Frederick Ashton was born in Guayaquil in Ecuador on 17 September 1904. He was brought up in Peru, and it was there, in 1917, that he saw his first ballet. He was enthralled by Anna Pavlova's performance, and decided that he wanted to dance. Having come to England to work, he began to study with Léonide Massine, but family disapproval forced him to keep this secret. However, in 1926, after two years' tuition, Massine was no longer able to teach the 22-year-old Ashton and recommended him to Marie Rambert. It was she who convinced him of his potential as a choreographer, and he created his first choreography, A Tragedy of Fashion, a short while later.
In 1928, he joined Ida Rubinstein's company as a dancer under Bronislava Nijinska. Whilst he was with the company he became something of an apprentice to Nijinska. She was a hard taskmaster, but Ashton learnt a lot from her. He also danced in most of the company's performances, including Ida Rubenstein's famous interpretation ofBolero. However, Nijinska found having to give Ida Rubinstein a role in every new ballet very difficult and left the company. So, a year later, Ashton returned to Rambert's company for further instruction in choreography. Over the next few years, with works such as Capriol Suite (1930) and Façade (1931), he became known as a choreographer and was appointed Chief Choreographer of the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935. He was to hold this position, in various guises, for 35 years. Many of his most celebrated ballets date from his time with the Company, as the Vic-Wells ballet, later Sadler's Wells Ballet and ultimately The Royal Ballet. These include Les Patineurs (1937), Dante Sonata (1940), Symphonic Variations, Scènes de ballet and Cinderella (1948). In 1950 he was made a CBE.
In 1952 he was made Associate Director of The Royal Ballet and he continued to choreograph. Two of his best-known works, La Fille mal gardée (1960) and The Two Pigeons (1961), date from this time. In 1962 he was knighted and made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur and a year later was appointed Director of the Royal Ballet.The Dream, Monotones (I and II) and Enigma Variations were all premiered with The Royal Ballet in the late 1960s before his retirement in 1970.
After his retirement, Ashton continued to choreograph and worked on three ballet films. One of these was The Tales of Beatrix Potter, in which he appeared himself, as Mrs Tiggy Winkle. He created his last work, Rhapsody, in 1980 and died in Sussex in 1988, aged 84.