The flesh and the spirit

Secret Muses: the life of Frederick Ashton by Julie Kavanagh, Faber, pounds 25; Chris Savage King applauds a romantic lord of the dance

In a bar near Old Compton Street recently, a video screen was relaying Frederick Ashton's ballet The Tales of Beatrix Potter to distracted punters. Ashton's standing in the Covent Garden repertory may be shaky, but it is good to know that he can still command devotees at street level.

Julie Kavanagh's biography has proved controversial because of its revelations about Ashton's love life - a series of mainly gay affairs that fuelled his work. The dance world has never been renowned for its adherence to family values, nor its aversion to gossip. Secret Muses introduces the giddy world of Ashton's youth in the 1920s - where if you weren't bisexual by nature, you at least "made an attempt to be". Kavanagh has a relish for salty anecdotes and an enjoyment of Ashton's milieu that displays real love for her subject.

In his amorous life, Ashton pursued boys for divine inspiration, and also availed himself of the more workaday conveniences provided by the casting couch. In Secret Muses, threads drawn between the life and the art are never reduced to a matter of crude cause and effect. They illuminate a body of work suffused with subtle eroticism. Ashton was a gentle and vulnerable man, and drew on the orgasmic rather than the orgiastic qualities of his dancers' movement. In his work, the dancer's body is pliant and sensuous, and romance is often implied in his rhapsodic pas de deux.

In his private life, Ashton much preferred the role of the hunter to that of the chased, and this seems to have been a canny artistic decision. He protested a little too much in his pronouncements about his own longings and disappointments. He was moved more by transitory raptures than stodgy realism, and had little inclination to go in for queer marriage: "Queerness can't be permanent," he commented. "Queens are tarts and mistresses, not wives."

More direct creative stimulation came from women. Ashton was driven to dance after watching Pavlova and Isadora Duncan, and he served a choreographic apprenticeship with Bronislava Nijinska. He considered meeting the designer Sophie Fedorovitch "the greatest luck he ever had" and his career with the Royal Ballet was directed by Ninette de Valois. He frequently composed ballets through dancers' improvisations, and his work gave a central place to women.

Along with Balanchine, Ashton took classical ballet to peaks of beauty and perfection that the form is unlikely to achieve again. He was a master at revealing character through movement; his work stressed the intrinsic tenderness of the body, and its capacity for feeling and emotion. Attention to detail was lavished on all his creations, from the lofty heights of The Dream's Titania, to the strutting hens in La Fille Mal Gardee. His source material was often slight, but once alchemised into dance, the effect was rarely trivial.

Ashton's work exemplifies Englishness in the best sense - combining comedy and joie de vivre with a lush romanticism rarely seen today. Artefacts like Four Weddings and A Funeral and Adventures in Motion Pictures's over- lauded production of Swan Lake are praised in these terms, but are only shadows of Ashton's artistic accomplishments, which have wit, passion and true grandeur. His ballets embody a temperament and sensibility both deeply recognisable, and also unique. His works deserve to live on in performance forever.

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