Ballet master, dancer, founding choreographer of the Royal Ballet Frederick Ashton (1904–88) was one of the most influential dance figures of the 20th century. In his work with the Company he developed the distinctive ‘English style’, and left a vast corpus of works that are regularly performed by The Royal Ballet and companies around the world.
Frederick Ashton was born in Guayaquil in Ecuador on 17 September 1904. He was brought up in Peru, and it was there, in 1917, that he saw his first ballet. He was enthralled by Anna Pavlova's performance, after which he decided to become the best dancer in the world.
At 15 he moved to England and went to Dover College. His first teacher was Leonid Massine, a famous dancer and choreographer with Serge Diaghilev company. However soon enough Massine left London and recommended his young apprentice to Marie Rambert, ballet tutor and dancer. It was she who convinced him of his potential as a choreographer, and he created his first piece, A Tragedy of Fashion to the music by Eugene Aynsley Goossens, where he also played the title role. Nevertheless, Ashton still wanted to pursue à dancing career, so he joined Ida Rubinstein’s company as a dancer and took lessons under Bronislava Nijinska.
After returning to London he joined Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club as choreographer (known as Rambert Dance Company before 2014). At the same time he started cooperating with another British ballet star, ballerina, choreographer and tutor Ninette de Valois. Since 1935 he had worked only with de Valois and her company Vic-Wells Ballet. He was appointed Chief Choreographer and kept this position in various guises for 35 years. Many of his most celebrated ballets date from his time with the company, as the Vic-Wells ballet, later Sadler's Wells Ballet and ultimately the Royal Ballet. His first production for this company Les Rendezvous with Daniel Auber’s music he staged with Alicia Markova. Later on, his attention switched to a young ballerina Margot Fonteyn – for her he created his famous ballets Daphnis et Chloé (1951), Ondine (1958), Marguerite and Armand (1962).
In 1941 Ashton’s career was disrupted by military service. His triumphant return to the ballet world in 1946 coincided with the company’s resettlement to Covent Garden (at the time entitled Sadler's Wells Ballet), where he staged Symphonic Variations to César Franck’s music. His first full scale ballet Cinderella (1948) was set to Sergei Prokofiev’s music. Later he staged Romeo and Juliet (1955), La fille mal gardée (1960), Enigma Variations (1968), A Month in the Country (1976) and many other. He also took part in creation of ballet films The Tales of Hoffmann (1950) and The Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971).
In 1952 he was appointed Associate Director of the company, then its Director and Ballet Master in 1963-1970. Recognition of his achievement came in 1959 from the Royal Academy of Dancing, which gave him its Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award. In 1962 he was knighted by the Queen Elizabeth II for his outstanding contribution to the English ballet culture. The same year Ashton was admitted to the Legion d’Honneur.
Total number of ballets staged by Frederick Ashton exceeds eighty, the majority of which are still included in the repertoire of dance companies around the world. The biggest of his last creations Rhapsody was staged for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lesley Collier in 1980. He died in his sleep on 19 August 1988 at his country home in Suffolk.