Utah has its own intimate connection with Sir Frederick Ashton, the important English choreographer who died this month at the age of 83.
That connection comes through John Hart, now artistic director of Ballet West, who worked alongside Ashton as dancer, ballet master and assistant director of England's Royal Ballet. Not least, Hart has brought three Ashton works - "Les Patineurs," "Monotones" and "The Dream" - to Ballet West's repertory."We will dedicate our 1988-89 season to Ashton," said Hart, "though it's ironical that this should be the first season in awhile that we haven't programmed an Ashton work. I may put in `The Dream' pas de deux somewhere."
After serving as artistic director of the Royal Ballet 1963-70, Ashton left, partly due to mandatory retirement requirements (and perhaps with more than a slight tincture of politics).
Hart left at the same time and came to America to head the dance division of the U.S. International University in San Diego. He treasures a gracious letter of appreciation he received from Ashton, along with a Durer print. And he carries indelible impressions of his 35 years' association with Ashton, during a period that spanned the whole history of English classical ballet.
After an international upbringing, English dance training and work with Marie Rambert, Ashton joined the Vic-Wells in 1935. Hart joined the company, by then known as the Sadler's Wells Ballet, in 1938, though he had some apprentice experience before that. Except for World War II service, the two remained there thereafter.
Hart's first encounter with Ashton was memorable if not auspicious. "I was a 15-year-old student at the Royal Academy, where he taught me the man's role in `Les Sylphides,' and also a Spanish dance," said Hart. "He demonstrated a turn, how you must almost fall forward out of it; I was so anxious to please, and in trying to duplicate his movements I spun around and poked him in the nose with my elbow. It gave him a nosebleed!"
Asked for his assessment of Ashton's greatest achievement, Hart said, "It was the way he allowed a work to develop. With all the dancers, but especially with the girls, he allowed their individual talents to blossom, and sometimes incorporated their ideas, not insisting upon his own way if he found that what they did was a little more effective. He worked like a sculptor, very personally. You can identify his women; if he had seven princesses in a row, each one had a distinct personality."
Ashton's supreme achievement among ballerinas was Margot Fonteyn, who personified a whole type of English classical dance - "high technical skill, (linked to lyrical expressiveness rather than to pyrotechnics), versatility, musicality, and above all, classicism," as one critic put it. Signature pieces that identified both him and Fonteyn in this style are "Cinderella," "Ondine," "Sylvia" and "Daphnis and Chloe.
" `The Dream' is typical of Ashton's taste," said Hart, "an extension of the English classical school, that would not have developed its many fine points without Ashton's personality."
Never an angst-ridden choreographer, Ashton preferred wit, gaiety and usually a sense of light-heartedness in his works. He choreographed more than 40 dances for Sadler's Wells/Royal Ballet, of which Hart danced in 25. Ashton's ballets have always been admired by the public, not always by the critics. They fared better in the United States, where critics and public have both appreciated them.
Some have called Ashton lazy, and Hart acknowledges that his output may have been a little slight. "But on the other hand there was never a lot of rubbish, he was very selective about what he set and how he set it," he said.
Ashton was apparently not a man around whom anecdotes clustered, nor the master of the bon mot, but "I never knew him when he wasn't cheerful, without temperament, very warm and friendly," Hart said. "With the dancers he was always easy and nice, gracious, considerate, charming and amusing. He was never a theatrical type, and neither was I."
Hart, who recently celebrated his own 50th anniversary in professional ballet, stopped dancing in 1957, and found he enjoyed rehearsal and coaching more, and promoting the progress of the company as a whole.
He described himself as a "de Valois boy," most closely associated with Ninette de Valois, founder and artistic director of the Vic-Wells/Sadler's Wells/Royal Ballet. "But Ashton and I worked very amicably together from the start. I had no troubles at all with his personality," he said.
After de Valois retired, Ashton had more opportunity. "He was 57 when he became director, and not a young 57," Hart said. "He delegated most of the routine day-to-day layout to me and Michael Somes, and we did everything he didn't want to do. He seldom came around when his own ballets were not on the program. `I like to see the ballets that I like!' he said." This way of operating did not bother Hart at all. He feels that a talented choreographer should be doing only that, so as not to disturb his creative flow.
As for his private life, Ashton lived quietly and elegantly, maintaining a small London apartment and a house in Suffolk, for he loved the country. He was a favorite of the royal family, and sometimes had lunch with the Queen Mother or Marina, Duchess of Kent.
The year 1970 did not end the Ashton-Hart association. When Hart was asked back to administer the Royal Ballet in 1975, Ashton agreed to come back and do his last greatly acclaimed piece, "A Month in the Country." And over the years, Hart has staged Ashton works all over the world - for Joffrey, San Francisco, PACT, Ballet West and other companies.
"When I look back on those early days, we didn't have a sense of laying historic foundations, of greatness in the making," Hart said. "I danced with Fonteyn, with Michael Somes, many great dancers, but when we started there were not more than 30 dancers, we were smaller than Ballet West.
"But I would say the golden years of the Royal Ballet were under Ashton in the late '60s; then we really had the right to be called the finest in the world," Hart said, with a glint of that greatness reflected in his eyes.