The Ballets Russes arrive in London, 1918
Towards the end of the Great War in 1918, a group of exhausted, near-starving and war-weary dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived in London for a series of performances at the Coliseum. How fortunate would this turn out to be for English dancers and audiences over the next few years, as the ballet master of this legendary troupe, a certain maestro Enrico Cecchetti, decided to make London his home.
Having set up a studio at 160 Shaftesbury Avenue, students flocked to take his classes. During Cecchetti’s time as a teacher in London, from 1918 -1922 it was said you could not become a finished dancer unless you passed through his hands.
Cyril Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowsky start work on The Manual.
The writer, bookseller, ballet historian and critic, Cyril Beaumont was a dedicated balletomane and had his own bookshop on the Charing Cross Road in London, the heart of London’s theatreland. It was a few minutes’ walk from the studio in Shaftsbury Avenue. He followed the classes of Cecchetti with untiring enthusiasm and was to write later in two memoirs¹, having been:
‘profoundly impressed by the manner and spirit of his teaching….A school that could produce dancers of the quality of Pavlova and Nijinsky compelled admiration’.
Beaumont saw that when the Maestro’s Method’ was applied to ‘British material’ (his words) it produced remarkable results and stated that (in the)
‘…interests of dancing in general and of a possible future British ballet, … the Cecchetti Method should be preserved for all time’.
Beaumont asked Stanislas Idzikowsky, a Polish dancer, and one of Maestro’s best pupils, to help him begin to write down the exercises which eventually were published as A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing (Méthode Cecchetti). It was not without great effort and took the better part of two years to complete.
My teacher Roger Tully, who took classes with Idzi, (that was Idzikowsky’s nickname), affirms Idzikowsky telling him he would hold onto the bedstead as a barre to demonstrate the exercises to Beaumont, as Beaumont tried to write them down. Beaumont recalled this also in his memoirs.
The Manual is published, first edition, 1922
When Idzikowsky left London to tour with the Ballets Russes, Beaumont asked Cecchetti himself to help finish the Manual. The two of them worked according to Beaumont in his memoirs at Cecchetti’s flat in Wardour Street, from 7pm until midnight after Cecchetti had been teaching classes all day, Cecchetti’s wife Josefina, offering food and wine, and the beloved cat Mami, looking on. Beaumont dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the project and called this contribution to Dance Literature one of his most important. To achieve it, he said, had become ‘almost an obsession’.
More entertaining and illuminating details on the task of compiling the exercises and the unique creation of the illustrations can be read in Beaumont’s , ‘A Bookseller at the Ballet, Memoirs 1891-1929’.
Cecchetti wrote in the dedication of the Manual to Beaumont and Idzikowsky:
“Although the volume’s declared aim may be modest, it has cunningly collated and synthesised, with great clarity and precision, a school brought to its present state of accomplishment by three splendid generations of artists.”
The legacy of ‘three splendid generations of artists’
These three generations of artists link Cecchetti back to the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the end of the 19th century, under the direction of Marius Petipa. in addition, Cecchetti was working alongside another legendary teacher from the Bournonville tradition, Christian Johansson. Nicholas Legat, dancer at the Imperial theatre at the time and later to become a well-respected ballet teacher in England, immortalized this ‘Holy Trinity of the Imperial Theatre’ in a caricature of the three Maestri.
Cecchetti’s academic ballet training was perfected in Lepri’s school in Florence, Italy in the mid-19th century, whilst Lepri himself was a pupil of the original codifier of the classical ballet, Carlo Blasis.
Reflecting on the era in which Cecchetti was teaching in London at the end of the Great War, 1914-19
It may be worth a moment or two to pause and reflect on the era in which Cecchetti was teaching in London, in those difficult years following World War One where 3 million men died.
Cecchetti lost two of his sons who had grown up dancing with him, and who fought in this terrible war. As other conflicts flared up, communism and fascism began to take hold in Europe and other parts of the world. When the Bolsheviks took control of Russia, the classical ballet of the Imperial Theatre was initially perceived as Tsarist, and at one point even faced annihilation. Many terrified dancers fled west into Europe, where, if they were fortunate they could find work with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes or teach ballet in cities such as London (Karsavina and Volkova), or Paris (Kshessinskaya, Preobrajenska and Egorova) or they travelled east to Shanghai, where they worked in cabarets, night clubs and popular theatre.²
The members of the Ballets Russes would never see their homeland again.
Against this background, how must Cecchetti have felt to be removed from the world where classical ballet had been a cultural treasure supported by royalty, and appreciated by a knowledgeable, educated and critical audience? And then, to be holding on to that tradition as ballet master to an itinerant group of dancers whose impresario director, Sergei Diaghilev, though brilliant, set the ball rolling towards the iconoclasm we now recognize in 20th century theatrical dance. Did Cecchetti sense an end to all that he held most dear with the threatened annihilation, in Russia at least, of the art of classical ballet to which he had dedicated most of his life?
He must have been encouraged in London, by the enthusiasm all around him to codify his precious Method! All the evidence points to his unreserved support for the Manual being published and the Cecchetti Society being set up in 1922, to bear Terpsichore’s torch and save the tradition of the glorious Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg, where he had played such an important part.
The formation of the Cecchetti Society and the first fundraising dinner, in London, December 1922
Following the publication of the Manual, which came to be known as the ‘bible of the Cecchetti Method’, Cyril Beaumont was keen to see formed a society to propagate the Maestro‘s teaching. In that same year, 1922, the Cecchetti Society was formed, with Cyril Beaumont as Chairman and a fundraising dinner was held to celebrate the occasion at the Astoria Hotel in London on 17th December 1922. The founding committee consisted of the well-known London-based dancers of the day: Margaret Craske, Derra de Moroda, Ninette de Valois, Jane Forestier, Molly Lake and Marie Rambert, with Cecchetti and his wife, Josefina as President and Vice President.
Ninette de Valois eventually came to direct the Royal Ballet Company and school, and Marie Rambert became director of the Rambert Ballet. Margaret Craske went to New York where she settled and continued to teach the Method of Cecchetti classical ballet.
Many other pupils of Cecchetti went on to teach and establish schools across the world. Their pupils became our teachers and so, the spirit of the Method continues.
The exam syllabus develops and Cecchetti Method teaching is incorporated into the ISTD.
In England in the early decades of the 20th century, the popularity of dancing in all its forms blossomed, particularly ballet and ballroom, and in the case of classical ballet this was in part due to the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. As a result, several dance and ballet societies were formed. One of the earliest was the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, and The Cecchetti Society became embodied with the ISTD, as it is now known, in 1924.
In the Cecchetti Society’s very early days, a Cecchetti trained dancer called Laura Wilson was invited by Margaret Craske, another English pupil of the Maestro, to join the Society. She became part of a group to develop the Advanced syllabus, which had not yet been formalized. The ‘advanced exam’ in the 1920s consisted of Cecchetti’s pupils knowing the adages and allegros through their own personal experience with Maestro Cecchetti.
Other London based Cecchetti dancers, Molly Lake, Derra de Moroda, and Marie Rambert joined Margaret Craske and Laura Wilson to decide which exercises they believed would best represent the Method in a syllabus. For over a year they gathered regularly at Rambert’s home in Kensington and eventually a more complete Advanced syllabus (including the Diploma work) was decided upon, remaining almost completely unaltered to this day. By 1930 or thereabouts, according to Laura Wilson, the Cecchetti exam syllabus was fully formed. It has undergone revisions over the decades but the original exercises and complete enchaînements of Cecchetti, as they are written out in painstaking detail in the Manual, are preserved.
Cecchetti initially supported the society and the development of a syllabus to preserve his work. It was only a few years later, when he had officially retired to Italy for health reasons, did begin to rail against the formality and systemization of his exercises.
Cecchetti in Italy 1923-1928
Cecchetti returned to Italy in 1923 with a plan to retire but his retirement did not last long and in 1925 he was invited to become the ballet master at La Scala, Milan under Arturo Toscanini. He continued to guest teach the dancers of the Ballets Russes, by now based in Monte Carlo, in the summer holidays, including the young Serge Lifar. Cecchetti taught his Method, unwavering in its principles, and determined to maintain the classicism, tradition and purity of the ballet as he saw it, in spite of critics calling it outdated and old-fashioned, until his death in 1928.
Although Cecchetti himself was very critical of Diaghilev’s determination to modernise theatrical ballet, harsh letters were also directed to his former pupils whom he believed were allowing an over-systematized, exam-oriented syllabus to develop in England. Many a teacher who has seen their work stagnate into a petrified form that has none of the essence and vitality of its origins, would probably agree! That said, without Cyril Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowski’s work on the first Manual, and the dedicated founding members of the Cecchetti society in London, it is likely that his teaching would not have survived the changes in ballet training that arise with the passage of time and fashion. Thanks to the pioneering work of Beaumont and the Cecchetti Society, a large collection of the Maestro’s treasured enchaînements with a detailed description of his Method and principles, are now preserved for all time.
The Cecchetti Centre in London, 1983 – today
During the 1930’s, A young teacher trained by Margaret Craske, called Nora Roche, joined the Cecchetti Society. She was to become one of its foremost figures in England, dedicated to preserving the links with the professional theatre and the Society’s ideals. Nora Roche taught Cecchetti Method as an integral part of Royal Ballet School training at the Royal Ballet School White Lodge for 25 years from 1959. Upon her death in 1982, a memorial fund was set up to establish a Cecchetti Centre in London.
The brainchild behind this initiative was Richard Glasstone, Cecchetti-trained in South Africa, who taught at the Royal Ballet School. He had the vision to create a Centre of excellence in London, with regular weekly classes given in all aspects of the Method including special classes for boys. The Cecchetti Centre opened in on 24th September 1983 at a church hall in Hodford Road, Golders Green, which is a short walk from Ivy House, the north London home of Anna Pavlova. At the opening, Royal Ballet Ballerinas Antoinette Sibley and Lesley Collier, both trained in the Cecchetti Method, attended as Patrons with Dame Ninette de Valois as guest of honour.
In 1992 the Cecchetti Trust took over the Cecchetti Centre and Royal Ballet ballerina Darcey Bussell became a Patron.
In 1995 the Friends of the Cecchetti Centre was organized to raise funds and broaden the Centre’s profile. At the inauguration, Dame Alicia Markova recalled her own work with the Maestro. At the time, the three Cecchetti Society patrons were Dame Alicia Markova, ballerina Nadia Nerina and Monica Mason, who are both Cecchetti-trained.
In 2014, thirty years on from its debut in Golders Green, the Cecchetti Centre celebrated with a master class given by Richard Glasstone MBE at Sadler’s Wells theatre. Dame Monica Mason was also present, as member of the Cecchetti Trust.
The Cecchetti Society Trust
In 1978, when Cyril Beaumont died, his legacy endowed the creation of The Cecchetti Trust whose aims were to educate the public in the art of classical ballet and to promote the Cecchetti Method. Diana Barker served as Chair of the Trust from 1978 -1990, followed by Barbara Fewster, Mary-Jane Duckworth and now, Elisabeth Swan. The Patrons of the Trust are Dame Monica Mason DBE, former director of the Royal Ballet, Sir David Bintley CBE former director of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Kevin O’Hare CBE, current director of the Royal Ballet.
Many initiatives such as Scholarships, summer schools and annual classical ballet and choreographic competitions, have been supported over the decades, by the Cecchetti Society Trust. The first Teachers’ Summer School took place at Offley Place, Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1948 and the first Students’ Summer School at Arts Educational School, now Tring Park, in 1998. The annual UK-based summer schools for teachers and students are still supported by the Cecchetti Trust and attended by dancers and teachers from across the world.
Former students who have attended Cecchetti Centre events and who have been ‘Cecchetti trained’ are now professional dancers, choreographers and teachers around the world, their legacy links them directly back to the first generation of dancers and teachers taking classes with the Maestro in England in those dark years following the Great War.
Most recently, the Cecchetti Society Trust has helped produce the Cecchetti Diploma Syllabus on DVD. Directed by Diane Van Schoor, it features dancers from the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Looking to the Future
As the author writes this in 2022, Cecchetti trained dancers and teachers across the world remember the year that Cyril Beaumont took it upon himself to not only publish a detailed manual on the Maestro’s Method but also to set up a society in England that would promote and preserve the teachings of this very important ballet master and teacher, Enrico Cecchetti. Here was the legacy in print of a ballet master whose heritage harked back to the codifiers of classical ballet of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and yet even today, stands the test of time as a highly artistic and scientifically rigorous method of classical ballet training.
Looking to the next 100 years
As we ponder on the direction and future of ‘classical theatrical dancing’ as Cecchetti termed it, my ongoing plea is that we continue to preserve, in their unchanged form, the Maestro’s treasure trove of exercises and enchaînements along with his methodology.
Here are some extracts from the dedication Cecchetti wrote to Beaumont and Idzikowski in the Manual’s First Edition, translated by Katharine Kanter. Their aptness and poignancy are perhaps more notable now than even during the time in which they were written:
‘…. the dance develops each articulation and muscle in accordance with the most natural function, ever in balance and in the greatest harmony.
While elevating the mind, the dance shapes gesture, leading from one pose and one movement to the next, not idly but obeying the rules of silent poetry and musical rhythm…..
But it has had its classical, and its romantic period. It has known a school of truth, and a futuristic epoch, bizarre and tortuous perhaps…
The dance will nonetheless live on, forever young, for beauty is to the mind what matter is to the physical order: it may alter but will never die’.
Julie Cronshaw, August 2022
¹ A Bookseller at the Ballet, Memoirs 1891-1929, C. Beaumont, Cox & Wyman,1975 and Enrico Cecchetti, A Memoir, C. W Beaumont, C. W. Beaumont, 1929
² For more on dancers fleeing the Bolshevik regime: Vera Volkova, A Biography, A. Meinertz, Dance Books Ltd. 2007, Dancing in Petersburg, The Memoirs of Kschessinska, translated by A. Haskell, Gollancz, 1960 and George Balanchine, Ballet Master, J. Taras & R. Buckle, 1988, Random House.
This article was first presented online by the author as part of the ‘Blue Lecture Series’ of 100 years of the Cecchetti Society by Cecchetti International Classical Ballet (CICB), hosted by Anne Butler in Australia, on 27th February 2022. The author wishes to thank Cara Drower and Richard Glasstone for providing links to much of the background material.