Enrico Cecchetti, ballet master to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, creator of the Method which bears his name, was one of the most celebrated demi-caractère dancers and mimes of his day.
Trained initially by his father Cesare, then by Giovanni Lepri, the latter a pupil of the great Carlo Blasis, Cecchetti became an accomplished dancer, schooled in both the French classical ballet and Italian coreodramma traditions.
From the 1860’s onwards, Italian ballet training advanced virtuosic technique in both men and women. Thanks to improvements in pointe-shoe making, ballerinas such as Carlotta Brianza, Virginia Zucchi and Pierina Legnina dazzled audiences with their daring turns, jumps and balances. But all was not razzle-dazzle: the Italian school was acclaimed throughout Europe for purity of line, elegance in port de bras and a seemingly effortless agility, alongside the most vivid mime and art of gesture. What were the concepts underlying all this? However had it been achieved? For the answer to become intelligible, the world had to await the emergence of Maestro Enrico Cecchetti, teacher and ballet master.
Days of the Week
It was towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, whilst teaching at the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg, (later to be re-named the Maryinsky Theatre) that Enrico Cecchetti first developed his Method, which he noted down as a ‘Table of Daily Exercises for the Week’. Although when coaching privately disciples such as Anna Pavlova, Cecchetti would adapt the work to the problems before him, nevertheless, from his Imperial Theatre days until his death in 1928, he adhered rigidly to the ‘Days of the Week’ format.
And there was good reason for so doing. Cecchetti worked out the Method in order to build a well-rounded dancer, as confident and effective in allegro as in adagio technique. Across the Week’s six days of classes, it proceeds through the full range of steps, movement qualities, dynamics and spatial planes, leaving nothing to mood, chance or caprice on the teacher’s part. One may thus surmise that Cecchetti intended to “close all loop-holes” that is, ward off the risk that another teacher, left to his own devices, ignore entire areas of technique that he might dislike or find boring.
By the early Twentieth Century, Cecchetti’s pupils – Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, Lopokhova, Dolin, Markova, Preobrazhenskaya, Spessivtseva, Kyasht, Idizkowski, Massine, Lifar, Nemchinova, Egorova, Rambert, de Valois and so many others – had won him the crown of one of the great teachers of all time.
At the outset, a misunderstanding should be cleared away. At no point was Cecchetti’s Method designed for children too young to be consciously aware of a principle. It was for the Imperial Theatre’s most gifted theatrical artists that Cecchetti originally invented these exercises. After the Great War, when he opened his London school in 1918, he taught advanced students and professionals who wished to perfect their already considerable skills. Consequently, his Method is neither gradual, nor suitable for drop-in classes. It came into the world all of a piece, a single, fully-formed concept, where all the parts – each Day of the Week – are intrinsic to and indispensable to the whole.
The Physical Principles
Over the past two decades, I had often wondered what Cecchetti’s reasoning had been in tabling the enchaînements into this or that Day of the Week. As it happens, each Day focuses on a particular family of steps and clearly, there is a theme at the core. Suddenly, whilst discussing with friends in early 2010, two basic but misunderstood, principles viz., aplomb and épaulement – a Eureka Moment! I realised that through the Week, in a definite sequence, Cecchetti had pinpointed certain physical principles that he intended his dancers to become aware of and straightaway apply.
Teaching through Poetry
As with any major art form, for something to work – for a statue to stand, for paint to remain on canvas and not slide off, for a dancer to move with ideal stability, balance and harmony – whatever is being done must correspond to a physical reality and to natural laws. And so Cecchetti’s enchaînements began to reveal themselves in a new light, his very practical purpose being the structure that makes sense of a cornucopia of the most wonderfully expressive and delightfully musical steps.
Here, is an outline of the principles at work as I understand them, proceeding in an obvious and logical development.
Monday – Les Assemblés: The Line of Aplomb
Tuesday – Les Jetés Battements: Épaulement
Wednesday – Les Ronds de Jambe: Turnout.
Amplifying épaulement as the limbs deploy farther away from the centre, in action both en-dehors and en-dedans
Thursday: Les Jetés: Weight transfer in the air
Friday: La Batterie and Les Temps de Pointe:
Suspension/the aerial plane
Saturday: Les grands fouettés sautés : Ballon.
All the above principles are combined, in a context of dynamic, momentum and speed, changing direction en l’air and on all spatial planes.
The Cecchetti Barre and Ports de Bras
This also explains why Cecchetti’s barre is a short warm-up, neither complicated nor choreographed. Purely functional, the barre prepares the dancer not only to find their axis but also specifically for jumping. Cecchetti taught professionals, who would already have been aware of its purpose. Au milieu, the dancer repeated several of the barre exercises before moving onto adages, pirouettes and allegros, but only after performing a series of ports de bras. Suffice it to say that these ports de bras are no mere arm-waving: they establish one’s position in space, affirm stability and balance, and restate the need to coordinate the arms and legs in fluid harmony at all times.
Just as the steps proceed through the Days of the Week in a logical progression, so do the two sets of Ports de Bras. Deceptively simple at the start, flowing arcs of movement sur place develop to combine forms of attitude and arabesque in temps lié and culminate in a grand circular port de bras with a deep cambré on the horizontal plane.
The Underlying Principles behind the Days of the Week
Monday: Les Assemblés – Aplomb
The Monday class is about establishing and maintaining the line of aplomb or ‘plumb line’, a phrase originally used by builders and architects to establish a vertical through the centre of gravity.
In an assemblé, the dancer moves from two legs in 5th position, slides one leg away to jump into the air and assembles both legs together en l’air before landing in 5th – hence the term ‘assemblé’. In Cecchetti’s day, and for the first generation thereafter of imperial Theatre-trained dancers and teachers, standing in aplomb meant holding the centre of gravity directly over the line that runs down through the centre of the body, down the back of the front leg and the front of the back leg when in 5th position. When the dancer disengaged the gesture leg from the 5th position, he did not shift his body-weight towards the ball of the standing leg, but remained securely on the line of aplomb, as épaulement held the body in dynamic opposition. In this way, one might say that the dancer is not actually standing on the supporting leg, but is rather held « upwards » by the deep postural muscles – on the line of aplomb.
The notion of Aplomb
It is easy to dismiss this notion of standing on the aplomb as a physical impossibility because, or so it is argued, how can one disengage the foot from 5th position without first shifting the weight onto the balls of the feet? Well, what is the rest of the body to do, whilst standing in the 5th position?
The torso is encouraged to hold the shapes in opposition, aided by training at the barre which, since childhood, accustoms the dancer to standing on his centre and in his body and not in his legs. Cecchetti would give several barre exercises au milieu, aplomb having been established at the barre. Throughout those simple and repeated exercises, little apparent action takes place in the arms and head. This is not to say that the body will remain stiff as a plank, without épaulement or emotional expression! Cecchetti’s dancers, stars of the Imperial Theatre, had already a command and facility of these aspects. His method was to get them warmed up quickly without fussing over the arms and head, since it is the body that needs to be prepared for the centre – not merely the legs and feet. Opposition is activated about the body, with the arms held en bas to restate the line of gravity and the support from the postural muscles, deep within the torso.
Schooled from childhood to stand and work in the line of aplomb, Cecchetti’s dancers knew how to use the ‘device’ of the barre. This knowledge has gone lost. Today, most classical dancers have been trained to shift the body-weight towards the ball of the foot, thereby forcing the leg muscles to hold the body upright, which can lead to an appearance of heavy or over-developed muscular legs. This technique makes bad bio-mechanical sense, since the structural muscles of the torso, and not the leg-muscles, are designed to serve that purpose. Shifting the weight to the ball of the foot makes the barre work virtually useless; since weight is wrongly allowed to settle onto the standing leg, the resulting tension set up throughout the body not only prevents the dancer from acquiring a stable, harmonious and « lifted » classical line but also hinders him from jumping efficiently, as additional effort is required to push the body back onto the vertical axis before taking off.
Tuesday: Les Jetés Battements – Épaulement
The key to Tuesday is épaulement (also known as contrapposto, or opposition in the body). Moving outwards from a quiet centre, the dancer creates stable shapes with dynamic potential. This arises from an observation of a simple form, because the human being is designed to move in opposition: in walking, one swings the right arm backwards as the right leg steps forwards, and vice versa. The notion of opposition develops logically from standing in, and using the aplomb. On Tuesdays, Cecchetti focussed on enchaînements that skim the floor, incorporating jetés battements and a family of related steps with terre à terre quality.
In their simplest form, jeté battement is a terre à terre step performed in series, travelling upstage or downstage. In modern French terms, it would probably be described as be ‘un jeté sur place avec double battement frappé, dessus and dessous’.
How Cecchetti uses Epaulement
With the head held erect, eyes gazing straight out towards the audience, the dancer will often move forward along a straight line. The body oscillates gently about its central axis, whilst the legs and feet fly along the floor, in fleet counterpoint to the minimal – but always functional – épaulement in the upper body.
Ornamental as épaulement may appear, for Cecchetti it is above all functional, the natural opposition of the human machine in action. He makes use of the head’s natural function as the culminating point of a spiral.
Wednesday: Les Ronds de Jambe – Turnout
Here we find the shapes, held in opposition through épaulement, travelling outwards to their natural extremities using the action of moving en-dehors initiated by “unfolding” the torso’s frontal plane, and returning to centre using the action of moving en-dedans by “folding in” from the torso’s dorsal plane. Turnout allows amplification and stabilisation of the forms. This in turn enables en-dehors and en-dedans rotation in the arms and legs, hands and feet, as beautiful to look at as it is functional. Emotion will emerge: more extroverted in the en-dehors, more introspective, pensive, in the en-dedans.
How Cecchetti uses Ronds de Jambe
Rond de jambe can take two forms. The first is a circle traced from the knee down, whereby the leg points downwards at an angle of about 45°, the thigh being held quite still. Generally a quick movement, this rond de jambe flashes, brilliant and decorative, in a sequence of bouncing jumps, or en relevé where it will both ornament the gesture leg and help sustain the extension. The second use of rond de jambe is more often found in adage: the leg, raised to hip-level, traces a half-circle en l’air, whether outwards from the front to the back or inwards from the back to the front.
The first three Physical Principles summarised
So far we have seen how the first three principles of aplomb, épaulement and turnout apply to the dancer as a mechanism, standing in space. The second three principles apply to the dancer moving in space.
The second three Physical Principles
Thursday: Les Jetés – Weight Transfer
Thanks to the opposition inherent to épaulement, stabilised by applying the principle of aplomb, the dancer leaps from side to side, forwards and backwards. Whether amplified by using the en-dehors, or gathered for a return to centre using the en-dedans, jetés are about weight transfer in the air, a vaster and freer dimension of emotional expression.
How Cecchetti uses Jeté
To prepare a jeté, Cecchetti will commonly use this gathering inwards given by the en-dedans, either in landing from the previous jeté or in the preceding run-up step. The gathering inwards, which may be subtle, or more obvious, will determine the outcome of the jeté, both physically and in the emotional expression.
Friday: La Batterie et Les Temps de Pointe – Suspension.
Here, as with the jetés, the shapes are lifted onto another plane, that of the space above the dancer. For the ballerina, suspension is achieved by pointe work, invented by those pioneering women who sought to explore the farthest limits of movement and balance on the tip of the toe.
The ‘springing’, ‘petit saut‘ or ‘sbalzo‘ method to raise onto pointe
In the Nineteenth Century, pointe-shoe makers in Italy hardened the box and stiffened the shank to allow for multiple turns hops and sustained balances on one leg. Cecchetti’s Method includes dazzling displays of turns sur place, en diagonale and en manège, often with sudden floor-sweeping dips or a full- rotation of the torso upon itself (tombé/renversé). The Italian School insists upon a slight spring onto pointe, called sbalzo, not a clambering or pushing up. Rather than sending the torso chasing after the foot, the latter leaves the floor for an instant to be placed directly under the torso and along the line of aplomb. Securely held upwards and along that line by strong postural muscles, using épaulement and en-dehors, the dancer gains complete control over the extremities, and turns quite literally ‘on the spot’. All turns including those notorious fouettés rond de jambe en tournant remain securely sur place. Nothing then hinders the torso from deploying its full expressive capabilities.
How Cecchetti uses Batterie
For both man and woman, the Friday class focuses on a scintillating display of batterie that allows a lengthier sojourn in the air than would otherwise be possible. The Friday class includes both petite batterie (floor-skimming, done as fast as possible with a relaxed knee, so as to lend the beat a sparkling quality) and grande batterie (using the whole leg, such as in a cabriole or temps de poisson). Batterie can be particularly brilliant in the man, who appears to hover in the air, a phenomenon unique to Western classical dancing. The artist strives to free himself from the confines of the flesh.
Saturday: Les Grands Fouettés Sautés – Ballon
Using ballon to maintain momentum provided by the impetus of the initial sauté and to change directions in the air, the dancer appears to bounce like a ball, seemingly indefatigable and effortless as one step calls forth the next. Jumping for joy is not just a word!
How Cecchetti uses Ballon
Here – a veritable technical and artistic firestorm – Cecchetti unleashes all the principles studied earlier in the week, incorporating them into the most challenging and diverse combinations, which call for mastery of dynamics, speed, change of direction and use of all the spatial planes.
To perform these complex enchaînements that often explore unexpected spatial planes, the dancer must be aware of the purpose behind Friday’s work: sustaining the body en relevé or en l’air. Although the extraordinary Saturday steps cover a vast expanse of floor and may twist, turn, swoop or soar, paradoxically, the dancer must try to avoid expending huge effort. The shapes, directions and spatial planes are revealed through the choreography and by assiduous practise of the individual steps, not by energetically hurtling oneself from one corner of the room to another. Quite the reverse becomes apparent as, thanks to the principle of ballonner, one step prepares the next and then the next, each re-generating the dancer, not wearing him out.
The notion of Adresse: depending upon the skill of the dancer
Cecchetti’s Method depends upon what the French term ‘adresse’, or skill. These skills are learnt. Cecchetti did not submit his dancers to brutal gymnastic manipulation nor would he have wanted them to endure careers based upon survival through innate physical prowess alone, but rather to master the art of classical ballet as he defined it, by learning a rigorous, classical theatrical technique. Even the most virtuosic enchaînements must appear effortless and enjoyable to the observer. This was and still is today, the true aim of the Method.
Cecchetti seems to have operated on the basis of three pedagogical notions: cycles, repetition and variation. Each family of steps returns in cycles – one on the Monday, the next on the Tuesday and so forth. There is no question of a difficulty flitting by, never to be seen again! It will return, ineluctably, at a week’s distance, and then at another week’s distance – until it is no longer a difficulty, but something to be mastered, explored and even rejoiced in.
Secondly, repetition at the barre of the fundamentals in their plainest form, is a procedure generally reserved in other Schools to the teaching of children. Very likely, Cecchetti must have considered that over time, accuracy and purity in the most basic and essential exercises wear away. So these must be repeated.
Thirdly, variation. It is no accident that variation-form is, in a manner of speaking, the germ of all classical music, even the fugue being a variant of variation-form! Here, the question of deep artistic emotion is next the surface. Thanks to repetition and to these cyclic “returns”, the dancer acquires a mastery, a control, and thus an awareness of those variations on the original step-theme, the very details that make the difference between art and gymnastics. He hones his technique to convey the subtlest shifts in musical colour, rhythm and phrasing, the smallest change in a linking step, a floor-pattern, or a port de bras that he will bring to the study of new choreography.
This was Company Class in 1912!
The Days of the Week are something else too: Cecchetti’s very specific answer to the question of how to get an exhausted group of professionals on their feet for the evening’s performance. Indeed, it was the Imperial Theatre dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes who demanded of Diaghilev that Cecchetti travel with them on tour! To Cecchetti, there was no contradiction between using company class to better a dancer’s technique throughout his career, and using it as a warm-up. The Days of the Week are so well-constructed, that they chase away fatigue! This I have experimented myself, whilst putting together in early 2010 a Thursday Class on film for a lecture demonstration.
Having rehearsed and then filmed the Thursday Class over two two-hour sessions, I devoted a third two-hour session to filming a selection of Cecchetti’s exercises from other ‘Days of the Week’. How intriguing to find that I was neither physically nor emotionally exhausted from focusing on the “Thursday” in this way, quite the opposite! Whereas, when I filmed a potpourri of enchaînements selected from across the Week on one single day, I found myself comparatively ‘worn out’.
Cecchetti and the Physical Principles in action
It is highly doubtful that Cecchetti himself was as explicit about having ‘The Days of the Week’ cover the physical principles as they have been stated above, but his achievement – two generations of dancers of outstanding accomplishment – shows that he most certainly understood those principles, and acted upon them.
As one proceeds through The Days of the Week, all the exercises, difficult and taxing as they are, actually work. And if the dancer achieve that co-ordination throughout the body fundamental to the Method, he will produce dancing that, as Fokine said,
‘appeals not merely to the eye but to the emotions and the imagination’,
and dance naturally, without the strain and artificiality that has in recent years tended to obscure its intrinsic power and beauty.
Although I would certainly suggest neither that Cecchetti’s Method is the only viable approach, nor that a Cecchetti-trained dancer can afford to blithely ignore other systems, its merits, in my view, have, and will, withstand the test of time.
Did you say Old-fashioned?
By the time Cecchetti retired to Italy in the mid 1920’s, his Method, which is both extremely rigorous, and lacking in the spectacularly-athletic grand allegro forms that were beginning to take over the Soviet stage, had begun to be seen as out-dated. It was shortly to be superseded worldwide by the system Agrippina Vaganova elaborated in Soviet Russia. When poorly taught – as a mere style, tricked out with quaint gestures, rather than as a fundamental and very intelligent technique – Cecchetti’s Method may appear to be affected, and limited in range. But when taught as Cecchetti would have wished – a tightly-structured class focused on the physical principles we have just examined – the dancer will develop the all-round exuberance of grand technique.
Fortunately for posterity, Cecchetti’s enchaînements and much of his Method were carefully noted by Cyril Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowski in 1921, and his work continued to be taught with fervour by disciples such as Margaret Craske in New York, who kept his thought alive for our own generation.
Cecchetti Method for the future
In our attempts to explore and apply the physical principles outlined above, I believe that we will come to appreciate Cecchetti’s Method afresh as a comprehensive, logical and majestic method of training in the art of classical theatrical dancing, at opposite poles to the gymnastic posturing that now disfigures the profession.
Finally, give heed aspiring choreographers! Cecchetti’s work covers virtually the entire step-vocabulary, much of it otherwise lost or ignored. By touching the imagination, it fosters new work, and will surely prove a thing not of the past, but of the future.
 Sir Frederick Ashton, who directed the Royal Ballet from 1963 – 1970, though not taught by Cecchetti, studied with Massine, Rambert and Craske. Greatly influenced by the Method, he insisted on including the ‘1st and 2nd set of Ports de Bras’ in company class and that it be taught at the Royal Ballet School.
*This article can be found on the Auguste Vestris website here: