Ashton, Sir Frederick

Ashton, Sir Frederick

Ashton, Sir Frederick, 1904-88, British choreographer and dancer, b. Guayaquil, Ecuador. He grew up in Peru and was drawn to dance after seeing (1917) a performance by Anna Pavlova there. Traveling to London in the early 1920s, he studied dance with Léonide Massine and Marie Rambert, staged his first work there in 1926, and danced (1928) with Ida Rubinstein's experimental troupe in Paris. Ashton joined the Vic-Wells Ballet, later the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet), in 1935 as chief choreographer, and later became associate director and then director of the company. Many of his ballets were created for its prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. Ashton is largely responsible for the elegantly reserved style of English classical dance, and his mature works are noted for their lyricism, quiet charm, wit, and precision. They include abstract ballets, such as Symphonic Variations (1946), Scènes de Ballet (1948), and Monotones (1965-66); short dramatic works, such as Daphnis and Chloë and Tiresias (both 1951); and full-length traditional story ballets, such as Cinderella (1948), Sylvia (1952), Ondine (1958), and The Dream (1964). His last major works as a choreographer were La Chatte Metamorphosée en Femme (1985) and Fanfare for Elizabeth (1986). He also appeared as a dancer in comedy and character roles. He was knighted in 1962.

See biographies by D. Vaughan (1977) and J. Kavanagh (1997).

Ondine is a three act ballet created in 1958 by legendary British choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet to music composed by Hans Henze. Ondine was choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton as a vehicle to highlight the undoubted talents of British prima ballerina assoluta, Dame Margot Fonteyn. Someone described it as 'a concerto for Fonteyn', and certainly at its first performances most of the attention was concentrated on her. Other ballerinas danced it a few times, but it is really only since Sir Anthony Dowell as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet persuaded Ashton to allow him to stage a revival, thirty years later, that audiences have been able to appreciate the overall ballet, rather than just the performance of Fonteyn.


The three act ballet of Ondine was the result of a collaboration between German composer Hans Werner Henze and British choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton and is thus the only ballet choreographed by Ashton to an original score. Ashton first approached William Walton to compose a score after his success with Troilus and Cressida (1954). However, Walton refused and suggested that his friend Hans Henze be approached. Therefore, the music for Ondine was commissioned from Henze, who went to considerable lengths to learn the special requirements of writing for ballet. Ashton gave him a very detailed breakdown of the action, with precise timings for each section in a similar way to how the famous nineteenth century choreographer, Marius Petipa did for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Henze and Ashton met on the island of Ischia, just across the bay from Naples, to decide their key approaches to this new ballet. They decided to ignore the northern origins of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's novella Undine and move it to the Mediterranean. Ashton and Henze chose Lila de Nobili to design the set and costumes. She was described by Henze as "an Italian bewitched by English landscape and culture", however her first intention was to make the sets in the style that might have been seen on the stage of La Scala a hundred years earlier. However, Henze and Ashton had decided not to make their ballet a mix of all the great works of the nineteenth century, but rather that it would be the product of their own contemporary sensibilities with references to other works. Eventually, the three of them decided that Ondine would have a ‘gothic-revival’ setting.

After its premiere in 1958 it was greeted with mixed, half-hearted reviews, although the first night reviews of Ondine were unanimous about one thing: Fonteyn's triumph in the title role. A.V.Coton spoke of "the supernormal sensitivity of feeling, interaction and mutual understanding which exists between Ashton and his heroine", and Cyril Beaumont saw the ballet as Ashton's "greatest gift" to his ballerina. Nothing else about the piece pleased everybody, though most reviewers liked Lila de Nobili's designs and praised the contribution of the supporting cast - Beaumont called Alexander Grant's Tirrenio "of Miltonic stature, magnificently danced and mimed." Edwin Denby famously dismissed Ondine: after praising Fonteyn he said "But the ballet is foolish, and everyone noticed". Most critics disliked the music and Mary Clarke was in the minority when she called it "rich and romantic and superbly rhythmical". Fernau Hall thought Henze showed "little understanding of the needs of classical dancing", and that Ondine would establish itself firmly in the repertoire "if it were not for Henze's music". Originally Nadia Nerina and Svetlana Beriosova shared the leading role of Ondine with Fonteyn.

In 1958 the ballet was widely seen as having choreography and décor in harmony with each other but fighting with the music; now it’s the choreography and the music which seem to speak the same language, while the sets look not only backward but to the north. Even when it was revived in 1988, it was hailed neither as a disaster nor as a lost masterpiece. Henze's modern music is also perceived as a reason for the few performances of this ballet before its revival in the 1990s.

Choreography and Setting

The consensus on Ashton's 'Ondine' is that it has some very good things in it - and this is true; as is the implication that it is otherwise unsuccessful, not least because the music (which greatly disappointed Ashton himself) largely fails, except in the storm of Act II and the divertissements of Act III. According to many critics, the music didn't suit Ashton "who had been hoping for music as "radiant" as the Mediterranean from which its heroine was born". Yet the music does seem to fit its watery theme well: there are some beautiful passages to Ondine’s Act 3 “swimming” solo where the music seems thin and transparent as watercolour, and entirely suited to this sketch of the sea. The ballet is also a mixture of both the 19th and the 20th century, for the plot is quintessentially romantic, however the music and choreography is more modern. Although it bore all the marks of Ashton's familiarly gentle, classically oriented manner, it discarded the classical ballet conventions that appear in such Ashton successes as Cinderella and Sylvia. What he was trying to suggest, says Ashton, was "the ebb and flow of the sea: I aimed at an unbroken continuity of dance, which would remove the distinction between aria and recitative." As a result, Ondine offered few pyrotechnics, gained its effects instead through sinuous mass movements in which the undulation of arm and body suggested forests of sea plants stirring to unseen tides. The sense of submarine fantasy was reinforced by Stage Designer Lila de Nobili's fine scenery: a castle of mist and fruitfulness, shadowy crags and waterfalls, aqueous skies streaked pink and green.

Ondine is not a classical construction with great set pieces (except for the wedding divertissement in the third act) or grand formal pas de deux, but a continuous, flowing narrative. However, this narrative is itself not very strong and there is no real explanation of why the lovers are on a ship in Act 2, or what exactly has passed between Acts 2 and 3 in order to convince Palemon to return to his mortal lover, Berta. The work uses classical ballet vocabulary, but the form varies a great deal from the 19th century classics. Unlike them, is through-composed: there are no breaks for bows to the audience built in and (at least until the 3rd act divertissement) no bravura variations to self consciously elicit the audience’s response. Henze's glittering music is the dominating force, although it's a difficult score to dance to, with the pulse well hidden within its general sheen, but it's fabulously atmospheric and often rampantly exciting, bringing the close of Act I to a massive climax.

Although the narrative is not strong, the setting is and displays a "most convincing feel of the sea" and the "shimmer of water" which is very effective in this ballet which is filled with images of water and particularly of the sea. The first act of the ballet takes place in the courtyard of the castle of Palemon where Ondine is seen dancing in the waterfall. Other settings include a scene with Tirrenio and the ondines while another is on a ship during wild storm at sea where the sensation of motion while being on board ship is strong enough to make the audience seasick. The third act takes place in the Castle of Palemon located near the sea. The final tableau is not only exquisitely beautiful, with Ondine grieving over the body of her lover, but the surrounding ondines, their arms drifting like seaweed in the dim green light, uncannily evoke the shifting currents under the sea.

When Fonteyn danced the lead, the ballet was about her and her performance; however good today’s interpreters may be, none has the mystique to reduce everyone else to the background, and so the supporting roles are now much more visible and need to be much more strongly depicted. It's generally accepted that Tirrenio was originally the most completely worked out role, inherited from Alexander Grant's lack of awe for Fonteyn, however the role has become difficult to cast as it was created to showcase Grant’s unique mixture of gifts - classical virtuosity and flair for characterisation.


The story derives from Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's novella Undine, the tale of a water-nymph who marries a mortal, but Ashton changes the names of all the characters. Similarly to other 19th century fairy tales, the plot is based on man (Palemon) encountering the supernatural (the water nymph Ondine), however the outcome is rather different than many of the 19th century classics: here it is the man that dies, and the female character survives. Ondine makes her first entrance from a fountain, shivering in the cold air as we would in water. She meets the hero, Palemon, and is astonished when she feels his heartbeat as ondines don't have hearts. Palemon deserts Berta who he has been courting and decides to marry Ondine. During a particularly strong storm while at sea, Ondine is lost overboard. Palemon survives the shipwreck created by the angry Ondines and believeing Ondine is lost ends up marrying Berta. Ondine returns and is heartbroken when she discovers Palemon's unfaithfulness. When she kisses him he dies and she goes back to the sea losing all memory of him forever.

Principal Characters


The title role is undoubtedly the main focus of the ballet. She is a gentle water sprite and simplicity itself from the moment the audience discovers her dancing in the waterfall and then with her own shadow. Her love for Palemon is deep. This is what makes his unfaithfulness so devastating and dramatic.


The male lead is bewitched by the feminine allure of Ondine. He has never seen a creature as lovely as her and decides to marry Ondine foresaking his betrothed, Berta. In a similar way to the Prince in Swan Lake, Palemon is destroyed by breaking the trust of his intended.


She is the perfect female contrast to Ondine. Ondine belongs to the sea whereas Berta is definitely from the land. She is manipulative, possessive and highly demanding while Ondine is gentle and loving.


He is the uncle of Ondine and also Lord of the Mediterranean Sea. He tries to warn Ondine that what she intends to do with Palemon goes against the what is expected of her. When she chooses not to listen to his advice, he creates the conditions for a shipwreck where she is returned to the sea. When Ondine once again finds Palemon and realises how he has betrayed her, Tirrenio exacts a terrible revenge with his fellow Ondines by causing death and destruction for all Palemon's guests.

Productions of Ondine

Original Production of 1958

The première of Ondine was held on the 27 October 1958 at the Covent Garden, London. The orchestra was conducted by the composer himself, while the title roles of Ondine, Palemon and Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea were danced by Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Alexander Grant respectively.


Performance Role Dancer
1958, London (Royal Ballet) Ondine Margot Fonteyn
Palemon Michael Somes
Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea Alexander Grant
Berta Julia Farron
Hermit Leslie Edwards
Grand pas classique Rosemary Lindsay, Annette Page, Ronald Hynd, Desmond Doyle
Divertissement Maryon Lane, Brian Shaw, Merle Park, Doreen Wells, Peter Clegg, Pirmin Trecu
1959, Monte Carlo (Ballets de Noël) Ondine Margot Fonteyn
Palemon Michael Somes
1964, London (Royal Ballet) Ondine Margot Fonteyn
Palemon Donald MacLeary
Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea Alexander Grant
Berta Deanne Bergsma
1970, London (Royal Ballet) Tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton Ondine Christine Aitken
1981, London (Royal Ballet) 50th Anniversary Programme Divertissement Wendy Ellis, Wayne Eagling, Laura Connor, Rosalyn Whitten, Stephen Beagley, Ashley Page
1988, London (Royal Ballet) Ondine Maria Almeida
Palemon Anthony Dowell
Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea Stephen Jefferies
Berta Deanne Bergsma
Divertissement Rosalyn Whitten, Bruce Sansom, Fiona Brockway, Nicola Roberts, Anthony Dowson, Jay Jolley
2000, Milan (Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala) Ondine Alessandra Ferri
Palemon Adam Cooper
Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea Biagio Tambone
Berta Sabina Galasso


Ondine is a work that disappeared from the repertory of the Royal Ballet for twenty years or so before Anthony Dowell persuaded Frederick Ashton to let him revive it in 1988. It has become more entrenched in the Royal Ballet's repertoire and thus gives the audience a chance to evaluate this work without the aura that Margot Fonteyn brought to it. Maria Almeida was chosen to revive the lead role in 1990 and Viviana Durante has subsequently continued in the tradition of Fonteyn. The role of Palemon was revived by Anthony Dowell has subsequently been danced by Jonathon Cope. Although other choreographers have used Henze's music, Ashton's ballet has so far had only one full production outside the Royal Ballet, by the Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan on April 21st, 2000.


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