On Ashton and Queer Identity

As part of an assignment for Graduate Seminar (a class for the first year students which is an orientation to the dance department and resources at Ohio State University), we had to design a postcard as a way to familiarize ourselves with Adobe Photoshop. Creating a blog was also part of that assignment, with the larger goal of developing an online profile. While this may seem simple to most people, or perhaps a matter of common sense in this age of technology where kids grow up with computer literacy, it’s not always easy in practice. Photoshop is a monstrous piece of software and is constantly evolving–the Photoshop I used to use is primitive in comparison to the version at school. I certainly had to relearn a few things and become acclimated to new features, despite my basic knowledge. WordPress has changed a great deal since last I used it, so it’s been challenging trying to become accustomed to a completely different user interface.

We’re also required to share our postcards and before I do, I have to preface by saying mine is an overly saccharine tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton, so bear with me…

A postcard as a part of an assignment to familiarize ourselves with Photoshop.

A postcard as a part of an assignment to familiarize ourselves with Photoshop. The figure in the middle is of course, Sir Frederick Ashton. The rose in the background is my own photography from an outing at the Park of Roses in Columbus, Ohio.

The phrase “Wish you were here…” is a stereotypical saying we associate with the postcard–though we generally don’t send postcards to the deceased. Still, I wish Ashton were here for reasons beyond my desire to pepper him questions about his work. Ashton was homosexual (which was no secret) and part of me wonders if his sexual identity has fostered a lack of interest in scholarly writing about his work. In comparison to his contemporary George Balanchine, there’s a distinct absence of literature when it comes to Ashton. I often wonder if Balanchine, a Russian-born immigrant who had assimilated into New York, had five wives, countless beautiful ballerinas as muses, and a fast-paced, expansive style of ballet to call American was the poster child of heteronormative behavior. Who would be interested in an old-fashioned, hopeless romantic, queer English man who liked the little intricate steps?

And yet, ballet has a history filled with queer identities. Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Kirstein, Bruhn, Nureyev, Robbins, to name some men (women are lesser known, though the lesbian Swan Queen is not a myth–she is very real and not in the manner of Darron Arronofsky’s film Black Swan, which ostentatiously appropriated the image of lesbian ballerinas for the male gaze). Ashton is arguably the most well known gay choreographer of classical ballet and yet I can count the number of books about his work on one hand, most of which were published before his death. Given the proliferation of his ballets to major companies around the world (American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, Australian National Ballet, Bolshoi Theatre, Mariinsky Theatre–the list goes on), I fail to find a legitimate explanation for the dearth of interest.

There are of course other factors involved–Balanchine’s repertory is huge which lends itself to widespread appeal. Also, many feel that Ashton’s wit and humor aren’t appreciated enough, similar to how comedies are rarely in contention for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards. I wouldn’t know how to argue in favor of good comedy, but I do feel strongly about diversifying the choreographic voices that are influencing the 21st century canon, which means celebrating Ashton’s queerness.

So my postcard has Ashton as a sort of spectral fairy, a crown of flowers on his head, the background a magnificent rose (he loved Isadora Duncan and rose petals show up more than once in his work). I wish he was here to experience the progress the world has made in accepting homosexuality and to be able to choreograph with that sense of liberation. Who knows what he could’ve accomplished had he not had to face systemic discrimination based on his sexual identity. Ashton’s achievements laid a foundation for future queer ballet choreographers to build upon, but he’s not receiving credit for this. At this rate, we may never see a ballet with themes of homosexual love in a classical context. Sure, same-sex partnering is explored in contemporary choreography, but I for one don’t think the danse d’école should be reserved for a select few. It’s just movement–it should be available to anybody to use as a mode of expression.

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Back to Basics

I never fooled myself into having expectations that graduate school would be easy. I knew this advanced level of study would prove to be one of my greatest challenges and it’s still a thousand times more difficult than I anticipated. So much so, that I’ve found myself questioning why I’m a graduate student at all. It shouldn’t be this hard, right? My struggles stem from several different places, because it’s been seven years since I graduated, because foreign language studies didn’t demand so much critical theory, and of course the resulting insecurities emerging out of feelings of inadequacy. This is “Imposter Syndrome 101,” and I’m not alone in suffering from it.

Needless to say, it’s been a rocky transition and I certainly don’t have all the strategies for dealing with it. Commiserating with my classmates, seeking help from faculty members, crying, flailing around internally, and the “fake it until you make it” approach all help to some degree–along with constant reminders that a graduate program accepts a student if they believe they have potential, not because that student is going to arrive a fully formed genius, like some Botticellian Venus emerging out of the sea and calmly surfing to shore on a gargantuan nacreous seashell. If only the birth of a scholar could be so resplendent…

Back in reality land, I still have this question of why am I here? And the root of my answer has always been ballet and Sir Frederick Ashton, thus the Fred step seems like an appropriate beginning (hence the title of this blog). The Fred step is what keeps me feeling grounded during this arduous process of graduate studies, of restructuring my approach to learning, and trying to become the person asking the right questions instead of looking for the right answers (in a nutshell, this has been the biggest difference I’m coming to realize between undergraduate and graduate studies).

What is the Fred step? It’s actually a series of steps and the Royal Opera House’s YouTube channel has this brief video demonstration that is much easier to watch than reading a detailed description I can provide:

Dance critic Alastair Macaulay eloquently summarizes the history of the Fred step in an article published in Dance Ink magazine (1989-1995), and details its true origin from a piece performed by the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. Ashton saw her in performance and was completely smitten with her, and the qualities of her dancing would inspire him for years to come. He kept this little “talisman” from the Gavotte Pavlova as an homage to his muse and the term “Fred step” would later be applied by danseur Michael Somes and noted dance scholar David Vaughan (8). It appears in most of his ballets as a sort of choreographic signature and is often altered, shortened, or manipulated to fit within the framework of each particular ballet.

The versatility of the Fred step fascinates me–at times he cuts a step or two out in order to fit the meter of the music and the series itself can be performed to a wide range of tempos. However, it’s not just this mechanical versatility that makes the Fred step remarkable, but also its adaptability to the skill level of the dancer. Any dancer with a basic level of ballet training can perform the Fred step, as they are all basic elements in the ballet lexicon. In fact, this lack of virtuosity also makes it possible for dancers of nearly any age to do it. When Ashton choreographed a short duet for Dame Margot Fonteyn and himself, a little gala piece titled Acte de présence, he was eighty years old and she in her mid-sixties and yet they still performed a modified version of the Fred step, captivating audiences with a charming sentimentality. Due to the simplicity of the movements and yet the prevalence of Ashton’s signature, the Fred step almost achieves a universality that even seems to suggest to the audience that dancing can be for everyone.

A variation of the Fred step, in a different time signature, without the intermediate pas de bourrée:

Macaulay writes that “The Fred step is not an article of faith in the Ashton canon. Nor is it a key to Ashton style” (9), and I’m not sure I agree with this. Coincidentally, as a part of my coursework I’m taking classes outside of the department. Currently, one of my classes is “History of Art: Art in the Age of Empire” which looks at early French and English modernist painting. During an analysis of Édouard Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio (1868), the professor drew our attention to a coffee pot a maid is holding just to the left of center of the canvas–a coffee pot painted in a style with thick brushstrokes that revel in artificiality. What’s curious about this item in the painting is the appearance of Manet’s signature “M” on the pot, which my teacher believes signifies Manet’s intent to draw attention to his style, as his painting is often marked by inconsistency (e.g. certain compositional elements might be painted realistically, others impressionistically, etc. within the same painting).

Although Ashton wove the Fred step seamlessly into his ballets (and sometimes hastily–I wish I could remember where I read this, but there were times when Ashton almost forgot to put in the Fred step, and once reminded, added it in the spur of the moment), I think the function of a choreographic signature is a subject worth investigation. The example with Manet indicates that a signature can tell us more than merely identify the creator, whether it’s the placement within the painting or even the font or color used. Thus, I have questions about the Fred step and more broadly speaking, what is a choreographic signature? Is it different from a motif? If so, how?

Obviously, I don’t know. But it’s possible that not knowing is another reason why I’m here.

Works Cited

Macaulay, Alastair. “Notes on the Fred Step.” Dance Ink 3.3 (1992): 6-9. Print.

A New Beginning (it’s redundant, I know)

Many moons ago, I authored a blog as a way of writing about dance in a way that I felt was both casual and humorous. At the time I had just graduated from The Ohio State University with a passion for dance that was barely even a year old (and a degree in East Asian languages). I was an outsider to the world of ballet and it was my hope that contributing to the conversation about this art form would be a great way for me to develop my personal interests and stay connected with something I honestly didn’t know what to do with. Naturally, I set out to enjoy what I could, voraciously watching films, attending performances, reading books, and writing every whimsical thought that came to mind. It was a fabulous time that produced some good content and some awful writing, but it was a project created out of love and great curiosity.

Some of you may know the blog of my previous life You Dance Funny and I’m both thrilled and embarrassed by this (as I said, there’s some terrible writing in there, lurking in the archives like awkward year book photos). So I’d like to take a moment to briefly summarize what happened to You Dance Funny (YDF) in the end. My last major project for YDF was to go on a transnational road trip from Seattle to New York, and along the way I took ballet classes and attended performances by companies all across the United States (I believe the final count was seventeen companies and over thirty performances). My goal was to document the experience and turn it into a book, which never happened for several reasons:

  • I was a decent writer, but I didn’t have the skills to write a book, which was a different beast.
  • I didn’t think my story was important enough. Sad face.
  • I was burnt out. Driving all over America was actually rather exhausting (Is anyone surprised by this revelation?).
  • I couldn’t force the book to fruition alone. It was too monumental a task to simply churn out a manuscript and query it to publishers with nothing in my pocket but crossed fingers.
  • Also, nothing in my pocket. I had no money!

I don’t regret that trip at all–I had so many opportunities to observe incredible dancing and take class with a variety of amazing teachers. At a certain point I realized that the experience became less about broadcasting it to the world and more about what I needed and thus I shelved the project, perhaps selfishly. My frustrations with never being paid as a dance writer reached its acme anyway and I simply couldn’t invest myself into something that never gave back–at least, not immediately. Deep down, a part of me felt my talent, knowledge, and work were valuable but the results never seemed to reflect that. By the end of my travels, I still felt like an outsider to ballet too.

In an attempt to validate my personal journey in dance, I applied for graduate school at the University of Roehampton, which has a one year Masters program in ballet studies. Against my better judgment, I romanticized the idea of studying in London, home of Sir Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet, with a professor at the school who specialized in Ashton’s work. However, my only chance to attend Roehampton depended on receiving an adequate scholarship–which I didn’t.

It was during the application process, that one of my former teachers and mentors, the esteemed Professor Karen Eliot, said to me that after I finished the masters I could come back to Ohio State University and apply for the PhD program. It was quite possibly the most preposterous suggestion anyone has ever made to me, but when the Graduate Studies chair makes a recommendation to you, there’s a certain imperative to listen with an open mind to the possibilities.

A couple of years later and here I am, halfway through my first semester as a graduate student with OSU’s Department of Dance, where I intend to focus on ballet pedagogy and the work of Sir Frederick Ashton. Here I am, definitely older, possibly wiser, and feeling like a “ballet person.” Here I am, starting a new blog to discuss dance, in hopefully more professional ways–though I heartily accept my former comedic identity as something that has made all of this possible and thus, can’t see myself capable of erasing my sense of humor completely. So my intentions are to share my various observations on dance as usual and some insights into subjects I may be researching over the course of the next few years (please don’t ask me about a dissertation topic–I don’t even know what’s due next week).

I must conclude with a heartfelt thanks to all readers of YDF and now The Fred Step, because it’s not a conversation if it’s one sided. I hope and encourage active participation and look forward to reading comments and engaging in productive dialogues with you, because I maintain that all perspectives, whether academic or not have something valuable to say. After all, that is where I began.

Best regards,

Steve Ha