Found books 3: vile bodies
Ballet biography is a difficult genre, dependent so much on fading memories, partial accounts and the fitful mapping of filmed record on theatrical immediacy. It works when it illuminates an artist and unlocks a world, and few do this as impressively as Julie Kavanagh's Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton.
Ashton is one of the great British choreographers. An undeniably touchy artist, he felt rivalrous towards the others, Antony Tudor (who left for America, and whose centenary has recently been championed by ABT) and Kenneth MacMillan (who succeeded him at the Royal Ballet). Ashton's work is apparently more delicate - less declamatory, shaded with feeling, flecked with melancholy humour. And there have to be fears about its survival, especially as even the Royal Ballet is more concerned with excavating MacMillan's work and foregrounding Balanchine.
Ashton's active career as a choreographer lasted exactly 60 years - from A Tragedy of Fashion in 1926 (it sounds delirious: Ashton himself played a huffy couturier who, ashamed by the failure of his new creation, falls on his own scissors) to 1986's Nursery Suite, an achingly nostalgic vignette of lost childhood. These works sum up Ashton's character, who seems in Kavanagh's account to have remained a highly sophisticated child: wry, prickly, needy, an aficionado of music and literature, a hoarder of tender, bruisable emotion.
What's so great about the biography? Take a look after the click:
The biography is full of good stories, feelingly evoked ballets and a narrative that leads through the establishment of the Royal Ballet, the rapturous collaboration with Margot Fonteyn, the boho-royal socialising, and Ashton's ability to parlay a crush into art. It's honest but - too rare in biography - never judgemental.
Above all, the early years of the then Sadler's Wells Ballet and Ballet Rambert are beautifully evoked. Youthful artists, in young companies, were working in what was a relatively new art form as far as Britain was concerned. And they threw off new ballets at a prodigious, apparently carefree, rate. It's a point also nicely made in Zoë Anderson's recent history of the Royal Ballet. Nowadays, companies preen if they manage to include more than one micro-premiere in each season (with rare exceptions like San Francisco Ballet's 75th birthday extravaganza). But Ashton was creating new stuff inspired by whatever attracted his enthusiasm: Botticelli, the Elizabethans, Greek myth, the Lady of Shallot. Equally, he tapped into the raffish, cosmopolitan atmosphere of the between-the-wars years with ballets set in the world of high fashion, high society and vile bodies. It's an entrancing portrait of an age.
Kavanagh's recent life of Rudolf Nureyev was more controversial, either admired or abhorred. Detractors found it gossipy, prurient and dismissive. It was certainly more prone to digression than the Ashton book, but reinforced how central dance was to Nureyev's life. It was, actually, enlightening to learn that, for all his relentless tomcatting, the most physically dynamic figure of the 1960s and 70s was a pretty dull shag: that lust drove him after hours, but that dance claimed his true desire. Kavanagh also draws attention to his unexpected patience and absorption in teaching. Although he could be a nightmarish diva in rehearsal, he was a superb teacher. Both of her biographies place the artist at work at the centre of these lives; fuelled by love and envy and horniness, but with dedication at their core.
Anyone have a favourite stage biography? Is it still a workable genre? Let me know what you think...
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