The study of Grand Adagio in Cecchetti reveals a mastermind at work. His adages are both a bravura ‘slow motion’ display of virtuosic theatrical technique and a revelation as to how the dance, as a manifestation of universal principles, can convey the most powerful emotion.
A dancer unfamiliar with the Maestro’s work will discover new and challenging steps including steps of elevation quite fallen into disuse, a dipping and diving into all the spatial planes and the most surprising dynamics and endings. From an unexpected preparation, pure geometric forms burst forth and vanish. Held in suspension as the dancer revolves, dips or arcs, a shape dissolves only to appear in some other form. The dancer may spiral slowly or at speed; he may appear to be so off-balance, as to make it impossible to redefine the shape that suddenly emerges before our eyes in perfect stability, harmony and balance.
The purpose of the Adage in the ballet class
Like most fellow-artists of the highest order, Cecchetti happened to be extremely pragmatic: his grand adage is designed to enable the dancer to attain complete control, improve movement quality (plastique in the Russian school) and prepare grand allegro. The shapes the dancer learns to define in adage will reappear in grand allegro.
Indeed, how a dancer moves from one form to the next in adage is a good indication of what his technique and quality of movement will be in the big jumps.
The study of aplomb and épaulement
Broadly speaking, there are two groups of Cecchetti adages; when Cecchetti himself taught them, he would of course adjust, to help the dancer before him. In his allegro combinations, a vast array of steps cover virtually the entire vocabulary and all movement qualities and dynamics; the adagio on the other hand, is a deep study of the principles underlying his Six ‘Days of the Week’ and more especially, aplomb and épaulement.
The first group of adages is nicknamed ‘bread and butter’; they include either développés into any or all of the 8 directions, or grand ronds de jambe en l’air. Beginning with grand plié and relevé in 5th position, they resemble the exercices d’aplomb of the Bournonville school, repeating as they do the basic elements of adagio either sur place or with weight-transfer in various directions.
The second group of adages are choreographed enchaînements such as “Troisieme et Quartrieme Arabesque”, remarkable for their physical demands, structural shape and artistic beauty. Technically very complex and of great choreographic value, they have been compared to the grand arias of Italian opera. As with a difficult piece of music, the dancer is well-advised to practise the trickier elements separately, before trying to put the whole back together.
Least Action Principle
Although the adages require superb technique and thus reveal Cecchetti’s absolute delight in virtuosity – see how he uses renversé, fouetté and slow, sustained pirouettes in open positions – he would allow no sign of strain, artifice or gymnastic display. The word ‘Adagio’ means ‘at Leisure’, and indeed, it takes much study to perform a Cecchetti adage with any degree of apparent ease. They are a lesson in the ‘Least Action Principle’ whereby one seeks to apply the least possible effort for the greatest efficiency in action.
Nothing Added and Nothing Taken Away..
Over the decades I have learned that one should neither add in nor take away anything Cecchetti created in his adages; they are best done exactly as he wanted them. We have just seen that the two most essential principles which inform the ‘Days of the Week’ and therefore the dancer’s approach to grand adage, are the plumb-line or aplomb (standing in the vertical) and épaulement (opposition about the vertical); they can best be understood when standing in the 5th position. The plumb-line runs through the centre of the body, down the back of the front leg and the front of the back leg. And crossing the legs in the 5th position creates actual lines of opposition; these ripple right through the body from shoulder to heel, generating what we call épaulement.
Cecchetti’s understanding and use of the 5th position
For épaulement to happen, the Cecchetti 5th position must not be over- crossed: the front foot’s heel touches the back-foot’s big-toe joint. Nor should the standing leg be forcibly turned out as the gesture leg is released into an extension such as arabesque. The reason is simple: en l’air in grand allegro, what was the ‘standing leg’ in adagio cannot be held as turned-out as it might have been à terre. En l’air the body strives to create, maintain and release harmonious forms through épaulement. While there must be sufficient turnout for the dancer to land safety from any jump, the critical issue is anatomically-sensible alignment of the hip, knee and foot.
That is why Cecchetti’s adages work best when the legs are held within reasonable anatomical limits: a maximum extension of 90 degrees- except in penché, renversé and écarté. That is the height at which the torso’s structural muscles, rather than the quadriceps alone, will hold the leg, and that is what makes the leg feel light. The arms are held well-rounded, in front of the body in co-ordinated harmony.
The whole is more than the sum of its parts
It is folly to lift the legs higher than one can actually jump! This will invariably result in a strained or leaden jumping technique, quite the opposite of the purpose behind Cecchetti’s grand allegro enchaînements: the graceful arcing of Thursday’s grand jeté, the floating quality of Friday’s cabriole devant, the effortless ballon of the Saturday steps.
A Cecchetti adage can be well-performed only once the dancer understands why and how the Maestro created them. Consciously working with the Physical Principles that underlie Cecchetti’s Days of the Week will reveal his adages to be anything but an exercise in static poses; they are clothed with a beauty and grandeur which stands comparison with the greatest works of painting and sculpture.
The author gratefully thanks Katharine Kanter for her help with editing this article. She would like to thank also her teachers Roger Tully and Richard Glasstone for their knowledge, imparted over several decades, which has helped shed light on the technical and artistic considerations of the Grand Adagio .