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.