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Sir Frederick Ashton: still crown prince of British ballet

It's not everyone that can celebrate his 80th birthday by dancing on stage with a fairy tale princess (who happens to be one of the world's best-loved ballerinas), in front of a black-tie-and-ball-gowned audience that includes a real-life princess.

And it's not everyone that, after performing with his ballerina and getting a standing ovation and a dozen curtain calls, asks, ''Would you like it again?'' and is met with a roar of assent.

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But then, Sir Frederick Ashton is not ''everyone.''

The light-footed octogenarian, whose glittering gala was attended by Dame Margot Fonteyn and Princess Margaret, has been the choreographic architect of British ballet for more than five decades. His creations, with their flowing movements, often intricate and difficult footwork, clear interpretation of music , and national characteristics, have contributed greatly to the uniqueness of the British style, recognized worldwide. His repertoire is vast - spreading from full-length ballets to pas de deux, from classical to jazz, from geometric abstractions to fairy tales, and from sumptuous sets to stark silhouettes.

Sir ''Fred'' was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the son of a British diplomat. But it was in Lima, Peru, that he was first smitten with the desire to dance. He was 13 years old, and seeing Anna Pavolva perform on one of her many world tours made him determined to learn. Ashton's first ballet lessons, taken in secret, were with Leonid Massine and later with the petite and incredibly energetic Marie Rambert. She gave him the discipline, opportunity, and guidance he needed, recognizing that his talents lay beyond the feet of a dancer into the creative realms of choreography. He gained experience both in London and Europe, producing works for various groups who paved the way for today's Royal Ballet.

In her book ''Come Dance With Me,'' Dame Ninette de Valois, the matriarch of British ballet, remembers Ashton in the '20s as ''small, nervous, and touchingly eager to please. He was exceptionally prolific (in his choreography) - always working with a great facility. He has an intensely ephemeral attitude toward his ballets - I doubt if he has any notes of reference on any of them ... he would prefer to re-compose rather than endeavor to remember.''

Over the years, he has choreographed more than 55 ballets, including ''A Month in the Country,'' ''La Fille Mal Gardee,'' ''Facade,'' and ''Daphnis and Chloe.'' He created ''Illuminations'' in 1950 for the Royal Danish Ballet, and danced his own choreography, complete with snout and prickles, in the ballet film ''The Tales of Beatrix Potter.''

The ''Ashton Years,'' from 1963 to 1970, when Sir Fred took over from Ninette de Valois as director of the Royal Ballet, were building years. It was a period when the standard of performances was never higher, when the company made several triumphant tours of America, and when the magical partnerships of Fonteyn and Nureyev, Sibley and Dowell, and Seymour and Gable drew in the crowds.

Last month's gala tribute at the Royal Opera House offered a hint of the multifaceted talents of this much loved choreographer, including eight works chosen personally by Ashton.

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But the piece de resistance was a very short number, ''Acte de Presence.'' On a bare stage, a ''sleeping beauty'' in red taffeta (Dame Margot) reclines, dreaming. A prince in dinner jacket (Sir Fred) awakens her and they gently dance together, then stroll arm in arm off the stage. Two legends - no wonder the audience wanted more.

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