Founding director John Ashford died peacefully in London on 17 December 2023 after a short illness, at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife, Megumi Shimanuki.
As Director of The Place Theatre (1986–2009) and Director of Aerowaves (1996–2022), he promoted artists’ careers in the UK, Europe and beyond. He also encouraged the development of criticism as part of the culture in which dance grows, and in later years became particularly interested in documenting dance through virtual reality.
In recognition of his influence, innovations and commitment, he received the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards (UK) in June 2022.
He will be greatly missed by his colleagues and the wider dance community.
Recollections from the Aerowaves team
“John first employed me when I was 22 (32 years ago – you do the maths) and continued to push me to do better for most of that time. He was single-minded, tenacious and deeply radical. He never stopped asking questions, and couldn’t be flattered. He was kind, funny, sometimes obstinate but usually right (to my annoyance). He will be greatly missed.”
— Anna Arthur, Administrative Director
“Sharp, subversive, strong-willed, John shaped by example. I once called him ‘Capitano’, and he replied: “Capitano? Well, it’s better than the old name, Tyrant.” Getting on board the Aerowaves ship meant venturing new paths before they became known to most. He held to his course with wit, engagement and motivation. I have been proud to be part of the crew. Humbly carrying the baton. Fair winds, Capitano.”
— Elisabetta Bisaro, Co-director
“Upbeat and enthusiastic, and welcoming us with great warmth – that was my first memory of John as a newbie Springbacker in 2015. I’ll always cherish how he made me feel: at home – a walking, dynamic, European dance home. A few years later I was privileged to be ‘cast’ – as he called it – as one of the Aerowaves team. John would, to borrow Anna Arthur’s words, throw out 25 new ideas before breakfast – sometimes overwhelming, yet his eagerness and energy was always contagious. Who could resist? I’ve been immensely lucky. Thank you, John!”
— Clàudia Brufau Bonet, Communications Manager
“John, both truly European and deeply British. We’d often have meetings in the cafes at the Eurostar Terminal in Kings Cross; for the symbolic value, especially during the misery of the Brexit fracas. Working with him was always a joy, like embarking on eminently worthwhile, fun adventures. Mischievous laughter was always present. Despite how seriously he took his job, he could also make light of himself. I was 23 when we met at The Place; I feel so lucky that I can remember him as a precious, amazing, inspiring, life-long friend. Bon voyage, John.”
— Oonagh Duckworth, Springback Academy director
“John put confidence in others, and in return they had confidence in him – which meant disagreements could be productive. He had a rare gift (which I envied) for writing, and speaking, in sentences that were clear, concise, correct and complete, often cut with wry humour. He was forward-looking, sideways-thinking, had boundless curiosity, and a surfeit of great ideas. He appreciated details, while seeing the bigger picture. Huge respect and much gratitude, dear John.”
— Sanjoy Roy, Springback Magazine editor
“You really like pink, don’t you?” That was how it began (and yes, John, I really do!). You became one of the most exceptional and inspiring human beings I have been lucky to call a true friend. With you, I could never fail because everything was just an experiment. We shared the same passion, and damn, I will miss our 2am exchanges of ideas. You insisted that I speak in front of a gigantic venue full of people to let everyone know that it wasn’t your idea to make the documentary about Aerowaves. It was terrifyingly dazzling, and I am so proud that I was able to give you this gift. You deserve much more. John, I told you that you are not going anywhere; you will be present more than ever.”
— Enya Belak, documentary director ‘Aerowaves at 25’
“John knew how to make an idea become reality and how to generate change. Being a determined visionary, he ran at an uncommon pace, leaving behind profound traces that inspired and encouraged others to take risks and look to possible futures. ‘One lifetime,’ he once said to me, ‘is not enough to do all the things we would like to do’.”
— Roberto Casarotto, Co-director
“I first met John in the late 1970s when I was still a dancer, but only really got to know him when I started my transition from the stage to the ‘other side’. John had taken on the directorship of The Place Theatre in 1986, with the ambition of building a year-round contemporary dance programme in London. People doubted it was possible. He made it possible. By 1989, the programme was so busy that he brought me in to help. Most of my experience had been on stage, but John saw something in me, and we worked closely together for eight years. He was a great teacher, not only about the art of programming but about being tough while remaining respectful, about integrity, about persevering against the odds, and much, much more. He was generous and loyal, stubborn and ornery, all in one delightful package. I left in 1997, just after the first Aerowaves season there, but we never lost touch. Many years later, he invited me to work alongside him to develop and run Startup Forum, which has been one of the greatest joys and privileges of my career. As for John being an ‘ideas factory’: yes, he was. Some of those ideas were truly terrible, many were good and, luckily for us, even more were inspired, inspiring and brilliant. Thank you, John. I miss you terribly.”
– Betsy Gregory, Aerowaves Board member and Startup Forum leader