh compares him to an Elizabethan sonneteer) that one almost suspects him of keeping up the correspondence for its own sake—for the feelings it releases and the images it engenders. Beard's absence in New York lets Ashton idealize him to the point of idolatry, yet there is always a fine duplicitous edge to Ashton's fancies:

You live now in my imagination, absorbing it and though you are miles away you are always with me. As I create my new ballet you are at my side, encouraging, dissuading what is wrong, approving what is good (I hope) and when we return to my little room you are tender to me and loving, for I am tired and preoccupied and I feel that flow of your affection and you refresh me.

Not since Adolphe Menjou's pitch to Ginger Rogers in "Stage Door" ("I'm just a tired little boy with a dream") has there been such self-regarding tosh; it Hatters the man who writes it as much as the boy who reads it. But Ashton's letters are also prime documents of the artist's craving for an erotic attachment, an anchoring in the real world which will validate his efforts and make them all the more real to him. Kavanagh calls this a need for creative complicity. Whether it was actually satisfied by the men to whom Ashton gave his trust, and whether it could ever have been satisfied to the extent that Ashton wanted, matters less than Ashton's faith in its possibilities. It was this faith that kept him working.

And it was, at bottom, indistinguishable from religious faith. Out of God's creation, the beautiful man, comes the beauty of art. Ashton writes to Beard, "I think that it is so wonderful that you who are so beautiful want to use your beauty to make more beauty to inspire beauty and spread beauty from out of your being." Ashton never married, never lived with any of his loves. It was, I think, because he could profit more from the poetic vision than from the all too prosaic reality. He didn't mind their looking after him; in fact, he required it. (His favorite song was "Someone to Watch Over Me.") But the marriage contracts he longed most to sign had an escape clause—for them, not for him. What he could not possess, because it remained immanent in nature, he loved all the more.

Just as Dick Beard didn't need to be physically present in order to inspire Ashton, other men didn't need to be dancers. When I said that the existence of the secret muses would surprise no one who knew the ballets, I meant that one could tell from the choreography for Somes or Alexander Grant that Ashton was mad about the boy—and about boys in general. I would not, though, have suspected Brian Shaw; his short, chunky physique was not what one thought of as Ashtonian, and on the stage he wasn't sexy. Nor would there have been any way of knowing about the chemistry student (1960–64)—even Grant didn't know about him—or the interior decorator (1965–86), although the latter's influence was the most lasting and intrusive of Ashton's life. Intrusive because, unlike Balanchine's late passion, Suzanne Farrell, the interior decorator, Martyn Thomas, had no real business in Ashton's professional life or, indeed, in ballet. Kavanagh writes, "Some colleagues were alarmed by Thomas's increasing power over Ashton, and it was not only pillow talk about castings that caused concern. This confident, freespirited young man, in shocking-pink trousers and Mr. Fish shirts—a living emblem of the Swinging Sixties—was now influencing the ballets themselves."

It must be said that by this time Ashton's creativity was on the wane. Despite Kavanagh's assertion that "Martyn Thomas was a life force whose influence in the final phase of [Ashton's] career proved as intoxicating and rejuvenating as Nureyev's had been for Fonteyn," only one great ballet remained for Ashton to create after 1966—"Enigma Variations." I cannot make the claims for "A Month in the Country" that Kavanagh does, or for "Marguerite and Armand," the Fonteyn-Nureyev vehicle that was a big popular hit in 1963. First of all, both works are adapted from plays and not from music (unlike "The Dream," adapted from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which was a play with music). They lake their chief interest from their subject matter, something that Ashton himself had warned against: "Since when are 'subjects' the all-important matter of works of art. [You] may as well say Chardin was a bad artist because he painted cabbages." Ashton's cabbages are the tender trifles, like "The Two Pigeons," on which he lavished some of his most felicitous invention, and the abstract ballets that he made in the teeth of Ninette de Valois's objection that abstraction was "a bore": "Symphonies," "Scènes de Ballet," and "Monotones"—ballets in which subject matter is totally dissolved in form, and his art is at its purest.

But even when the ballets are not abstract they have a life of their own which discourages us from reading the plot summaries in the printed program or wanting to know about the choreographer's private life. We do not refrain from "reading" a ballet because it is wrong; we refrain because it is futile. Kavanagh gets the matter exactly right in a reflective passage that goes to the heart of her book: "Does the knowledge that the Young Girl in 'The Two Pigeons' is a reincarnation of the male chemistry student with whom [Ashton] was infatuated really add a valuable new dimension to the ballet's achingly sweet reconciliation duet? If anything, it is a distraction, diminishing the work's power of suggestion, the raison d'être of dance." The extent to which Kavanagh can draw on inside knowledge in "Marguerite and Armand" and "A Month in the Country" without distracting us from Ashton's intention is the extent to which the raison d'être of dance is missing in these works, leaving them little more than effective pieces of theatre. "Marguerite and Armand" (from "Camille") functions as a dance transcription of the effective piece of theatre it was to begin with, but "A Month in the Country" is an actual reduction. It does no harm to the ballet that Ashton made of Turgenev's play to suggest that Natasha is "really" Ashton himself. And I now understand why Anthony Dowell, whose role is the best thing in the ballet, had to appear as a blond—because Martyn Thomas had bleached his hair. Kavanagh even points out how Ashton manipulated Turgenev's characters to tighten the correspondences that he found between the play and his life. Like "Robert Schumann's 'Davids-bündlertänze,'" a less than major but a key Balanchine work, Ashton's "A Month in the Country" is thinly disguised autobiography. Significantly, both masters waited until the end of their lives before attempting such a thing.

"Enigma Variations" (which may, as a turnabout, have influenced "Davidsbündlertänze") is about the loneliness of Elgar. Isn't it also disguised autobiography? I would say no, or no more than that other depiction of the artist's life "Le Baiser de la Fée," which Balanchine also choreographed in the thirties. If it is true, as Kavanagh says, that the affinity between Ashton and Elgar is profound, the affinity between Ashton and Balanchine is more so. Kavanagh underplays it, but her book revealed it to me and forced me to think it through.

Although Ashton was the younger man by only eight months, he seems to have studied Balanchine's work and learned more from it (and perhaps also from Balanchine's life) than anyone else ever did. He never acknowledged a debt—his obeisances were made to Nijinska. Balanchine's superiority came to be a sore point with Ashton. Kavanagh relegates to a footnote the review he wrote in 1964 of Bernard Taper's biography of Balanchine:

George Balanchine, a contemporary and colleague of mine, is the choreographer I most admire in the world. Balanchine has had all the necessary environment and background for the making of the great choreographer that he is. Unlike myself, who had to make all my opportunities from the beginning, and fight my way against every kind of prejudice, in order to be allowed to dance. He started as a child in the Maryinsky School where he received the best available tuition. He came from a musical family and all the Russian fairies must have gathered at his christening to bestow on him all his great gifts.

This Salieri-like tone of envy, so unworthy of Ashton, can only be understood in the context of the ballet controversies of the era. The debate over who was greater, Ashton or Balanchine, raged in New York as it never did in London. The London audience underrated Ashton, but it disdained Balanchine and New York City Ballet until the very last years of Balanchine's life. The New York audience, on the other hand, swept up Ashton and the Sadler's Wells/Royal Ballet as if they were conquering heroes. Balanchine's company was considered dowdy, Balanchine himself an eccentric. However, as Ashton was well aware, higher opinion in New York (I do not mean the press) was all pro-Balanchine.

Besides this, the two men were not good friends—choreographers never are, probably because they are self-taught craftsmen, unable to accept each other's way of doing things. I cannot believe that Balanchine ever thought Ashton unprofessional, as someone in Kavanagh's book says, but that he frowned on Ashton's weakness for camp and his inability to read music I can believe. One sometimes hears it said that the Royal Ballet would be a stronger company today if Ashton had gone into the classroom and taught, as Balanchine did. This ignores the decline of Balanchine's own company, and, besides, Ashton probably thought that he didn't know enough to teach. (Jacques d'Amboise, when asked by Kavanagh to compare the two choreographers' methods of working, said, "Balanchine gave us a count and a step for every note. Fred didn't give steps, he gave ideas—he would say to me, 'Swirl!' and Balanchine would say, 'Chainé.'") That Ashton was as successful as he was probably puzzled and rankled Balanchine; he may also have realized how much he had contributed to Ashton's artistic persona. He once told Ashton, in front of Tanquil LeClercq, that there was one thing he, Balanchine, had learned from him. LeClercq expected it to be something about choreography or the management of ballerinas—or even rose growing, which the two men had in common. But Balanchine only said, "You taught me always to pile up the dinner dishes in the sink and run water over them before your charwoman arrived."

That both men were women's choreographers was probably another source of friction. It is dumbfounding today to think that this bias was held against them; it could only have been considered a problem in an era when male dancers were scarce and in need of special attention. And it isn't really true that Ashton and Balanchine weren't interested in men. Ashton believed, with Auden, that action was the name of the masculine principle, and many of the roles he created for men had precisely that quality, especially when the men had strong technique. It's as if he wished to characterize the condition of virtuosity rather than leave it a blank for the virtuoso to fill, as Balanchine would have done. I also found Ashton's roles for women a little too high-pitched in allegro. Again, character color appeared where Balanchine would have been transparent. Ashton's pigment was more tainted than Balanchine's, his sense of style more obtrusive. But the biggest difference between the two choreographers was the emphasis that Ashton gave to the female upper body and Balanchine to the lower. Balanchine thought that a woman's expressive power was mainly in her legs and pelvis, Ashton in her head, upper back, and shoulders (those Peruvian women in their carriages). This, more than any use or nonuse of men, betrayed their sexual orientation.

Both men believed in ballet as a vision of transcendence. For the sake of this vision, both would undergo tortures of sublimation. But Balanchine attempted the vision continually, Ashton only sporadically. Both men were initiated into the glory and mystery of ritual in their childhoods—Balanchine in the Russian Orthodox Church, Ashton in the Lima cathedral, where he was taken by his nurse, and where as an altar boy he later served Mass. Though not a Catholic, he faithfully lit a candle in the Brompton Oratory at the start of work on every ballet. My own favorite Ashton ballets are the divine Satie trios, "Monotones," and the two pastorals, "La Fille Mal Gardée" and "Enigma Variations," one comic, the other elegiac. Absolute desert-island favorite: "Fille," with its ribbon-woven, lovers'-knot choreography. In the midst of a sunny rustic comedy, Ashton finds a place for ritual.

Kavanagh names the United States as "the country he loved more than any other and which he felt loved him as much in return." The second part of that sentence is the more plausible. Ashton would never have left England once it became clear to him how indispensable he was to the development of a national ballet and how seriously it was threatened by the war. By the end of the thirties, his fate was sealed. He did not join the gay evacuees Tudor and Laing, branded traitors by the British, along with Auden and Isherwood. Somes's statement that Ashton "was as patriotic to his company as he was to his country" rests on evidence that can be found in the art as well as in the life. England nurtured Ashton; in its salubrious resistance to his efforts he found the counterpart to sweet adversity in love. Having to court recalcitrant publics was the making of both Ashton and Balanchine; feeling underappreciated drove them deeper into their art.

When I first began attending ballet performances, I was struck by the gulf that existed between what was said by knowledgeable people during intermission and what was said in print. The tendency now in all the arts to bridge that gulf is not altogether a good thing. In place of hypocrisy, we have the new Philistinism that equates privileged information with revelation. Secret Muses is a corrective: it takes inflammable personal material and recomposes it into the justly proportioned commonsensical stuff of legitimate biography.

Mindy Aloff (essay date 10 November 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of his long career in the theater (which began rather late, at age 18, with ballet classes from Léonide Massine) he retained indelible memories of the dazzlingly stylish women on Lima's boulevards, of the public religious processions, and of the melancholy songs of his half-Inca nurse, which—as Julie Kavanagh recounts in her new life of Ashton—he recalled into old age.

Ashton's off-stage life was, from childhood, sexually complex, emotionally turbulent, and socially ranging. Yet even as he became an increasingly jaded critic of individuals, he demonstrated an innocent's captivation with feminine beauty, with grand public ceremony, and with societal allure. His ballets founded one fairytale kingdom after another—sometimes obviously, in ballroom settings, sometimes indirectly, as in the happy barnyard and farmhouse of what may be his wittiest and most ebullient work, La Fille mal gardée (1960).

By the end of his life, Ashton was ensconced literally among royalty. Shortly before his death in 1988, he found himself performing "a sort of mock belly dance" with the 88-year-old Queen Mother at a party during a week-long visit to Sandringham. His ballets contain few kings and queens as such; but when Ashton chose to portray them wearing crowns, he did so seriously and with unshadowed appreciation. But then, as a choreographer and, later, as the director of the Royal Ballet, he was entrenched in issues of governance and autocratic power. One can hardly oversee the making of ballets, and certainly not the day-to-day continuity of an entire ballet company, without pondering issues of private passion and public obligation, or of how to keep a kingdom stable against threats from without or, more difficult, dissension within.

Like Balanchine, Ashton had to wrestle with certain brutal facts: ballet, which is only good when it is great, is necessarily a meritocracy. By virtue of its physical challenges, it demands young bodies, and by virtue of its musical and allusive complexities, it demands old wisdom. Also like Balanchine, Ashton looked back to Petipa and Ivanov as his models, which meant that he was committed to the ballerina as the centerpiece of classical power. This, despite the fact that when Ashton woke up in bed with someone, that someone was usually a man. Kavanagh recounts his life exhaustively. To have been able to construct fantasy kingdoms ruled over by women while in the throes of love affairs with men was one of Ashton's triumphs, attesting to the strength of his devotion to classical ballet's tradition and technique. As Jerome Robbins said of Balanchine, who was able more easily to bring his emotional impulses and his artistic impulses together by marrying his ballerinas, Ashton's most enduring marriage was to ballet itself.

Within that marriage, Ashton's luck among women was nothing short of sensational. At the age of 12, he saw Anna Pavlova dance in The Fairy Doll, and for the rest of his life she served him as the mother of all muses, prompting even Margot Fonteyn to say that "I always felt that Fred was seeing Pavlova and that I wasn't living up to her by any means." (Pavlova also predicted his success as a choreographer.) Like Balanchine, he saw Isadora Duncan perform late into her career, but fate permitted Ashton to recognize what was great about her, and to draw on those qualities of musicality and headstrong emotion over the full course of his career. His own initial ambitions as a choreographer were fondly and fertilely encouraged by Marie Rambert, who commissioned ballets from him for the Ballet Club at the Mercury Theater; by Bronislava Nijinska, who took him on as her student of classical technique and her apprentice in choreography while he performed for the Ida Rubinstein company in Paris during the late 1920s, where Nijinska was the resident choreographer; by the designer Sophie Fedorovitch, his longtime soulmate and colleague; by Lydia Lopokova, a former ballerina with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, who, with her husband John Maynard Keynes and a handful of other intellectuals, among them the blisteringly brilliant conductor Constant Lambert, sponsored Ashton's choreography for the Camargo Society; and by the American-born millionairess Alice von Hofmannsthal, who introduced him to international high society, fell in love with him and, for a time, was his lover.

Ashton's long, generally productive, but frequently barbed relationship with Ninette de Valois, the indomitable founder of what was to become known as The Royal Ballet, can also be looked on in a positive light, since his clashes with de Valois seem to have strengthened his own sense of what he wanted from ballet. Kavanagh doesn't exactly indict de Valois for Ashton's forced retirement as the Royal's director in 1970, a position that he had taken over from de Valois in 1963, and in which he had served with high distinction: expanding the Petipa repertory, burnishing and expanding the Balanchine wing, overseeing the company's absorption of Rudolph Nureyev, bringing in Nijinska to stage her masterpieces Les Noces and Les Biches, bringing in the long-shunned Antony Tudor to make his first ballet, Shadowplay, for the Royal, as well as turning out some of the greatest ballets of his own career, among them a pristine staging of Satie (Monotones), a Victorian valentine to Mendelssohn by way of Shakespeare (The Dream), and a lambent homage to Elgar (Enigma Variations). Still, Kavanagh uses secondhand gossip to plant the idea that de Valois was the evil demon of the plan, which, from Ashton's point of view in later years, she was. This treatment of de Valois is one of the points in Secret Muses where Kavanagh is, in effect, attempting to prove that her biography is on Ashton's side. Given the murky nature of most theatrical feuds, however, one is advised to proceed to her conclusion with caution. De Valois, who is in her hundredth year, contests it.

Kavanagh's title can be interpreted, on one level, to mean those figures in Ashton's love life—most yet not all of them dancers, most yet not all of them men—who inspired the emotional and dramatic trajectories of his choreography. On another level, however, it can be interpreted to refer to his very way of thinking: to the secret signs of beauty and hope that characterize romance. And on another level it can be interpreted to mean all his sources of inspiration, which, to a new audience of balletgoers and readers, are secret in that they are no longer in the public eye, or topics in the gossip columns, or ready frames of reference in the theater.

For anyone under 40 who attended the Royal's production of Ashton's two-act Cinderella at the Met during the company's exciting visit to New York this past summer, Margot Fonteyn, the most frequently discussed proponent of the ballet's title role during Ashton's lifetime, would be a secret muse. A critic such as myself—who, of the two Cinderellas I saw, far preferred Darcey Bussell—cannot rely on memories of Fonteyn's shapely acting and her dramatically nuanced dancing to make the case as to why Bussell seemed generous and illuminating, while Leann Benjamin, a limpid dancer, seemed to come to the character cold. One must begin one's statement of appreciation as if Fonteyn never existed, which, for much of the sold-out houses at the performances I attended, she doesn't. To hold a memory of Ashton's casts under Ashton's direction is indeed to be a keeper of secrets.

For a ballet master who did not regularly teach technique class (he appears to have lacked the scientific zest required for it), Ashton was very lucky in his ballerinas. They included Alicia Markova, Tamara Karsavina, Alexandra Danilova, Moira Shearer, Pamela May, Beryl Grey, Svetlana Beriosova, Antoinette Sibley, and Lynn Seymour. In at least one respect, in fact, he was luckier than Balanchine: in addition to being able to work with many ballerinas of distinction, Ashton was also able to rely on a prima ballerina absolute for three entire decades. Margot Fonteyn was the protégée of both Ashton and de Valois who recognized her potential well before he did.

For transcontinental theatergoers in the '40s, '50s, and '60s—as for Ashton's own dancers during that time—Fonteyn was more than Ashton's principal public muse and the standard-bearer of English classical style. She was something close to the spiritual queen of England, encapsulating the qualities of beauty, decorum, warmth, modesty, high spirits and nobility that marked the culture of the Edwardian period at its best—that is, the culture of Ashton's mother's youth, to which he continually turned in his work. Ashton crystallized this image of Fonteyn in 1953, when, on the occasion of the coronation of Elizabeth II he made a ballet called Homage to the Queen, in which Fonteyn as Queen of the Air, was granted the prestigious crowning entrance, then lifted high over a living tableau formed by the crops, with her sister Queens—of the Waters, of Fire and of the Earth—saluting her from the corners of the stage.

Unlike most historical queens, Fonteyn got to triumph as a princess, too, in her incandescent performance as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Yet it was in the role of Odette, Queen of the Swans, that Fonteyn most fully articulated an ideal of monarchical authority. In 1963, Ashton rechoreographed the ballet's last act to spell this out. The heart of it is a passage in which Odette leads her flock away from the lake to safeguard them against von Rothbart's vehemence, guiding them, line by line, to safety. After each of these missions, she breaks off to comfort the figure of the stricken Siegfried, touching him each time with more enveloping tenderness and ardor. This is a queen of dreams, who attempts to rescue everyone according to his or her specific need, racing against the clock to provide now passion, now compassion. Alas, there is no one to mother her; the closest mother surrogate she has is the lake itself, formed of her dead mother's tears—the lake in which she and Siegfried merge.

If there is a more poignant emblem in ballet for the profound loneliness attendant on, and the emotional stamina required by, the position of full artistic responsibility, I should like to know it. For many dancegoers, Fonteyn's Odette has remained the standard of what a queen might be: at once fully vulnerable, an incarnation of beauty, and a student of Clausewitz. In a recent issue of Ballet Review Wendy Ellis, a notator of Ashton's ballets, is quoted as saying about this elegiac tone poem: "My father, who doesn't know anything about ballet, used to wait for the last act because he said it was the most magical thing he had ever seen."

Ellis's father appears to belong to a vanishing race of theatergoers. A new generation tends to treat the performing arts with a wariness about being suckered in that sometimes approaches cynicism, and an impulse to analyze and to "demystify" images in order to prove that they really add up to tricks of the theater, or to nothing. This has made for smart commentary, yet in its defiant disillusion it has also contributed to the decline of magic in ballet-making, especially the kind of necromancy in which Ashton excelled, where the very minutiae of geometrical formations, of up-beats and downbeats, of épaulement (carriage of the shoulders) and positions of the fingers, trail specific allusions and describable lyric suggestions, or, rather, secrete them: for instance, the moment at the end of another Fonteyn vehicle, Scènes de ballet, when most of the cast arrange themselves downstage in an architectural formation while, in an upstage corner, the ballerina stands on the thigh of her kneeling cavalier in a cameo quotation from Swan Lake.

Scènes de ballet, reportedly Ashton's favorite among all his works, is an impersonal syllogism of the Cecchetti brand of classical technique that he learned from Massine, Rambert, and Nijinska. (This rigorously structured and minutely classified pedagogy—on whose steps, phrasing, and postures Ashton drew throughout his career—is notable for its strict observance of ballet's five positions, for its textbook deportment, for its astonishingly faceted petit allegro vocabulary, and for the braided tensions it produces in the dancing body, giving it the look of late Hellenistic sculpture.) Like some of Nijinska's own classical ballets, Scènes is curiously inscrutable in its tone. Yet its references to the flowering of nineteenth-century Russian ballet, veined with courtliness and torrentially romantic love stories, lend it the shadow of depth. To my eyes, its style is emphatically artificial, with limbs changing position and heads rotating to correlate with the mathematics of Stravinsky's score, rather than to follow through physical impulses, as in an actual old classic.

And there are more puzzles. The costumes (by Ashton) are post-World War II glamour; the atmosphere, owing to André Beaurepaire's uncomfortably dark décor, is menacing. And yet the choreography, oddly stiff as it seems, bespeaks a language of sacred love. Scènes de ballet has remained in the Royal's repertory, a useful challenge in its technical terms alone; yet it is one of the rare Ashton works to have lasted which docs not emotionally reveal itself on the sheer basis of its performances. Why was Ashton so delighted with it? What did he hope an ideal audience would see? (At its premiere, even the critics in his corner found the work cool, off-putting.)

A work such as Ashton's last act of Swan Lake, which is purely wonderful, does not require explanations. It is the puzzlement engendered by something such as Scènes de ballet that drives a dancegoer to the bookshelf, where the Ashton section now contains two indispensable volumes: Kavanagh's book, and Frederick Ashton and His Ballets by David Vaughan, which appeared twenty years ago. (A revised and expanded edition of it will be published by Dance Books in London next year.) Although both books cover the same career, more or less, and sometimes overlap in their sources—Kavanagh's biography would not have been possible without Vaughan's pathbreaking research, as she notes—the stories that they tell, the information that they impart, and the conclusions that they draw are so polemically unlike that to read merely one is less than to read neither.

Consider their treatments of the Scènes de ballet of 1948. Vaughan, a native of England who began to follow Ashton's work in the 1930s, saw the original production. "At first Fonteyn seemed ill at ease in the ballerina role," he writes, "a situation that was always betrayed by her adoption of a rather glassy, fixed smile, but as she grew in authority in the great classic roles she began to understand this one and to grasp that its essential quality was elegance rather than mere chic." Although Vaughan's discussion of the work's sources is far more extensive (including an account from Ashton of his interest in Euclid at the time that underwrote the spatial configuration of the dance patterns), his distinction between "elegance" and "chic" captures not only what Ashton intended about the effect of Scènes but also Vaughan's reason for devoting himself to a scrupulous choreographic biography in the first place.

Vaughan wrote his book for audiences in the United States, where the Royal's Ashton repertory was well-received on the whole yet was also called into question by some formidable voices for what was deemed a disfiguring streak of frivolity in Ashton's character. The comparison, always unfavorable for Ashton, was with Balanchine. Ashton once compared himself with Balanchine in print and peevishly arrived at the same conclusion. Unlike Balanchine, he did not read music; he did not study ballet as a child (a real disadvantage, since ballet technique is best absorbed while young), and his working process required the dancers to contribute to the generation of steps through improvisation, which Ashton would then reshape and edit. Balanchine, whose interest in the ballet vocabulary was a separate, ineluctable fascination from his interest in any particular performer, and even from his understanding of music, was, by all accounts, much more decisive than Ashton in matters of dance action. The result was that he made many more ballets (over 400 to Ashton's nearly 150), and many more of the ballets that he made were what the late Dale Harris called "dancer-proof," that is, longevity in repertory is not entirely dependent on the original casts.

Vaughan's book sets out to show, however, that if one studies the Ashton oeuvre carefully, the sensibility that produced the better part of it is of the highest aesthetic refinement; and that a vast cultural knowledge underlies even an Ashton bauble or showpiece. In his chapter on Scènes, Vaughan emphasizes that Ashton's obsession with Euclid served a larger—and, for ballet choreographers, a more profound—allegiance to Petipa; the quotes from the Petipa-Ivanov ballets were cues to the audience that this was Ashton's essay about the older master's methods of composition, his elements of structure, and his aesthetic priorities. Although Vaughan was evidently versed in secondhand gossip concerning Ashton's off-stage life, he did not follow that up in the book, nor did Ashton encourage him to. "He is, as one very quickly learns, a very private person, not given to intimate revelation," Vaughan wrote in his foreword. "For this reason, and because I believe that a desire for privacy should be respected, those who look for gossip or possibly scandalous speculation will not find it here."

A distinction is being made between the facts of Ashton's life and the fantasies of his ballets, and it gives a reader pause. Vaughan discusses a great deal of sensitive sexual imagery in the course of his analysis of the choreography—he is no prude—but he also operates intellectually from the premise that choreography, like other arts, is a complicated, synthesizing endeavor of symbolic logic whose origins in life do not need to be known in order for the work to communicate in the theater—indeed, whose origins in life may not ever be fully known, even by the choreographer. If one wishes to learn what matters in the psyche and personality of the creator in order to enrich one's comprehension and enjoyment of the art, one studies the processes and the products of creation. The rest is voyeurism.

Kavanagh's book has been written under new circumstances. She is a British ballet critic who met Ashton in 1984 and became his friend, conversing frequently with him and his acquaintances toward the prospect of a biography until his death in 1988. Although Ashton apparently opened up to her in a way he did not do to Vaughan, he was also, she says, "a recalcitrant subject," and early on he broke off their friendship for "almost a year," believing that she had betrayed him by publishing a confidence in an interview. With candor, she speaks of Ashton's declared ambivalence at handing over to her anecdotes that could, in a biography written reductively or meanly, compromise his public prestige as an artist.

After his death, she decided to continue with her project, and she was evidently trusted by many people who loved him, gaining access to his papers and eliciting detailed personal information in interviews, as well as some of Ashton's vulnerable letters. Indeed, it is to the families of Ashton and some of his muses that she extends her most grateful acknowledgments. Kavanagh spent a decade on this book, and consulted a host of authorities. Like Vaughan's book, Secret Muses represents an unimpeachable commitment to the subject. Kavanagh's dance information is never better then Vaughan's, and frequently it is less satisfactory in twice the space; but her portrait of Frederick Ashton, a human being who happened to choreograph, constitutes a standard against which other ballet biographies will be measured.

Kavanagh tenders a painstakingly argued justification for shining a posthumous lantern on matters that Ashton sought to hide. Ashton, she argues, was a genius of a specific kind. "For me," she explains, "the most important discovery of writing Ashton's biography has been the extent to which his life generated his work. His genius was subjective, he lived by his heart and imbued his work with the sense of yearning and suffering that he himself experienced 'I pour into it all my love, my frustration and sometimes autobiographical details…. In many ways, it has more reality than the life which I live.'" The ballet she proposes, was not only Ashton's principal wife; it was principally his life. This is not the case for every choreographer. Indeed, it is quite rare. Balanchine, tempered as a teenager in the crucible of the Russian Revolution, and chastened by a year in a sanitorium, recovering from the loss of a lung to tuberculos, knew that even when he had to give up studying ballet to forage for food in sub-zero temperatures, he could survive. Ashton's consecration to ballet seems closer to a performer's identification with his or her own art. In this essential way, he reminds one of Pavlova, who danced until she died.

Ashton was not initially a choreographer by choice, despite his gifts for it. He wanted to be a dancer, and began to explore the making of dances only when it became clear that he had started his training too late to meet his own standards of performing excellence. From a few films of his dancing during the 1930s that have miraculously been saved, one can see that he had everything necessary to be a marvelous dancer: the coordination, the intuitive kinetic taste, the amazing talent for mimicry (equivalent to an actor's ear for accents), the humility, and, most of all, the appetite. Everything but those blunt yet fundamental elements of execution, such as full turnout of the legs, that early childhood training would have given him.

Ashton's wound as a child at his father's impenetrable opposition to ballet study seems never to have healed, even partially. He died with the idea that his father was a monster, and his fans have been led to adopt that idea as well. One of the great coups of Kavanagh's biography is her independent curiosity about the motivations of George Ashton, the pursuit of which led her to travel to South America. The research that brings her to discuss him as a complex individual, to humanize him as his son never could, is a gift to both men, as well as to the history of ballet. (Kavanagh speculates that George Ashton "was a romantic, a fantasist, who, without a creative outlet into which to channel his visions, had fictionalized his own life." She sums up his characteristically grim moods as a form of melancholia, and it was so severe it led him to take his own life.)

Kavanagh's discussion of Scènes de ballet shows up in the chapter entitled "Mr A Obsessed with Mr B," a chronicle of the years 1947–1950. The title, a Tiffany diamond of compression, refers to two relationships of Ashton's during that time. Most obviously, we are meant to think of Mr. A(shton)'s sense of inadequacy in comparison with Mr. B(alanchine). During these years, the choreographers were in relatively sustained contact. It was Scènes de ballet that led Balanchine to invite Astiton to choreograph for Ballet Society—an invitation that Ashton would later return when, in 1950, he helped to bring over Balanchine to set Ballet Imperial at Covent Garden. Balanchine hadn't even seen Scènes, which was given its premiere in London; he extended his offer based on secondhand accounts (one of them Lincoln Kirstein's, who wanted to import Scènes itself). Ashton's use of a score by Stravinsky may also have piqued Balanchine's interest. Ashton was proud of his staging of the score, remarking in a letter that "many people rave about it and say it's the best I've done, which I think, and Stravinsky's son adores it."

And also embedded in Kavanagh's chapter title is a reference to Ashton's love affair at the time with a much younger American dancer named Dick Beard. Kavanagh's biographical method puts pressure on this figure to serve as a secret muse of Scènes, although in a purely romantic rather than a specifically sexual sense. At the time Scènes was choreographed in London, Beard was in New York. The two corresponded, but an ocean separated them, and so the love that they protested was chivalric, despite its erotic expression in their letters. There may be an emotional allegory in the work; if so, it would be most complicated. According to Kavanagh, Ashton cast one or two other lovers as actual performers in it and embellished the geometry with static images of male love. These are not emphasized as such; they are sculptural postures, whose potential meanings cohere for those who care to seek them. The choreographic relationships, then, become a virtual cat's cradle of complexity, clarified only by the straightforward obeisance of all the male dancers to the ballerina Fonteyn.

On the other hand, since Kavanagh argues throughout Secret Muses that Ashton not only loved his ballerinas but also identified with them—that they were him, in effect—even this apparently simple paradigm of courtly devotion may be subject to reinterpretation. Does the ballet unnerve some audiences because of the quite Modernist sense it conveys that there is no final way to know it, no secret summation, no perfect vantage point from which all will coalesce into a revealing apothegm, as, in its very staging, the patterns are constructed so that anywhere can be the front? In that case, could it be that the road to appreciation of this unforthcoming yet fascinating Ashtonian experiment is the opportunity to see it periodically? After four decades in the repertory of the Royal Ballet, it has become a treasure for the balletgoers of London. Several generations have had the opportunity to learn how to look at it. They may not agree with the choreographer that it constitutes his best ballet of all, but they can accept it as an example of the highest stages of his craft.

So where does this leave Kavanagh's effort to get us to glimpse a connection between the cooling of Ashton's ardor toward Beard and the Arctic quality of the choreography—to whisper, in other words, that the tone of Scènes may in part be explained by biographical circumstances that have nothing directly to do with its creation? In the book's reflective afterword, she herself wonders, using a later Ashton ballet as a focus:

Does the knowledge that the Young Girl in The Two Pigeons is a reincarnation of the male chemistry student with whom [Ashton] was infatuated really add a valuable new dimension to the ballet's achingly sweet reconciliation duet? If anything, it is a distraction, diminishing the work's power of suggestion, the raison d'être of dance. It was this—the fear that exposure of the prosaic reality of the lived life would destroy the delicate subterfuge and poetry of his art—that, I believe, fuelled Fred's resistance far more than any sense of propriety. "Choreography is my whole being, my whole life, my reason for living," he once told an American journalist.

Her anxiety is even more profoundly revealed in the way that she has chosen to conclude the story. The last paragraphs of her last chapter about the life of Ashton quote from Fonteyn's tribute, written for his memorial service. It is possible to take what she says as ceremonial; but if one considers her words seriously, they question the rationale for writing an Ashton biography any longer than this passage:

As a man I see a paradox: on the one hand sophistication and finely developed taste in all things, yet on the other a very simple person at heart. One might expect a highly sophisticated person to make an effort to conceal some emotions. Not Ashton; like a child, if he was hurt, angry or even jealous he made no pretence. He was, above all, a very human human being, and for that, as much as for his extraordinary talents, he was beloved by all.

Achievements of the compass of Ashton's and Balanchine's are too big, too richly stocked, and too active to pin down entirely. They don't reduce; they renew. They have created art that has made us chuckle, and weep, and ponder, and thrill to unlimited vistas of possibility; and the miracle is that in the evanescent medium in which the artists labored the art has lived on after they, themselves, have vanished. They have been largely responsible for putting theatrical dancing on the map as a nerve center of civilization. To take the measure of their full capacity, you must go to the theater.

Ballets, under the direction of people who know them thoroughly and care about them, can live. Some of Balanchine's dancers have proved this by their recent stagings and coaching of the Balanchine repertory around the country; and Anthony Dowell, one of Ashton's greatest classicists on stage and the director of the Royal Ballet today, has made a case for the possibility with the Ashton repertory. With the right casts, well-played music, and the right designers in place—as, in New York, for La Valse and for the Bussell-Cope performance of Cinderella—these works can catch the imagination of new audiences and new dancers. Even Daphnis and Chloe, the most perishable of the works that the Royal danced at the Met a few months ago, because it is the most dependent on the translucency of character in its principals, as well as on their finesse as technicians—even this work can touch the heart and revive the sensibility, as it did with one of the casts I saw (Bruce Sansom and Miyako Yoshida). Ashton's luck really does seem inexhaustible. His Daphnis and Chloe is still rejuvenating dancers despite forty-six years of critical objections to its length, its costumes, and its structure, as well as several decades of lamentation that without its original cast it would never fly again. Well, it flies.

Dowell has announced that he intends to restage Ashton's 1961 setting of Stravinsky's Persephone, because he believes that it would teach something to the Royal's current group of dancers. Even Ashton's most loyal fans are surprised and curious. Persephone has come down to us as a kind of dividing line among Ashtonians, a ballet that, as Vaughan chronicles, critics deplored and artist adored. "A very noble ballet, Ashton in the fullness of his maturity," was de Valois's review, while Marie Rambert, who had witnessed nearly his entire body of work, thought it the best ballet he had made up to that time. Vaughan recounts that Persephone was performed twelve times during its first season, then three times the following year, and, when revived in 1967, eight more times. "Now presumably, it is lost," his 1977 book reads. Persephone! We'll see.

Previous

Introduction