SECRET MUSES by Julie Kavanagh


The Life of Frederick Ashton
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 A slavishly detailed but lightsomely written life of the British ballet-maker. Kavanagh, London editor of the New Yorker, explains in an afterword that Ashton alternately authorized and forbade her project, chagrined to be reminded by her of his mortality. ``It's the finality of it--knowing you're grabbing as much out of me as you can before I die,'' he once complained. And she has grabbed it. The intelligence and novelistic command of this book about the man who helped to invent modern English ballet is equaled only by the depth of Kavanagh's research. Her enviable ease and glamorous settings range from Ashton's first glimpse, as a boy in Lima, Peru, of Anna Pavlova, to his apprenticeship with Bronislava Nijinska in Paris in the '20s, to his American stints and sundry European wanderings, and his irrepressibly multiple sexual selves. We're treated to the chronicle of Ashton's dances (Les Patineurs, A Wedding Bouquet, Monotones, et al.) as he worked with Marie Rambert of the Ballet Club and Ninette de Valois of the Vic-Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet, which he eventually directed). And we're regaled with his legendary late-night wit. Kavanagh reports high times in the '30s: ``Spotting a minor playwright performing fellatio on a major playwright in a corner of a typical theatrical party, Ashton quipped to Bunny Roger, `Look! There's K-- trying to suck some talent out of E--.' '' Her secondary characters alone seem reason enough to look for this life someday in a movie theater: Margot Fonteyn, Maynard Keynes, Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Gertrude Stein, Rudolf Nureyev, and the Queen Mother. But in all the crush of this crowd, she also singles out Ashton for memorable, consistent portraiture. Gamin, crank, romantic, he ``was not a happy man,'' she says. ``Most of his adulthood was spent half-consciously seeking unrequited emotional situations.'' Kavanagh explores them vividly. Both Ashton's wiles and his ballets make this irresistible reading. (24 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 20th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-44269-3
Page count: 656pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1997