LONDON — The graciously lyrical ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton are a quintessential summation of that soft and pliant style of dancing that the British have refined to polished perfection.
These days, Ashton, who turned 83 on Sept. 17, is regarded as one of England's national treasures, but that wasn't always the case. Early in his career, which began in the 1930s, his choreography was sometimes considered too controversial, occasionally even dismissed.
"It was only when the Americans started to appreciate me (during tours of the United States in the postwar '40s) that people in England began to say, 'Oh, perhaps he has got something,' " Ashton recalled earlier this month. "They needed proof, you see. No one is ever a prophet in his own land. The enormous acclaim in America is what actually started it here."
No American has done more to solidify that reputation than Robert Joffrey. Since 1969, his company has staged nine of Ashton's works, including "La Fille mal Gardee," "The Dream," "Monotones I and II" and "Les Patineurs," all to be seen during the three-week Joffrey Ballet engagement at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion beginning Wednesday.
"I'm very proud of our Ashton works," said Joffrey recently on the phone from New York. "He is one of the most important choreographers of our time and his works are a great artistic challenge to our dancers. His ballets all have such a marvelous sense of style. Also, we've been very lucky in working with some marvelous people on these productions."
Alexander Grant, who supervised the Joffrey productions of both "La Fille" and "The Dream," is a longtime associate of Ashton's and danced Bottom in the original production of "The Dream."
This one-act ballet, based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," was first created for the Royal Ballet in 1964 as a part of a celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard's birth. It went on to become one of Ashton's best-loved and most enduring works. The Joffrey first danced "The Dream" in 1973 but never in Los Angeles until this season.
Grant, who had just come back to London from Joffrey rehearsals in New York, arrived at Ashton's flat carrying a sack full of elegantly wrapped packages, presents from American friends to mark Sir Frederick's birthday.
"I do wish people would stop sending me presents," Ashton groaned good-naturedly. "One never knows what to say."
A small man with a distinctive profile worthy of Edith Sitwell or Elizabeth I, Ashton exuded dignity and polished manners.
He'd been spending the afternoon trying to deal with his mail. The stacks of airmail envelopes, as blue as his silk cravat, accumulated during his summer stay in the country. He arranged them in vague piles all around the room and gradually tried to plow through them, though, one suspects, his heart really wasn't in it.
"I've got to send Joffrey a great whacking present for opening night," he said. Much as he would like to do so, he's never seen any of the Joffrey productions of his ballets. Ashton maintained that his days of traveling are now over.
"Airports," he said in a withering tone that made the word sound more repulsive than a third-class cattle train from Bombay to Calcutta. "I simply cannot cope with airports anymore."
"It was all arranged for me to take Fred over for 'Fille' last year," said Grant, "but at the last minute it was called off. He had the perfect excuse: He had to squire the Queen Mother to the theater."
"Of course I would like to see my ballets," Ashton added. "Having other companies do them is a bit like giving away kittens. One tends to worry about them and hope that they'll be all right, but then one must have faith and trust in the people I delegate to take my place, like Alexander."
"You would be pleased," Grant reassured him. "They really do it very well. They're very conscientious about getting it right. In fact, I think the corps de ballet is the most precise I've ever seen."
Grant, who had coached several casts for the upcoming Joffrey performances of "Dream," vividly remembered the days of working on the role of Bottom in the original production. He had particularly strong memories of the transformation scene when the character is turned into an ass.
Ashton craftily decided that one of the swiftest ways of depicting the magic was to have Bottom dance in pointe shoes. Not only did it look as if his feet shrunk to the size of hoofs, but it also gave Bottom a giddy otherworldly quality.
"I kept telling the boys who were learning the role to be sure and put tape on their toes," said Grant. "You see, men haven't had all those years of toughening that ballerinas go through. But they didn't listen to me and they all ended up with blisters on their big toes. It's all right now. Once you've gone through that, you're not quick to forget your padding."