Australian Ballet celebrate the “quintessentially English” master of Ballet, Frederick Ashton.

Every art form has its icons. What music lover isn’t familiar with the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Mahler? What art-buff worth their salt doesn’t know the masterpieces of Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Van Gough or Picasso? The same is true of Ballet: there’s the doyen of classical narrative ballet, Marius Petipa; the father of the glossy neoclassical American style, George Balanchine; and the chorographic genius whose work is celebrated in the Australian Ballet’s The Dream, Frederick Ashton. A triple-bill of the choreographer’s most popular works, The Dream, Symphonic Variations and Monotones II, dating from three distinct creative phases in Ashton’s output, will be touring across Australia in the coming months, in one of the most precisely realised showcases of the great English ballet master’s work in recent years.

Frederick Ashton working with Sir Anthony Dowell at Covent Garden

As the founding choreographer of what would become the Royal Ballet, when it first decamped from Sadler’s Wells to what is now the epicentre of British dance at The Royal Opera House in the 1940s, Ashton is regarded as the touchstone of the “English style” of classical ballet. A visionary artist who was able to innovate while cherishing the legacy of the great 19th-century masters of the art form, Ashton’s popularity and seismic influence on the evolution and appeal of ballet has made him one of the most revered names in the pantheon of dance. Since the post-war boom of creative and cultural exchange, in years that saw the Royal Ballet tour his works to America and across Europe, Ashton’s choreography has remained powerfully magnetic to audiences of balletomanes and newcomers alike, the world over.

Although the great choreographer has been dead for almost 30 years, his dance remains vividly alive in almost every corner of the world where ballet is held in esteem. “He’s one of the great giants of dance,” Australian Ballet Artistic Director, David McAllister enthuses. But the relevance of programming a celebration of Ashton’s oeuvre goes beyond mere admiration: the Australian Ballet shares an especially poignant connection to this titan of dance. Dame Peggy van Praagh, the British dancer and choreographer who founded Australian Ballet in 1962, knew Ashton well from her time working with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London. It’s little wonder then that Ashton’s repertoire would be one of the cornerstones of the Australian Ballet’s earliest performances. “Dame Peggy knew his work inside-out, and so Ashton became the foundation of a lot of those early programmes in the 60s. He had a profound influence on the development of this company,” McAllister shares.

Artistic Director David McAllister

So what is it that makes Ashton’s choreographic vision so seductive? McAllister believes it’s rooted in his uniquely idealised view of dance. “Apart from having a quintessentially ‘English’ quality to his work, he also had a very romantic notion about classical ballet, of its beauty and purity, and so his works are extremely poetic. This led him, very naturally I think, to the narrative works that he was most famous for.” However despite the indisputable attraction of Ashton, the nuance and precision required to realise his work makes regularly programming it a challenge. The last outing for the choreographer’s work at Australian Ballet was the 2004 season’s La Fille mal Gardeé. “We’ve been wanting to stage some Ashton for quite a while, but it’s so important to get the style and quality of the performance exactly right,” says McAllister. “We needed to work with the right people to make sure our production was of the proper style for Ashton’s choreography.”

“It’s quite incredible. We’ve got this gathering of Royal Ballet royalty for this programme”

This quest for authentic Ashton-ian perfection has led Australian Ballet to trace the roots of the choreography back to the living custodians of the Ashton legacy. Upon the choreographer’s death, the rights to certain productions were entrusted to the dancers who collaborated with Ashton, many of whom are now legends in their own right. “It’s quite incredible. We’ve got this gathering of Royal Ballet royalty for this programme,” McAllister observes.

In their preparations for the Shakespearian-inspired The Dream, four of Australian Ballet’s principal artists made the pilgrimage to the Royal Opera House in London, to work with one of the great premiers danseurs nobles of the 20th century, Sir Anthony Dowell. Based on Shakespeare’s mystical tale of romantic misadventure and magic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ashton created the role of Oberon with Dowell when the dancer was just 21 years old, in 1964. Even after half a century, Dowell’s intimate understanding of Ashton’s early masterpiece remains potent, says Australian Ballet principal artist Adam Bull, who will be delivering the role of Oberon in The Dream. “It was such an honour to work with Sir Anthony, “ Bull shares. “He was incredibly generous with his insight, and having the opportunity to learn from the source where it all came from was so inspiring. You could see when he was demonstrating the choreography that it all came back – he just came alive. It was an amazing experience.”

Principal Artist Adam Bull

For some of the other men dancing in The Dream, there are some unique, and surprising challenges. For the role of Bottom, the buffoonish weaver who is transformed into a half-man half-donkey by the fairy king Oberon, six of the Australian Ballet’s gents are learning to dance en pointe. However, far from enhancing the elegance and grace of the movement, Ashton’s ingenious move is intended to emphasise the ungainly, animalistic and comedic qualities of this character. It’s given the men of the company a rare insight into the physical demands endured by their female colleagues. “They’re giving it a red-hot go,” says Bull of the male dancers adjusting to pointe work. “Their feet are pretty bashed up, toenails dropping off and so on! I think they’re really understanding what the girls actually go through!”

However, despite the tremendous physical and technical demands Ashton’s movement makes on the dancers, the chance to tackle these roles is an important milestone for Bull. Even though Ashton had already died before he was born, the significance of Ashton’s influence on the ballet world is no less powerful. “It’s an integral part of our ballet history,” says Bull. “And these works are still relevant and pushing the boundaries of dance today. It’s very accessible and entertaining choreography, but it’s also ground-breaking in the ways it challenges the dancers technically. Ashton is a master, and it’s a pleasure to be performing work that has so much history and relevance.”

Australian Ballet present The Dream, touring Australia from April 29 until July 9.