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By Laura Jacobs

In 1904 the century's two greatest classical choreographers were born: George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. Their destinies could not have looked more different. "Unlike myself," Ashton would one day write of Balanchine, "who had to make all my opportunities from the beginning, and fight my way against every kind of prejudice in order to be allowed to dance ... all the Russian fairies must have gathered at his christening to bestow on him all his great gifts." Balanchine was steeped in dance, admitted at age nine into the legendary Imperial School of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Ashton, the son of a moody English businessman living in Lima, Peru, grew up in a city that tangoed. Ballet wasn't a reality but a tremulous vision, an epiphany in the form of Anna Pavlova, who toured through Lima when Ashton was 13. "She injected me with her poison and from the end of that evening I wanted to dance."

Ashton wouldn't find his way to dance class until he was 17, working in London as an office boy and spending most of his wages for weekly lessons with the famous but testy Léonide Massine. If Pavlova was poison, Ashton was hooked. Classical dance was his rush, his high, his life. Nickel-and-diming his way to the barre, he studied with Marie Rambert, Margaret Craske, and freelanced as a dancer with local opera companies while mixing with the more bohemian Bright Young Things (the Osberts, Gilberts, Ediths, and Evelyns), crashing in country houses and talking till dawn about art and dance. He had a nine-month whirlwind apprenticeship as a corps member in Ida Rubinstein's grubby touring troupe, during which he never took his eyes off the company's brilliant choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska, watching her way with construction, musicality, and classicism tweaked, turned, bent, but never broken.

So he was ready when Rambert called him home in 1929, saying he was needed as a choreographer. London aesthetes and intellectuals (Arnold Haskell and John Maynard Keynes and Constant Lambert) were in the grip of a fever dream: "balletomania." The idea was to make a company that would continue Diaghilev's ideal -- ballet as the integration of dance, music, and decor -- but not Russian, an English ballet. It was one of the artistic miracles of the 20th century, this creation overnight, over cocktails it seemed, of an English ballet. Just as America's New York City Ballet was born of Balanchine, the root of England's Royal Ballet is Ashton.

Top banner photos: Herman Cornejo as Puck; Ethan Stiefel as Oberon and Alessandra Ferri as Titania; Julio Bragado-Young as Bottom with Alessandra Ferri as Titania (all photos by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET).

Ethan Stiefel as Oberon

ABT premiered the ballet in 2002 with Ethan Stiefel as Oberon (photo by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET).

Alessandra Ferri as Titania

Alessandra Ferri dances the role of Titania (photo by Marty Sohl -- Thirteen/WNET).

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