Sir Frederick Ashton was not only one of the nation’s greatest choreographers and helped establish the Royal Ballet, but his roots were firmly embedded in the Suffolk landscape.

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This weekend an Ipswich-wide exhibition opens celebrating not only Ashton’s career in dance but also Suffolk’s influence on his life and work.

This startling collection of costumes and archive material takes the visitor on an intimate journey, allowing them to get to know the man who redefined the world of ballet in Britain. He was instrumental in establishing The Royal Ballet, as Britain’s national ballet company – modelling it on the great Russian companies that he so admired.

The exhibition has been largely drawn from the Royal Opera House archives and feature not only photographs of the great man and his productions but also costume and set drawings from leading artists like John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Osbert Lancaster. There are also a wide array of costumes, including those from his ballet Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a film which shows Ashton at work and how his dancers remember him.

The centre piece has to be the recreation of Dame Margot Fonteyn’s dressing room at Covent Garden from the early 1950s. Drawn from the Royal Opera House and Dame Margot’s own family archives, the tableaux gives the visitor a ‘step back in time’ moment. Her make-up is strewn across the dressing room table, as are discarded ballet shoes, her translucent costume for Ondine is on a mannequin in the corner while on the walls are posters advertising the shows in the theatre for that month.

Interestingly, also on the bill during Ondine’s run was Benjamin Britten’s then new opera Peter Grimes.

Ashton and Britten got on very well together and Britten was hugely impressed with Ashton’s choreography for his opera Albert Herring in 1947.

The secret of the exhibition is that not only does it conjure up a feel for the enclosed, theatrical world of the ballet, but it provides a chronological tour of his life and work. The addition of press cuttings, working drawings, striking costume illustrations and gorgeously lit performance photographs means that it’s an incredibly atmospheric show.

Gallery Three at the Ipswich Town Hall is so packed with material, that it’s rather akin to tumbling back into another age.

The photographs are well chosen. You see wonderfully shot images of Margot Fonteyn, Ashton’s great muse, and Moira Shearer, the other great dancer of the era, and then positioned next to the photographs are their amazing costumes, looking as fresh as when they were created.

The exhibition extends from Ipswich Town Hall Galleries to Christchurch Mansion and onto the Jerwood DanceHouse on the Waterfront.

Emma Roodhouse, galleries curator for the Ipswich and Colchester Museums Service, said: “It’s a huge undertaking. It’s a partnership between ourselves and the Royal Opera House. This came out of another exhibition on Dame Ninette de Valois and the founding of the Royal Ballet. This has grown up as an off-shoot of that.

“The wonderful thing is that this exhibition has been developed further for Ipswich and we have items on show here that have never been seen elsewhere. We have letters and birth and death certificates from the family and we trace his life in Suffolk as well as his professional career in London.”

Christina Franchi, exhibitions and heritage publications manager for the Royal Opera House, has spent the last year, off and on, scouring the Covent Garden archives for choice mementoes from Ashton’s prolific career.

“I always think that it is my job to tell a story. So I have laid out this exhibition in such a way, that the visitor goes on a journey. You start off in rural Suffolk, in Yaxley at the turn of the last century, where Frederick’s mother was born, and you end up in 21st century Covent Garden where Sir Frederick Ashton’s wonderful ballets are still being performed.”

Emma said: “His mother’s family, The Fulchers, all come from the village of Yaxley. They had been farming there since Domesday. There are just so many of the family in the churchyard there.”

But, bizarrely for a family who were so rooted in the Suffolk soil, Sir Frederick was actually born in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Although he briefly returned to Yaxley to be christened, much of his childhood was spent in Lima, Peru, where, at the age of 13, he witnessed ballet legend Anna Pavlova perform and from that day forward was determined to work in dance.

He began his career with the Ballet Rambert which was originally called The Ballet Club. He rose to fame with Vic-Wells Ballet - later to become the Sadler’s Wells Ballet before it was designated The Royal Ballet – becoming its resident choreographer in the 1930s.

Although Ashton had distinguished himself as a good mime and character dancer in roles such as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty and “the gigolo” in his own Façade, it was soon clear that his dancing was taking second place to his choreography.

This was emphasised further by his sombre work during World War II. Christna Franchi said: “He created works which truly reflected the mood of the nation at the time. He also recruited some of the nation’s greatest artists to collaborate with. In the exhibition we have beautiful drawings by Ashton’s great friend Sophie Fedorovitch for Dante Sonata as well as those from John Piper for The Quest, plus costumes from La Fille mal gardée and The Dream.

“This is when his career really started to take off. They worked so hard during the war years because they were charged with keeping up the nation’s moral through the air raids, through the blitz, the invasion fears and they did that while still producing new works and losing many of the men to the army.

“Ashton is not only a hugely influential figure in the history of the Royal Ballet, he is one of the great choreographers of the 20th century.

“Dante Sonata was a hugely important work and has been recently reconstructed after having been thought lost.”

His position as one of Britain’s leading talents was secured immediately after the war when he joined forces with the nation’s favourite ballerina Margot Fonteyn.

“We have got on display a wonderful letter from conductor and composer Constant Lambert to Ashton from 1935 in which he is trying to promote Fonteyn to Ashton. In the letter Lambert says: ‘The man’s part will suit Bobby very well (that’s obviously Robert Helpmann) and the woman’s role would be ideal for Fonteyn who to my great surprise, you don’t seem to appreciate at her true level. Although obviously immature at the moment, to my mind she in the only young dancer to have the indefinable quality of poetry in her work…”

“It’s an absolutely wonderful letter which dates right from the beginning of their work together. At the start they were never quite sure of one another, they started working together, they had some kind of terrible bust up, Fonteyn burst into tears, threw her arms around his neck and after that they were inseparable.”

Christna added that the addition of film footage, screened at the Jerwood DanceHouse, gives the exhibition an added dimension.

“One of the things which we are showing here for the first time is amateur footage of Margot Fonteyn dancing Ondine. This has only come to light very recently and is hugely important because he created that role especially for her.”

Christina said that Ashton’s rediscovery of his family heritage and his love for rural life also influenced his work. His passion for the Suffolk landscape and local traditions found their way into his very English choreography.

“He incorporated folk dancing and traditional dancing like step dances and clog dancing into ballet which was unheard of at the time. He was incorporating elements which people recognised from their own past history. He also introduced elements of the musical hall and pantomime traditions. He and Robert Helpmann loved playing the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

“Although his company was modelled on the classic Russian companies he wanted to make the work very English and tapped into a wide range of English traditions. That was part of the genius of the man.”

Ashton was Director of the Royal Ballet from 1963 to 1970. He brought new works by Antony Tudor to the company, as well as guaranteeing the survival of several of Bronislava Nijinska’s ballets by having her mount Les Noces and Les Biches. Two important revivals of George Balanchine’s works also marked Ashton’s time as Director.”

Emma Roodhouse said that away from Covent Garden Ashton loved to lose himself in his Suffolk life,

“He maintained links with the area all his life. He bought the old school house in Yaxley in about 1948 and certainly lived there from the 1950s when he was creating all those magnificent ballets at Covent Garden. He bought one of those old Suffolk Pink houses and renovated that. He sold that too later on to buy Chandos Lodge in Eye.

“He loved living in this part of the world. He had friends like Benjamin Britten close by. Angus McBean also lived there, so there were a lot of people around. It was a kind of artistic enclave but in some part he viewed it as a respite, a way to get away from London.”

Beyond the Town Hall Galleries, there are different areas to explore. There is a magnificent costume display at Christchurch Mansion. Visitors can view costumes from Ashton’s Cinderella with garments worn by Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself, alongside the iconic costumes from Tales of Beatrix Potter, including those for Mrs Tiggy-winkle, Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-duck and Jeremy Fisher.

Meanwhile at Dance East’s Jerwood DanceHouse there are free daytime screenings of Royal Opera House film Come Dance With Me, which includes ballets by Ashton as well as an exhibition of photographs of The Royal Ballet performing new works.

There is an accompanying Ashton Trail leaflet which highlights places associated with Ashton’s life and work.

Sir Frederick Ashton: Ballet and Suffolk runs at Ipswich Town Hall, Christchurch Mansion and the Jerwood Dance House until October 9.

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