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Frederick Ashton

Choreographer

Biography

Frederick Ashton in action.
Frederick Ashton as A Dago in Facade © Gordon Anthony/ROH 1953

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, among them La Fille mal gardée, Marguerite and Armand and Symphonic Variations.

Ashton was born in Ecuador to British parents. He first saw ballet when Anna Pavlova performed in Lima in 1917, later claiming 'from the end of that evening I wanted to dance'. In England Ashton was tutored by Leonid Massine and made his choreographic debut for Marie Rambert in 1926. After working with Rambert and Ida Rubinstein, in 1938 he was appointed principal choreographer of Vic-Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet) by Ninette de Valois. With De Valois Ashton played a crucial role in determining the course of the Company and The Royal Ballet School. In 1963 he took over from De Valois as Director of the Company and introduced several significant works, including Nijinska's Les Noces and Balanchine's Serenade, and commissioned MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. He retired in 1970 but continued to choreograph throughout his life, producing his last major work, Rhapsody, in 1980.

Ashton's style is distinctive for its épaulement (the way the head and shoulders are held) and fleet footwork. All are notable for their combination of elegance and breathtaking technical demands.

Videos

News and features

Britten and ballet: A surprisingly rich relationship

Britten and ballet: A surprisingly rich relationship

31 October 2014

Although he only created one full-length ballet, the composer had more to do with dance than you might think.

Watch: BBC Arts’ Frederick Ashton tribute films

Watch: BBC Arts’ Frederick Ashton tribute films

23 October 2014

Exclusive online films celebrate the choreographer and his work, and include his signature ‘Fred Step’ in super slow motion.

Your reaction: Ashton Mixed Programme 2014

Your reaction: Ashton Mixed Programme 2014

22 October 2014

Audience comments from the first night of works by Frederick Ashton, including Scènes de ballet and Symphonic Variations.

'Away from all the slander of the world': a letter from Frederick Ashton in the ROH Collections

'Away from all the slander of the world': a letter from Frederick Ashton in the ROH Collections

21 October 2014

In this 1948 letter to dancer Richard Beard, Ashton discusses the creative process behind Scènes de ballet.

Frederick Ashton Mixed Programme Dance highlight: The Fred Step

Frederick Ashton Mixed Programme Dance highlight: The Fred Step

17 October 2014

The choreographer’s signature appears in nearly all his ballets – but it's not always easy to spot.

5 things you need to know about The Royal Ballet's Ashton mixed programme

5 things you need to know about The Royal Ballet's Ashton mixed programme

6 October 2014

Our quick guide to Scènes de ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country.

Photos

Frederick Ashton

Clipping included with Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page 11 of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page ten of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page nine of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page eight of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page seven of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page six of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page five of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page four of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page three of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page two of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Page one of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Envelope of Frederick Ashton's letter to Richard Beard, 29 January 1948. Reproduced with permission of Anthony Russell Roberts

Frederick Ashton as A Dago in Facade © Gordon Anthony/ROH 1953

Alexandra Ansanelli as Ondine and Valeri Hristov as Palemon in Ondine. © Dee Conway / ROH 2008

Dame Monica Mason in Les Noces (1967) © Donald Southern/ROH 1967

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Royal Ballet in rehearsal ©ROH/Sim Canetty-Clarke 2012

Frederick Ashton as The Showman in Petrushka © Roger Wood/ROH 1957

Frederick Ashton as The Showman in Petrushka © Roger Wood/ROH 1957

A Gala Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton in celebration of his 80th Birthday, 18 October 1984 © Donald Southern/ROH 1984

Frederick Ashton on stage after A Gala Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton in celebration of his 80th Birthday, 18 October 1984 © Donald Southern/ROH 1984

Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton gala at the Royal Opera House to mark the retirement of Sir Frederick Ashton as Director of The Royal Ballet, 24 July 1970 © Donald Southern/ROH 2012

Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Frederick Ashton in rehearsal for Ondine © Roger Wood/ROH 1958

The 25th Anniversary of Sadler's Wells Ballet, 5 May 1956 Roger Wood © Roger Wood/ROH 1956

Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Frederick Ashton at the Silver Jubilee Gala. Photo © Donald Southern/ROHMargot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Frederick Ashton at the Silver Jubilee Gala. Photo Donald Southe© Donald Southern/ROH

Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann in rehearsals for Cinderella © Donald Southern/ROH 1948

Frederick Ashton as A Dago in Facade © Gordon Anthony/ROH 1953

Zenaida Yanowsky as Marguerite and Artists of The Royal Ballet in Marguerite and Armand © Tristram Kenton/ROH 2011

Fernando Montaño as the Jester in Cinderella © ROH / Tristram Kenton 2010