Books Lives & Letters: Discipline of the swans

SECRET MUSES: The Life of Frederick Ashton by Julie Kavanagh, Faber pounds 25

Like many other little girls aged ten taking ballet lessons and wobbling on points in hand-sewn tutus to a church-hall audience of loyal mothers, I yearned to become a ballerina, then wept all night when informed I would probably grow too big (yes I did). I switched to fantasy, reading ballet books and ballet romances, watching from the gallery, eventually becoming even more fascinated with an art founded on such pain, such discipline, such denial and transcendence. When you see a girl (never a woman) float like an angel or a meringue, you tend to forget that her blocked shoes might be full of bandages and blood.

Forgive me for sounding so personal. Part of the charm of Julie Kavanagh's biography of Frederick Ashton is the way it lets us dither in the wings, see the swans puffing desperately on their fags or twitch ing their tights, like those dancers caught in intimate off-moments by Degas, all angles and vulnerability. An ex-dancer herself, trained at the Royal Ballet School, twice winner of the annual choreographic award judged by Ashton himself, and a close friend, in his final years, of the maestro, Julie Kavanagh seems well placed to recount his journey out of a rich but philistine background towards a milieu in which he could rewrite the gestures of the body in ways that enchanted rather than shocked. Kavanagh's great strengths are two-fold: she knew Ashton well and had his permission to write his story (more or less, as she touchingly admits in her afterword) and she thoroughly understands and appreciates what his art was all about. Not the least pleasure afforded by reading this book is learning, effortlessly, via the eye, the technical terms for those impossible crazy postures and sequences we watch on stage.

Ashton was the child of imperialists hoping to make quick bucks in Peru and not quite succeeding. While trying to hold cocktail parties and levees they also had to deal with failing drains or no drains at all, as well as servants who were not quite polite enough. Kavanagh refers to primitives and savage conditions. One wonders what the servants thought. We are not informed. Ashton was sent to public school, where he, like everybody else, was bullied, beaten and tortured. Kavanagh tries to reassure us. This was normal. The system was not abused. He complained too much. What I see, as an ignorant outsider, is how suffering might have propelled him into dreams of how life could be different. For certainly, the story concerns the courage every artist needs to put a vision into practice, let alone earn a living. Ashton transformed the actions of the torturer into the beautiful movements of the ballet dancer; no accident, surely, that his choreography acknowledged the necessity of possible harm and pain.

Kavanagh tells a marvellous tale, that of a male Cinderella encountering any number of fairy godmothers, beginning with Marie Rambert and Pavlova, and progressing to the point where he could take on ugly ducklings like Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn and ensure they became swans. Some fascinating chapters in the middle of the book detail Ashton's move to Paris in the Twenties, his skirmishings with gay desire, the women patrons and friends who inspired and succoured him, the huge amount of fun they all seemed to have, boys and girls together, with no distractions like VD or abortions. We're shown, at the same time, Ashton's progress towards becoming one of the best-known and most admired choreographers of the post-war years, the enchanter who took tea with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret while working out the classic ballets. Kavanagh knits the dance into the life with a light touch.

This is a book for balletomanes. It's very long and very detailed. It's also a story for all of us, the portrait of a brave and desperate and gifted man who kicked against the pricks and found and brought joy.

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