Ashton the Dancer
In the early nineteen-thirties, when Ballet Rambert, as Fred Ashton said at the time, was ‘the place to be’, he was their leading male dancer and remarkably good at the job too. This may be as hard to realise today as it is to discern the handsome face of the young Brahms through the photographs of the old man. But Ashton’s high standard was demonstrated by the way other dancers fought to stand behind him in class. Dancers learn roles and technique by imitating the back in front of them. Standing behind Ashton or Fonteyn in class may have been personally discouraging, but one did it in the hope that some of the magic would rub off.
When he started dancing, Fred had three pieces of luck (and without luck, dancers - like Napoleon’s generals - don’t get to first base). First, he was lucky in his training; secondly in the theatre in which he was leading man; thirdly, in the fact of the very few male dancers in competition with him at the time. He was trained by two Cecchetti disciples, Massine and Marie Rambert, and because the Cecchetti system is that laid down by a man of great muscular power, Fred’s natural elegance never deteriorated into affectation or weakness. At the time he was dancing leading roles, Fred used to bemoan his own lack of strength: he was the more delighted when in conversation my father said to him ‘Ah, yes, but your dancing’ - reversing the famous Michelangelo definition of art - ‘is sweetness tempered with strength’. Fred took to this, and for the next forty years these two yardsticks were frequently brought into play when discussing ballets, painting, music, dancers, even personalities; and I am certain that Fred also used them when casting a critical eye at his own dancing in the mirror.