How valuable is the Cecchetti Method in ballet training today?
by Julie Cronshaw
Maestro Enrico Cecchetti (1850 - 1928) was a celebrated virtuoso dancer, mime, ballet master and teacher of the Italian school. After a successful career dancing in Europe, he was invited to teach at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892. There he began perfecting the classwork that would eventually be known as the Cecchetti Method.
In 1910 the Impresario Sergei Diaghilev hired Enrico Cecchetti as ballet master for his company, the Ballets Russes. Cecchetti eventually opened a school in London in 1918 with his wife, and in 1922, the Cecchetti Society was formed with guidance and supervision from Cecchetti himself. Cyril Beaumont (a writer and publisher) and Stanislas Idzikowski (a Polish pupil of the Maestro's who later became a teacher) codified his work in 'A Manual of The Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing'.
The roll call of those trained in the Method include Anna Pavlova, (Cecchetti's private pupil), Vaclav Nijinsky, Leonide Massine, Dame Marie Rambert, Dame Ninette de Valois and Sir Frederick Ashton. Recent British dance luminaries who acknowledge its importance in their training include Darcey Bussell, Matthew Hawkins and Michael Clark.
In this essay, the author examines the benefits and drawbacks of the Cecchetti Method from the point of view of teaching dancers - particularly those in full-time level and professionals. Reference is made throughout to personal experiences of dance practitioners, cross-referenced with sources on the topic.
For additional research, a questionnaire was sent to about 40 practitioners of the Cecchetti method, of whom about 30 chose to respond. One-third of the respondents were dancers in full-time training, or pre-vocational dance students, another third were teachers of the Cecchetti method, while one-third were amateur dancers with a background in Cecchetti dance training who continue to take classes in the Method. The questions referred to class structure and class content, as outlined in the essay.
Cecchetti brought his diverse and extensive experiences as a dancer, teacher and ballet master into a body of teachings that we know as the Cecchetti Method. His model of classical ballet training is rooted in the principles laid down by Carlo Blasis (1797- 1898) in his "Elementary Treatise upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing" (first published in Milan, 1820) and later in "The Code of Terpsichore" (London, 1828). Cecchetti developed a series of exercises incorporating a set of eight ports de bras, and a set of temps d'adage and temps d'allegro (adage and allegro combinations) which form the cornerstone of his teaching philosophy. They are grouped into a 'Table of daily Exercises for the Week' (Beaumont and Idzikowski, 1977, 243).
In addition, by allotting a number of specific exercises au milieu (centrework) to each daily class, the classical ballet vocabulary is covered over the course of the week. These exercises were reconstructed from the Maestro's original classes by Beaumont and Idzikowski. Cecchetti would have created further enchaînements as needed for his dancers' training, while these extended enchaînements offer complex choreography and opportunity for theatrical expression.
Many of the exercises have contrasting endings, building physical strength and furthering virtuosic technique, particularly in pointe work, which was greatly developed by the Italian school in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the eight ports de bras emphasize coordinated movement in the arms, upper body and head. These exercises develop a kinesthetic understanding of space. Cecchetti used accompanying music to compliment the way the exercises could be done; fortunately some of this music has been preserved for the benefit of students of the Method.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Cecchetti's Method
Cecchetti's Method, although extensively used in classical ballet training worldwide, is nevertheless not universally known, and it may therefore be useful to examine its key features, considering the advantages and disadvantages of each. The discussion here focuses on two primary aspects considered by the author to be integral to the Method.
1. Class Structure
Adhering to the Theory and Principles of Classical Ballet
Classically-trained dancers differ from all others in that they are required to turnout from the hip-socket and employ "an entirely logical system of movement that aims to achieve maximum control and mobility of the dancer's body" (Clark and Vaughan 1977, 90). This technique has evolved over 300 years into the highly stylised, theatrical art form we recognise today, but the principles of the early dancing masters remain: to achieve, as Blasis wrote, "a perfect and unceasing harmony of execution throughout the body" (Blasis, 1968, 33). The majority of questionnaire respondents agreed that the Cecchetti Method strongly adheres to the theory and principles of Classical Ballet.
The classes Cecchetti taught were designed to develop stability, aplomb (or equilibrium, the balance of the body which, when achieved, allows for ease of movement) and spatial awareness. Harvey Hysell, director of Ballet Hysell in New Orleans and a student of Vincenzo Celli (1900-1988), who was a private pupil of Cecchetti's, said in a telephone interview to the Vestris Society on June 25th 2006:
"Cecchetti bases everything on the placement (...). We had fabulous balance. It was by reference to the vertical, starting from the nose straight down to the feet as they stand in first position… that is what gives the beauty of line and makes the dancing effortless."
On his use of space Hysell continues:
"(It) is in keeping with his use of curved lines in the body. One doesn't use space in an angular way (...) The Cecchetti dancer dances naturally." (Hysell/Vestris Society, 2006)
Interestingly, the shape of the spiral, a morphophyte based on Phi (the golden mean proportion), evident in nature and incorporating properties of strength and flexibility, is found throughout the class, in pirouettes that unwind from a grand plie, for example, to poses in attitude, developpe en tournant and renverses.
The Table of Daily Exercises for the week
The 'Table of Daily Exercises for the Week' establishes a revolving regime of exercises au milieu for every working day. These follow an uncomplicated barre, port de bras, and centre practice. Cecchetti likened them to "the practicing of scales and arpeggios", so that they may "fit you to dance with ease and grace" (Beaumont and Idzikowski, 1977, 58). Cecchetti wanted to ensure that "every type of step is used during the week" (Beaumont and Idzikowski, 1977, 104), for example, assemblés on Mondays, jetés on Thursdays and grand allegro on Saturdays. Thus the dancer progresses methodically through the vocabulary, and there is less likelihood of the teacher's omitting a step being.
One can attribute numerous advantages to this part of the method:
Cecchetti taught daily class to professional dancers. His exercises were created for their needs, and for the rigours of company life. They require a high level of technical accomplishment and understanding, to be able to execute well, enabling the dancer to develop strength and speed, pure lines and good placement. Once the step-combination has been learned, repetition of the exercises enables the dancer to concentrate his efforts on expression and technique. They are designed also to develop stamina and increased physical capacity. Hysell comments:
"(...) Those exercises make you go through the positions that create the strength (...) It's both the repetition, and that you have so many different exercises within a single class that builds the stamina". (Hysell/Vestris Society, 2006)
This is very important for advanced dancers and professionals, because they must maintain a level of fitness and technical competency to be able to cope with the demands of working professionally. Cecchetti was a brilliant technician of his day. He danced the bravura 'Bluebird Pas de Deux' from 'Sleeping Beauty', created for him when he was already forty years old.
"Cecchetti conceived that the teacher could add new exercises as his students' technique developed. This is systematic development. The advantages are: "in order that the student may develop and quicken his power of analysis, and his aptitude for assimilating new sequences of movement." (Beaumont and Idzikowski, 1977, 104).
At the same time, drawbacks might include the following:
There is the risk of boredom and complacency, if exercises be rigidly adhered to, with no allowance for additional choreographic input from the teacher. Agrippina Vaganova insisted on "no rigid plan for the construction of lessons", instead relying on the "teacher's sensibility" (Vaganova, 1969, 13), trusting that the teacher will meet the individual weaknesses of students through appropriate exercises.
There is a current fashion for extreme suppleness in dancers that has become a pre-requisite in most companies. Choreography by George Balanchine and William Forsythe, for example, demands it. However, in the appendix to their 'Bournonville and Ballet Technique' (1961, 65), Erik Bruhn and Lillian Moore quote the Maestro from his handwritten manuscript dated Saint Petersburg 1894: "it is not by taking one foot in his hand and torturing it…nor in putting one foot on the barre in order to raise it high and split oneself; but it is by sober exercises that one succeeds in conquering obstacles."
When the leg is lifted above 90 degrees, unless the torso be strongly inclined in counterposition to the leg, as in écarté or penchée for example, equilibrium is compromised and the classical form, distorted. However, in ballet today, assiduous stretching is integral to many classes, leg extensions are the higher the better, even when dancing Petipa ballets, as the present author discovered whilst in Russia being coached for 'Sleeping Beauty'. This is completely against the principles of classical theatrical dancing found in the Method.
The above illustrates what are perceived to be disadvantages of rigidly adhering to the theory and principles of the classical ballet class within a daily exercise schedule as taught by Cecchetti. A blinkered devotion to the Method may have a particularly adverse impact on the inexperienced dancer, unless the teacher can invent unset exercises to meet their individual needs. More experienced teachers and students may feel restricted by the Method because of the seemingly contradictory styles of ballet training offered elsewhere. However, the author and the majority of questionnaire respondents agree that the weekly programme of daily exercises is a valuable aspect to the Method.
2. Class Content:
Cecchetti's theory and system of Port de Bras, (meaning 'carriage of the arms'), is epitomized in his series of eight sets of arm movements. Sir Frederick Ashton recommended that it be done daily. He wrote to Richard Glasstone on 16th July 1984:
"If I had my way, I would always insist that all dancers should daily do the wonderful port-de-bras, especially beginners. It inculcates a wonderful feeling for line, correct positioning, and the use of head movement, and épaulement, which if properly absorbed, will be of incalculable use throughout a dancer's career[i].
Cecchetti's system of port de bras finds its antecedent in 'The Code of Terpsichore', where Blasis writes: "The position, opposition and carriage of the arms, are, perhaps, the three most difficult things in dancing, and, therefore, demand particular study and attention" (Blasis, 1828, 67).
Advantages of the Port de Bras include:
The development of a lyrical, coordinated movement quality in the upper body, because the arms have to move at different speeds to reach their desired positions simultaneously.
By studying Port de Bras in isolation, the dancer concentrates on perfecting arm shapes and movement in all of the upper body. This facilitates pliancy in the torso, maintains stability and balance in the lower body, and improves the dancer's overall aesthetic appearance in pose and movement. Roger Tully, master teacher who studied with Idzikowski and Rambert, says in an interview given to the author in February 2006:
"They are the carriage of the arms, not the movements and not the positions. Therefore they imply this continual understanding of what the body does before the arms actually make any sort of movement."
The enchaînements and accompanying music
In the advanced work, the vocational student encounters Cecchetti's choreographed adages and allegros, some derived from or inspired by classical variations. For example, the Monday step from 'Giselle': "développé à la 4ème devant, croisé-relevé sur la pointe, fermez en 5ème position-glissade-entrechat six de côté (P)'. (Craske and De Moroda, 1956, 16). Additionally, many exercises have contrasting endings with appropriate music so that, as Harvey Hysell says: "Your body would thus end up in a complementary position to the exercise you had just accomplished". Both Hysell and Tully mention the existence of musical scores that were Cecchetti's own with specific music for specific exercises[ii]. The enchaînements and their musical accompaniment provide a window into his philosophy of teaching, evidencing choreographic flair alongside a profound understanding of technique with inherent musicality.
Advantages to the study of these enchaînements include:
Developing emotional expression beyond the physical demands of the steps. The majority of questionnaire respondents also agreed with this aspect of the Method because the diverse qualities of each enchaînement demand contrasting interpretations, just like choreography onstage. Again Roger Tully says,
"Every move in that advanced work arises through the emotional expression. They go beyond what you're doing with your body… so they're very good indicators of where a dancer is." (Tully/Cronshaw, 2006)
Cecchetti's exercises were perfected for the dancers of the early twentieth century. Today's tastes have changed and dancers encounter choreography in a wide variety of different styles and idioms. Richard Glasstone remarks that in fact it is unlikely that anyone teaches the Method as Cecchetti would have done, because they will not studiously adhere to the classes as arranged by the Maestro in his 'Days of the Week' format, preferring to pick and choose enchaînements as needed and adapting the classes to the demands of the institution, company or choreographer.
The author has found that many non-Cecchetti trained dancers who come from different dance training backgrounds - and of whom perhaps only a few may actually be well-acquainted with it - view the Method as dated, or out of touch with current studio and performance practices.
As for non-professional dancers, they tend to opine that the Method is indeed outdated. This could be because they are not involved in professional dance institutions but attend classes in a commercial environment where there may be less knowledge and understanding of the Cecchetti Method amongst dancers who will have come from many diverse dance backgrounds.
Musical and theatrical sense and emotional expression accompany good technical training. Unfortunately, prevailing taste may blind a student to the benefits of the port de bras and enchaînements found in the Cecchetti Method when danced as Cecchetti may have wished, and instead, a more gymnastic approach may be favoured. However, even today, still these beautiful, inspired miniature choreographies inform us as practitioners, just how much work is really needed to dance them successfully.
We have seen the value of the Cecchetti Method lies both in the structure of his classes and their content.
The author's examination of the value of the Cecchetti Method highlights the fact that, on balance, the positive aspects outweigh the drawbacks. The Method offers a breadth of training which provides a firm foundation for both the novice and aspiring professional, enabling the latter to readily adapt to the challenges of a dancing career. The talents of legendary dancers such as Anna Pavlova and Vaclav Nijinsky in their day, household names such as Darcey Bussell, and the many great teachers worldwide whose students have gone on to have successful dancing careers, are testimony to this.
Contemporary dancers such as Matthew Hawkins and Michael Clark show how Cecchetti's Method provides a foundation for different dance idioms. It has also influenced the development of a choreographic style, as evidenced in the contribution of Cecchetti trained, Sir Frederick Ashton. His work can be seen as highlighting many of the key features of the Method, including fluidity in the upper body aligned with speed and precision in the footwork.
The author is privileged to be a part of this valuable legacy and trusts it will remain an important part of the British academic ballet tradition.