Merrill Ashley was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and raised in Rutland, Vermont, where she began her ballet studies at the age of seven. In 1964, at the age of thirteen, she was awarded one of the first Ford Foundation Scholarships to the School of American Ballet in New York, the official school of the New York City Ballet.
In 1967 George Balanchine invited Miss Ashley to join the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet, where she soon appeared in many corps and soloist roles in all facets of the Company’s vast repertoire. By the time she was promoted to Soloist in 1974, she was already dancing two of the most technically demanding roles ever choreographed by Balanchine, THEME AND VARIATIONS and TCHAIKOVSKY PIANO CONCERTO #2 (formerly BALLET IMPERIAL). Balanchine also choreographed a solo for her in COPPELIA and CORTEGE HONGROIS. In addition, other choreographers such as Jacques d’Amboise and John Clifford created principal roles for her.
1977 held two milestones for Miss Ashley: she was promoted to Principal dancer and Balanchine choreographed his first ballet for her, BALLO DELLA REGINA. The New York critics described the ballet as a “paean to Ashley’s lightning bravura” and Time Magazine called her “an allegro dancer without peer”. In 1980 Mr. Balanchine choreographed one of his last ballets, BALLADE, for Miss Ashley. It was of this ballet that the New York Times said hers “was the kind of dancing that helps to shape standards of greatness.”
Miss Ashley also danced in a wide variety of ballets in the Jerome Robbins repertoire, including DANCES AT A GATHERING and THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS. He originated roles for her in CONCERTINO and BRAHMS /HANDEL, the latter of which he choreographed with Twyla Tharp. In 1988 she originated a principal role in Peter Martins’ BARBER VIOLIN CONCERTO, and in 1989 premiered another principal role in his FEARFUL SYMMETRIES. In 1991 she originated the role of “Carabosse” in Peter Martins’ THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.
During her 31-year career in the New York City Ballet, Miss Ashley danced throughout the world, including in many of the major cities of Western and Eastern Europe. In 1978 she danced at the White House for President and Mrs. Carter and their guests from NATO. In 1981 she joined a group of New York City Ballet stars, led by Jerome Robbins, which performed in China. In 1986 she was chosen as the American ballerina to represent the United States at a gala, televised throughout Europe and the USSR, celebrating the 40th Anniversary of UNESCO at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. She was a guest artist with many ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in London (dancing in PAQUITA and THE SLEEPING BEAUTY). In 1980 and 1981, she led her own group, Merrill Ashley and Dancers, on tours in the United States. In 1987, she received the Dance Magazine Award.
Miss Ashley’s television appearances include PBS’ “Dance in America” series (including Balanchine’s BALLO DELLA REGINA, DIVERTIMENTO No. 15, the “Emeralds” section of JEWELS and THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS and Bournonville’s Pas de Deux from FLOWER FESTIVAL AT GENZANO) and the “Gala of Stars” in 1980, 1982, 1984 and 1985.
Miss Ashley retired on November 25, 1997 at a gala celebration opening the New York City Ballet’s winter season. In summing up her career, the Wall Street Journal said, “she basically taught the world how ballet is danced.” She immediately joined the artistic staff of the New York City Ballet where she was the Teaching Associate, coaching dancers in their roles and teaching Company class until January 2009. She continues to be a Guest Teacher at the New York City Ballet.
Currently, Miss Ashley stages Balanchine ballets and teaches at schools and companies all over the world. She has taught at, inter alia, the Mariinsky Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the School of American Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet School. Early in 2000 she went to Havana, Cuba to stage BALLO DELLA REGINA for the National Ballet of Cuba. She is the first American ever to go to Cuba to stage a Balanchine ballet. This ballet was the highlight of the International Havana Festival of Ballet held in October, 2000.She has also staged BALLO DELLA REGINA for the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the School of American Ballet Workshop. She has also staged and coached other Balanchine ballets, inter alia for The Royal Danish Ballet, the Hong Kong Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet and Indiana University.
Miss Ashley has also returned to the stage in the character role of ”Carabosse” at the New York City Ballet and has performed the role of “Madge” in “LA SYLPHIDE “ with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Boston Ballet.
Miss Ashley participates in the lecture program WATCHING BALANCHINE/DANCING BALANCHINE, which is sponsored by the Balanchine Foundation. She has been a part of the Ballet Insights program of the New York City Ballet and has lectured on Balanchine at various colleges, museums and libraries throughout the United States such as the National Museum of Dance, the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts and the Morgan Pierpont Library. In June, 2004 she spoke at the Balanchine Symposium at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Her autobiography, Dancing for Balanchine, was published in 1984 by E.P. Dutton. She is the co-author and co-artistic director and dancer in the video series The Balanchine Essays, which gives explanations and demonstrations of the Balanchine Technique®, as well as showing excerpts from Balanchine’s ballets.
She is married to Kibbe Fitzpatrick, a retired United Nations simultaneous interpreter, and divides her time between New York City and Naples, Florida.