Anthony Russell-Roberts, nephew of Frederick Ashton and son of Ashton´s beloved sister, Edith, writes:-
Ashton, inspired by a youthful sighting of Pavlova in Lima, Peru, set out wanting to be the greatest dancer the world had ever known. He actually started quite late and always felt a twinge of failure that he ended on a different pinnacle, as one of the world´s truly great choreographers credited with creating the ‘English style’.
At home, he was a very private person, full of genuine and disarming humility, but equally possessing huge natural charisma and a powerful personality under a sensitive skin. Often on entering a room he changed the atmosphere in it. And who could forget his solo curtain calls when he literally breasted the wave of applause that greeted him, then used his arms regally to beckon further applause? Once at Covent Garden during a Royal Ballet rehearsal, a new fireman resolved to put an end to his habit of smoking in the stalls only to receive the ultimate putdown, ‘Don´t worry dear boy, I don´t inhale!’ Frequently when about to be assailed by an unwanted fan or would-be friend, he would say, ‘Watch me, I am invisible,’ and would sail past the astonished oncomer without a flicker of recognition.
My youthful remembrances
When I was young, it was his irresistible charm, his infectious wit and humour that was so seductive. He and my mother always had a real need to see each other. These sessions often started gravely enough, usually about personal problems in their lives, and would then progress through some of Fred´s renowned and deadly impersonations, including those he became inspired to try out for the first time, and would end with both of them in uncontrollable giggles. Their closeness was deep and necessary to each of them and was only dented momentarily when my mother heard that Fred´s simpering Ugly Sister in Cinderella was based on her!
It was as an entertainer that many remember him, whether at home among friends, or at dinner parties and society balls, or in royal circles. When amongst his closest friends and family, actual time meant nothing if he was having a good time. Lunch, even if ready to be served, could on occasion be mercilessly delayed by him until early evening, no matter how strong the representations from the unfortunate friend who had slaved away to cook a delicious meal. He was always indulged and forgiven because he had been so vivid and amusing. His lateness for Christmas turkey used to make my father seethe with silent rage, which was only made worse when Fred inevitably became the very life and soul of the party. He also had an unfailing ability to persuade close friends to drive him from London to Suffolk and back, to shop, to cook and to garden for him.
His love of the East Anglian countryside was heartfelt and an endless source of refreshment and inspiration. He was proud of being from Suffolk ‘Yeoman stock’, spiced by a youth spent in South America, where he was born and brought up until being sent to boarding school in England.
Throughout his life, he was wont to brood alone questioning his talent, once remarking near the end of his life that ‘My ballets begin to bore me, they are too long’. And that from the master of distillation and précis!
Although indolent by nature and fond of staying up till all hours so that he had to be winkled out of bed for class or rehearsal, he was deadly serious about his work and possessed an innate musicality which was recognized by Doctorates of Music from the Universities of London and Oxford.
He created more than one hundred ballets during his long life, many of which were early masterpieces that are long lost, because they were never filmed or notated. Most of the few early ballets that were filmed were of rehearsals and of poor recording quality. Nevertheless a substantial body of work is in active repertoire or capable of revival.
His exploration of human emotion through narrative, allied to an innate gift for comedy and pure abstraction, crafted always with unfailing musicality and economy of gesture, shows a unique breadth of vision that lingers in the mind of audiences.
His legacy still impacts on the dance community of today and will inform its future.
During the War Ashton served in the Royal Air Force as an Intelligence Officer because of his fear of flying, and immersed himself in literature and the works of Proust in particular.
I have always felt that a passage from ‘À la recherche du temps perdu’ encapsulates his artistic credo: ’Excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgement’.
Ashton´s will, like so much in his life, was elegant in its construction, in that he left 13 of his important ballets either to great friends or to those who had inspired him or who had been germane to their success.
As his nephew, I was fortunate to inherit his beautiful Suffolk home and the remaining ballets.
These ballets include Scenes de Ballets (the ballet he was most proud of having created), Sylvia, Birthday Offering, La Valse, Two Pigeons, Marguerite and Armand, Tales of Beatrix Potter, and Rhapsody as well as small choreographic gems such as Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, Meditation from Thais and Voices of Spring. A full list of works available for performance licence can be viewed on this website.
Frederick Ashton received a CBE in 1950 and was knighted in 1962. In 1970 he became a CH (Companion of Honour), and in 1977 was awarded an OM (Order of Merit), a select honour in the personal gift of The Queen. France admitted Ashton to the Legion d´Honneur in 1962 and Denmark made him a Commander of the Order of Dannebrog in 1963.
Recognition of his achievements within the dance world came in 1959 from The Royal Academy of Dancing, which gave him its Queen Elizabeth II award. In 1972 he received a Gold Medal from the Carina Aria Foundation in Sweden. He has honorary Doctorates of Letters from the Universities of Durham (1962) and East Anglia (1967), and Doctorates of Music from the Universities of London (1970) and Oxford (1976).