As a former professional dancer and teacher of the Cecchetti Method for more than twenty years, it is apparent to me that Enrico Cecchetti’s development as a teacher of “classical theatrical dancing” (as opposed to being a mere dispenser of ‘ballet technique’) was informed by an entire lifetime devoted to the stage, and during his engagement as dancer and teacher at the Maryinsky theatre from 1887 – 1903, to Marius Petipa’s own dancers.
Cecchetti was teaching precisely at the time Stepanov notation was being developed and his Method of teaching quickly found a following around the English – speaking world throughout the first half of the 20th century.
The Ballet Class of the Past
The lessons given by great teachers of the past have in the main, with the exception of August Bournonville’s, been lost. Fortunately the main body of Cecchetti’s Method – more than 135 exercises, and most of them devised by 1894 – has been carefully notated by more than one hand and handed down through four generations. Whilst some exercises were developed and adapted for the Ballets Russes and later on, Cecchetti’s English students, from them we do have a clear grasp of what Cecchetti actually taught in his Class of Perfection at the Maryinsky Theatre during Petipa’s lifetime. And since the Class of Perfection was attended only by the highest-level professionals of his day, we can ourselves study more-or-less exactly what those artists would have taken with them into rehearsals with Marius Petipa and his assistants.
At the point Cecchetti was master to the Maryinsky greats, he was but a single artistic generation removed from the schooldays of August Bournonville and Marius Petipa; he had by the way, carefully studied Johansson’s class notes of Bournonville. As Jean-Guillaume Bart, former Etoile and now ballet master of the Paris Opéra Ballet says, what we see today with the reconstructions from Stepanov notation, is that ‘old’ French school in action.
To the ‘old’ French school foundation, Cecchetti added virtuoso Italian elements. For the ballerina, that included taking advantage of a major shift in pointe-shoe manufacture in Italy, over to a much-stiffer block. Although Petipa thought some Italian tricks vulgar, he did incorporate a few, such as those 32 fouettés, where he deemed them appropriate to the storyline.
The Stepanov notation reconstructed
Ratmansky’s new ‘ The Sleeping Beauty’ production for the American Ballet Theatre, which premiered in Los Angeles in spring 2015, is almost completely based on the Stepanov notation. At first glance there is a good deal of demi-pointe work for the ballerinas, which is typically more French school than Italian – but then the virtuosity emerges in the batterie and bravura roles such as the Bluebird’s variation, danced by Cecchetti himself (in addition to the mime role of Carabosse) at the original premiere of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ in St. Petersburg in 1890.
Having now watched film of various passages of Petipa choreography as reconstructed by Doug Fullington and Alexei Ratmansky, it becomes obvious that Cecchetti’s insistence on not raising the gesture leg above 90 degrees (except of course in écarté or penché), is not merely an aesthetic preference – far from it. Many steps are quite impossible to execute correctly with high leg extensions. For example, in the famous Pas de la Mascotte adage, one finds a tour plané en attitude derrière that continues through into the second revolution with a powerful renversé, still holding the attitude derrière. However, if one raise the attitude above 60 degrees, the torso cannot be strongly held enough to dip securely into the renversé. Nor can Cecchetti’s many poses with fouetté (“whipping” the body round to the opposite direction in the flash of an eye) be executed to speed with high leg extensions.
Cecchetti’s theoretical and physical principles revealed
Other fundamentals of the Cecchetti Method, such as holding the arms in the strict classical positions in ellipse (l’arrondi), while never crossing the central body line, or relaxing rather than-hard-pointing the foot, are both bio-mechanically correct, and critical to executing Petipa’s choreography: Every movement and direction, however large or small, is initiated from the body, not from the legs and feet. This use and control of épaulement – or how opposition creates dynamics, power and control – enables a dancer to move with speed, fleet weight-transfer, and lightning-sharp shifts from adagio to allegro; to glide smoothly, dart or bounce as well as sustain classical shapes en relevé or en l’air. The technique appears effortless and reveals the hidden depths behind Petipa’s choreography.
In the Stepanov notation, although Petipa’s choreography appears relatively simple, the devil is in the details, and the real issue is of course HOW. This is choreography whose lines have been designed – like Cecchetti’s enchaînements – to look equally majestic from any vantage point. In Doug Fullington’s words, the lines are more ‘sculptural’ (tutto tondo).
Whilst in Florence in summer 2015, filming Part 2 of a documentary on the Physical Principles behind Cecchetti’s Days of the Week, we visited the Capella dei Pazzi, a Brunelleschi masterpiece which also happens to be a marvellous study in the “singing” quality of “empty” space. It brought to my mind parallels between the architect’s understanding of mathematics, natural law and sacred geometry, and what the art of classical theatrical dancing is supposed to be.
The Stepanov notation reveals also what Karsavina calls ‘lost steps’: the original Petipa combinations may travel upstage, backwards, en renversé or use the stage in unexpected ways – spiralling out from a point to make a double manège, arc-ing in zig-zags or using sharply differentiated spatial planes and dynamics within a single 4-bar phrase’s constraints. Such intriguing choreography allows the dancer to respect the original tempi, and precludes all need to arouse interest by turning every move into the splits.
Cecchetti Method technique
Other Cecchetti exercises, typical of the reconstructed Petipa style, also appear more beautiful with the gesture leg held at the prescribed height whether 45 or 90 degrees – this is because they are actually classically correct -, for example in effacé devant, where a 90 degree extension can be used to breath-taking effect. In effect, it resembles an arabesque in reverse, where high legs would only distract from the heroic shape painted by the torso, tapering off elegantly along the limbs.
For today’s dancer, holding the leg at these ‘lower’ heights means acquiring great, hidden strength in the postural muscles, since the leg will have to be held farther from the torso than when pressed up against the ear or shoulder! In turn, this acquired strength is precisely what will allow the dancer to pull off what now strike us as unachievable pirouettes or tours de force. In fact, one could devote entire lessons to the renversé en dedans, sometimes nicknamed ‘tir-bouchon’, a thrilling movement whereby the dancer begins by standing in 1st arabesque croisée en l’air then dips the torso almost horizontally whilst whipping the gesture leg into retiré passé to make a pirouette en dedans, gradually raising the body to the vertical and the arms into high 5th and finishing on balance, with the gesture leg in upstage écarté. This introduces a wonderful picaresque element, when executed correctly.
To give a concrete example, the Cecchetti exercise: ‘demi – contretemps, assemblé elancé four times followed by six assemblés en tournant and petits tours’, which differs considerably from the grand assemblé en tournant universally performed today.
Following the four demi – contretemps, assemblés élancés, in which the arms are never raised higher than à la seconde, the assemblés travelling autour de la salle begin with a swift degagé derrière preparation then three 3 small steps into a tour assemblé. This is repeated six times in a circle, each time with the beat of an entrechat six, while the arms go through the full 3rd port de bras up to high 5th and coming back down via 2nd position to ‘bras bas’ upon landing! It can either be executed ‘spotting’ to the walls as in a manège, or to each of the 8 sections: wall, corner, wall, corner, wall, corner and so on, finished with deboulés (‘petits tours’) en diagonale.
By contrast, the more universally executed double tour assemblé is the culmination of a grand preparation and finishes with a ‘HOWZAT!’ effect. Cecchetti’s version is about tracing two circles simultaneously, a quite marvellous effect in space as the arms circle, the step itself travels in a circle – meanwhile fitting in that entrechat six as well, six times over!
A visionary research
Some may still insist that being modern means pushing dancers to the utmost limit of turnout, extension and of course pain-threshold, while encouraging choreographers to merge ballet with crossover dance styles and toy with multi-media technology. I would, however, suggest that this new research into Stepanov notation and the reconstructions based upon it, is visionary. By studying Petipa’s work as that of a genius rather than constantly tweaking it, choreographers will gain the insight to create new and important ballets.
From my Cecchetti Teacher’s point of view there is another more exciting potential development that I can see arising as a result of interest in the reconstructions of the Petipa ballets using Stepanov notation and that is, of course an increasing interest in the Cecchetti Method itself. The long established global organisations which promote the Method of teaching through cohesive syllabi and teacher training programmes also strive to preserve the historical legacy and validity of the Method which has been seen as ‘outdated’ and ‘too difficult’ by its detractors, mostly ignorant of the depth and comprehensive nature of the training. The Cecchetti International Classical Ballet organisation founded in Canada in 2004 and its website is one such organisation which also seeks to provide resources for dancers and teachers and link Cecchetti societies around the world.
Looking to the Past to move forwards
Whilst debate rages on in New York and elsewhere about the Ratmansky Sleeping Beauty being merely an expensive exercise in nostalgia and that it is pointless revisiting the past when ballet is moving bravely forwards into the new millennium, I look forward eagerly to Doug Fullington’s master classes at Paris and Rome in the autumn of 2015. I would venture a guess that, as dancers become more familiar with Petipa in the Stepanov notation, they will come to love the original and realise that classical theatrical dancing is something quite different from the Search for Excess with its cortège of pain. It is an art form with a beautiful future.