There have been many reasons behind the creation of a website about Cecchetti and not least, to bring to a wider public, lesser known insights into this extraordinary Method of teaching classical ballet. I would like to thank first Katharine Kanter, director of the Société Auguste Vestris for her unwavering support, dedication and encouragement which since 2006, has been the catalyst for my research into the Cecchetti Method and ongoing professional practice. Our innumerable discussions, meetings, the “Vestris” events and collaboration with leading lights and visionary teachers and practitioners in the ballet world are the force majeure behind the articles in the website.
I am so grateful to all my ballet teachers, each and every one has imparted wisdom and generously given of their art. In the study of the Cecchetti Method however, I must thank Richard Glasstone. Tt was he who first sparked what was to become a lifelong passion- particularly for his pragmatic approach to ballet training and in solving the problems of ‘difficult steps’.
I am indebted to Roger Tully for providing continual inspiration in daily practice as a professional dancer and teacher. He keeps the flame of the art of classical dancing alive and many of the realisations and practical applications of ideas expounded in the articles have come about directly as a result of working for nearly 20 years with him in the studio.
I wanted to become a classical ballet dancer – or choreographer – from as early as I can remember. At age 5, I started after-school ballet classes at the Stella Mann School of Dancing in Hampstead, north London. Then at 16, I attended the Royal Ballet School for three years and took the Teacher’s Training Course Diploma under Valerie Adams.
I danced in Germany, Russia and the USA, learning the different styles and repertoire of those countries: the European version of Vaganova system and Tanztheater in Germany, ABT and Balanchine style classes in the USA predominently with John Prinz, and Vaganova in Kazan, Russia -where the theatre organization was modelled on the European system and the building is a scaled down version of the Bolshoi.
I enjoyed working in the USA, dancing with different companies, both professional and semi-professional, and moved easily into the roles of ballet mistress and teacher. Dancing in Russia was very special however and I would have welcomed a chance to stay longer in Kazan. There is something special in the theatrical environment for a ballet dancer in Russia, and my perception of dancers in Russian society generally was that they were a valuable cultural asset.
Since 1995 I have been working at my own school in north London, close to where I grew up. This environment has allowed me to develop skills as a teacher, manager and researcher I would not perhaps so easily gain if I were in the confines of a conservatoire or pre-vocational school. It has also given me the freedom to study and teach Cecchetti Method without the external influences of other styles particularly contemporary dance. Also, the dilution and distortion of neo-classical ballet seems to be pervading dance schools globally. I am completely opposed to this.
When I returned to England at the end of 1994 I started teaching and opened my school a few months later. After a few years of teaching, using elements of my professional experience in the USA, I decided that the Cecchetti Method was the way forward for my pupils. At first I chose that Method for practical reasons, as it is well organized here in the UK and there is a structure of graded ballet exams for children. These are popular with parents as they can indicate levels of achievement, and it accredits teachers. The Method is recognized as a standard of quality in the UK. Over the course of 8 years, I became a Licentiate teacher, took my Cecchetti Diploma and became a Fellow in Cecchetti Method. Gradually my studies, teaching experience and research began to reveal the Method to be so much more than a syllabus. I realised just how valuable it is for the training of classical ballet today and for the future.
In 2007 I became a founding member of the Société Auguste Vestris based in Paris and have taught master class events for the Society’s ‘Nuits blanches du Centre de danse du Marais’ as well as guest teaching Cecchetti Method for the Cecchetti society in the UK, in France and in Poland. Some of the articles on the “Vestris” website and in the publication ‘Les Nuits Blanches du Centre de Danse du Marais’ can be found in abridged form in Canadian and South African Cecchetti newsletters.
What Cecchetti created was a Method of teaching classical theatrical dancing, as opposed to a System such as Vaganova’s. His Method is taught through classes which focus upon a series of steps and movement qualities on each day, and which he called the ‘Days of the Week’. As a dancer progresses through each Day, they will work on, refine and ultimately perfect those steps and movement qualities. No chance of ignoring or omitting any particular step one dislikes or would rather avoid! Consequently, once a dancer has learned and understood the Method – assuming it be taught well – he will have acquired a real and pure technique to a very high virtuosic level, a vast movement vocabulary and highly developed interpretative skills.
A Method differs to a System in that it allows a teacher freedom to develop a dancer through a scientific teaching of technique. If it takes longer for a dancer to reach a required level, whether physical, mental or emotional, there is the freedom to allow it. Thus, a dancer’s individual, intrinsic qualities are allowed to emerge gradually over time and developed, rather than being imposed upon from the outset. Weaknesses which would perhaps not be not tolerated in a state conservatoire are dealt with as part of an ongoing learning process. The dancer as an individual is respected. The science behind the art form in methodological teaching provides a means to a high cultural and intellectual ballet education.
In Conservatoires around the world, dancers are picked according to a set of criteria in order to learn ‘Vaganova’ System of ballet and fit the ideal image of the ‘Russian ballet dancer’. When you are in Russia this makes complete sense. It is designed for their dancers, their sensibility and body types. When you are not Russian and try to imitate the training from start to finish, the results are not always successful. The training may be incomplete and inadequate, focusing more on gymnastic flexibility and stage-tricks than on the real nuts-and-bolts of ballet training.
There are many differences between the working attitude of the European dancer, the Russian dancer and the American dancer. I believe these differences stem from the training found in the schools. American ballet training is still relatively varied; great dancers are often nurtured by independent teachers long before they show up in any apprentice programme. They are very much individuals, set their own personal goals and take pride in their individuality. In Russia all students go through a State System of training. The identity of the Russian dancer is inextricably linked with their school and the Russian sense of cultural and spiritual identity. In Europe, this conservatoire system emulates the Russian one and there are countless private schools who produce also many competent dancers. In Europe, state funded schools such as that of the Paris Opera has 300 years of tradition, Britain’s Royal Ballet School, the Royal Theatre School, Copenhagen are also state funded, traditional ballet schools.
Classically trained dancers, particularly those from Russia, and those in traditional State funded academies, must take classes in art history, classical music (Russian dancers all learn an instrument), character dance, and pantomime. These support a dancer’s classical training … which is where US dancers, with their more eclectic studies, may lose out.
This brings me to touch briefly upon the subject of musical interpretation.
Dancers from Russia hear the music differently from western European dancers and Americans hear it differently again. This affects their dancing and naturally enough, their physical and emotional interpretation of the music. It’s like language. When you are speaking in one language for example, but have to switch to another to communicate it alters your thought processes, gestures and less consciously but just as importantly, the perceived view of your surroundings.
A more obvious comparison is this: If you listen to three orchestras playing ‘Swan Lake’, the Russian orchestra will sound completely different to the German and different again from the English or the American. Therefore I believe it is not ideal to expect the majority of the classical dance world to conform to the dictates of one particular training system!
In the USA, from my experience, schools tend to divide into those that teach Balanchine “technique”, Russian or Vaganova style and a few individual teachers whose legacy was from the Ballets Russes and whose training resembles the old Russian or French schools and sometimes Cecchetti too.
‘Balanchine technique’ is a misnomer, in my opinion. It is a style, and was not, originally, based upon a specific technique. Balanchine was a choreographer who adopted a particular neo-classical style influenced by his early Maryinsky heritage and later on, his life in America. The dancers on whom he created most of his pieces, until the late 1960’s at least, were not trained by him, but acquired the style through dancing his choreography. Even the later generations of NYCB dancers who came through the School of American Ballet in his lifetime were trained in a combination of Russian (through Dubrowska and Danilova for example) and Danish or Bournonville (Stanley Williams) technique. In Europe, outside of the Bolshoi and Maryinsky, there are of course the great traditions of the French school epitomized by the Ecole of the Opéra de Paris and the Bournonville style of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, and to a lesser extent, the Royal Ballet School in London, where Founder Dame Ninette de Valois sought to blend Cecchetti training with elements of the French, Danish and Russian schools.
Although I have benefitted much from having learned some Vaganova system, the Cecchetti Method in my opinion remains invaluable. As I said earlier, Balanchine ‘technique’ is actually a style and can easily be picked up once a basic ‘traditional’ classical technique has already been mastered. Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques do complement each other however and fortunate are those few dancers who have the chance to learn both.
Although today’s dancers must indeed adapt to different styles, even in Cecchetti’s day (and he was most opposed to the Ballets Russes’ “modernist” ballets), they had to cope with the demands placed on them by different choreographers.
Cecchetti Method is exactly what it says ‘on the tin’: a Method. Although it follows a rigid class structure, a teacher can work with each individual dancer on their needs. The comprehensive nature of the Method ensures that the dancer will eventually reach a high level of training, no matter where, when or how he started.
It is a paradox that this kind of tightly-structured training ultimately creates an all-round dancer capable of following a career either in classical ballet or other styles, not to mention also creating the largest extant movement vocabulary in ballet training today which is available for choreographers to draw upon.
There is a perception that the Method is too rigid and prevents the teachers from incorporating their own exercises where they feel the student needs different exercises to work on aspects of technique or artistry. This is a misunderstanding. Cecchetti’s body of work as recorded by Cyril Beaumont and Stanley Idzikowsky in 1922 is only a part of Cecchetti’s collection of exercises. He adhered to his Days of the Week structure for good reason: the Physical Principles behind his Days of the Week enable a dancer to make the best possible technical and artistic progress over time, precisely because nothing is left out! Cecchetti invariably adapted the exercises according to who was attending his class at the time. He had for example, a ‘Karsavina’ class, a ‘Pavlova’ class and so on.
Few know that Agrippina Vaganova was very keen to study with Maestro Cecchetti. As she was not allowed to take his ‘Classes of Perfection’ in St Petersburg, she asked Preobrajenskaya to tell her what he was doing.
Initially, as a student at the Royal Ballet School, I was attracted to the theatrical quality of Cecchetti’s exercises. It felt like real ballet. Now with experience, I appreciate the long fluid lines, the coordinated style of dancing with its balanced port de bras, the choreographed adages, different styles of pirouettes and all the different variations on jumping, from terre à terre to grand allegro, ballon, diagonals, change of weight, renversés and Cecchetti’s clever musicality.
After a few years’ teaching, I realised that Maestro’s genius also lies in the structure of the Days of the Week. Once I had grasped the fact that the Method has built in a chronological development in body movement potential and awareness, it opened a whole new perspective for my teaching.
The technique is only the beginning. Applying an understanding of physical principles to the class has made it so much easier to teach technique. The difference is that the students understand why they are doing the steps as well as how, and can develop their interpretative ability because the technique is already assimilated.
There is another reason I love Cecchetti’s Method! I see myself as a stage, and not a classroom, dancer and teacher. As such, I feel very strongly that classical ballet – the earlier term was “classical theatrical dancing” – has to convey thoughts and emotions in a very precise way. As opposed to simply training the body to jump around!
Cecchetti was a superb mime artist, and well-acquainted with Europe’s traditional folk dances, including Escuela Bolera. Even his classroom exercises are highly “theatrical. They speak!
The loss of national dance identity is a serious issue, actually. In April 2012, in association with the Société Auguste Vestris, an event at Highgate Ballet School was organized bringing together Cecchetti, Bournonville and the Escuela Bolera, which is the classical Spanish dance school. This I believe has been the first and only event of its kind anywhere in the world.
In April 2015 I attended a “Vestris” meeting in Italy, where one of the main subjects we discussed was reviving the teaching methods of the so-named ‘Italian school’ of the latter part of the 19th century. Indeed, there were others besides Cecchetti, of whom we know little, who trained artists like the famed Virginia Zucchi, Pierina Legnani or Carlotta Zambelli.
Thanks, in part, to the work of “Vestris”, interest in Cecchetti has now sprung up in France, where master classes have been taught to vocational students. Cecchetti’s work is often compared to the great French master Gustave Ricaux.
Cecchetti’s exercises are often dismissed as ‘old fashioned’ and ‘too difficult’. Well, fashions come and go, but a really pure classical ballet technique and artistry are timeless. In my opinion, most ballet classes now tend to be very generic and dull. The same narrow selection of steps and rhythms are used universally while the classical ballet vocabulary seems to be shrinking. Many classes quite literally descend into what is really little more than rhythmic gymnastics on pointe. I think this level of ignorance is very disappointing to both student and teacher, given the potential talent found in many schools!
I would like to suggest that dancers who are not at a school where dance history is taught, read up on the Founding Fathers of ballet such as Noverre, Angiolini, Vestris and Blasis …. to name but those few illustrious names. It may however be easier to begin with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and the dancers and choreographers who brought ballet into the 20th century, including Anna Pavlova who was a very modern business woman as well as a great artist. Then read about the dance makers and companies of the later decades of the century – Ashton, Tudor, Balanchine, Cranko, MacMillan for example. It is important as well, to study classical ballet in the 19th centuries: the rise of Romantic ballet, Bournonville in Denmark and Petipa in Russia.
Instead of simply stumbling along in fast-forward mode, putting events in their proper perspective may help some understand why a student chooses to learn classical ballet over another form of dancing. Revisiting the masters of the art will help us take ballet into the future.
And if this sparks an interest in dance etymology, go back to ancient India, which is where it all came from, along with the turn-out itself!
Most, though not all, ballet steps come to us from ancient, so-called “traditional” European dances; part-and-parcel of dance history and vocabulary, they should not be ignored.
The ancient Romans knew well that to conquer and rule they had only to extinguish the original culture of the people they invaded. Forget the past at your peril!
As for Cecchetti being too difficult, why then are we constantly being told that today’s dancers far outstrip the previous generation? A dancer trained in Cecchetti Method who understands how the physical principles work, can dance anything. That said, any well – trained classical dancer who understands and integrates them will be able to dance anything.
It is quite shocking but I read that at a recent dance conference it had been decided that épaulement was an ‘optional extra’!
This epitomizes an appalling lack of understanding of a fundamental principle of this art form and is another of the reasons why I decided to launch TheCecchettiConnection.com and am making a film to illustrate the principles and their application to any classical ballet technique, not just Cecchetti Method.
The 6 physical principles are:
Monday – aplomb
Tuesday – épaulement
Wednesday – turnout (amplification)
Thursday – transference of weight
Friday – the aerial plane
Saturday – ballon
It is important to note that Cecchetti’s classes go across SIX days of the week. This suggests that the 7th day is about the notion of space and ‘not-doing’: an important day to rest and refresh the body, physically and emotionally, so that time can be made to reflect on the work done and the work to come.
Here are more details on the film and a link to the crowdfunding appeal: http://www.helloasso.com/utilisateurs/augustevestris-597295/collectes/make-the-work-work-the-physical-principles-behind-enrico-cecchetti-s-six-days-of-the-week
Finally, for practitioners of any such discipline that requires years of constant and unwavering study, Cecchetti says in his Manual:
“Nulla dies sine linea” which means: “No day without a line”.
I would recommend all students of classical ballet to find a copy of Cecchetti’s Manual and read his ‘Advice to those contemplating the study of dancing’. It is as valuable today as it was when Cecchetti was alive.
Julie Cronshaw, London, April 2015
*Extracts from this article can be found in an interview with David Rottenberg on his Balletconnections website*