Carlo Blasis & Enrico Cecchetti at Paris
Following the Bournonville bicentenary celebrated at Paris in December 2005, Anne-Marie Sandrini, Superintendant of Dance for the Paris Conservatories, decided to pursue the enquiry and hold, on October 16th and 17th 2006, a public event around the figure of Carlo Blasis, and his student at one remove, Enrico Cecchetti.
The Mayor of Paris and the City's cultural authorities, along with the Conservatoire national de région and the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse therefore invited, at Madame Sandrini's suggestion, Salvatore Rotolo, a Paris-based scholar specialised in the Renascence and the history of ideas, Professor Flavia Pappacena from the National Academy of Dance at Rome (author of several scholarly works on Carlo Blasis, and editor of Grazioso Cecchetti's compendium of his father's technique) and Richard Glasstone (former Senior teacher of boys at the Royal Ballet School, now guest teacher at ENBS and Rambert School, and well-known to this journal's readers).
Well-attended (roughly 150 participants overall), with large groups from the Paris conservatories and teacher-training schools (Diplôme d'état), representatives of the Paris Opera and its School, private dancing schools, pianists and musicologists, art historians, museum curators, and the general public, the two-day event, in which cooperated the Maison des Conservatoires and the Société Auguste Vestris, fulfilled its teaching mission: students as young as 12 found they could follow the beautifully-gauged and illustrated explanations.
On the Monday, the proceedings were opened by Sig. Paolo Grossi, Cultural Attaché of the Italian Embassy at Paris.
Salvatore Rotolo, who, like Professor Pappacena, presented a slide-show, was assisted by "living sculpture", to illustrate the intensity of the exchange over the centuries, between the metaphysical ideas in the work of Piero, Masaccio, Leonardo ... and the classical dance: by a stroke of good luck, the Italian dancers Enny Bogianckino, Andrea Colaianni and Pier-Paolo Gobbo all happen to be studying at Paris, and lent themselves to an experiment untried since the 1820s, when Irene Bude's practised "attitudes" in the sculptor Thorvaldsen's Rome studio.
Between the Renascence and Carlo Blasis (1795-1878), there is a missing link, and that has been supplied by Professor Pappacena's research. She shewed how Raphael had studied and copied the affreschi found in Roman Villas early in the 16th Century, and how he created a style first known as "grotesque" - found in "grottos". In France, by the early 18th Century, this Raphaelesque style became known as "arabesque". Between 1749 and 1765, the next wave of influence was archaeological work at Herculaneum (near Pompei), that led to the discovery of extraordinary dancing figures. These were to have a enormous impact on Canova, who opened his Rome studio in 1779, and on many of his contemporaries. Their influence continues down through Blasis to Cecchetti, as one saw from Professor Pappacena's slides of figures from Blasis' Traité, shewn alongside photographs of one of Cecchetti's great discplines, Margaret Craske, in 1925.
Professor Pappacena then gave a masterly demonstration of how the concept of "arabesque" developed over time, and what Affects have been associated with its myriad forms (fear, flight, aspiring to the Heavens ...). Her presentation concluded with a reconstruction, thanks to new software known as "Life Forms", of exercices and enchaînements from Saint Léon's "Sténochorégraphie". Although well-documented by several different contemporary sources, these enchaînements seem physically impossible to us today, doubtless because we have lost the science of opposition.
Acquainted, as they are, with the philosophical, theological and scientific background to the art works they shewed, Professors Rotolo and Pappacena, created quite a stir, as the dance world would seem to be a little out of practice with thinking "across the lines" of seemingly-unrelated disciplines.
Monday's third speaker was Richard Glasstone, who then, on the Tuesday, gave a master class for Paris teachers in the morning, followed, in the afternoon, by a class for advanced CNR and CNSM students. To mark the occasion, English National Ballet School generously sent two advanced students to assist, Ruth Brill and Benjamin Griffiths, of whom more anon. Julie Cronshaw, formerly a student of Mr. Glasstone at RBS, now a student of Roger Tully and head of the Highgate Ballet School, also travelled to Paris to dance in the demonstrations.
This writer had little-or-no familiarity with Cecchetti's work until the summer of 2006. From watching but three classes, it does recall Bournonville's great Schools, albeit in a different "tone of voice" - Cecchetti seems to like "close-packing", as the physicists say - a greater density of moves per bar of music. Certain forms that seem to recur, such as "tête et jupon", I find most unattractive, and probably superfluous to the techinque as such, being a hangover from the "danza grottesca" or perhaps, from the ubiquitous "serva" of the Commedia dell'arte. Just as one hopes that the "Mercury" gesture, a metaphor for man's relation to the heavens, does not become a stylistic tic, but will be used sparingly, and only where the arrival of that metaphor is called for. Overall, though, in our day, when so-called "classical" theatrical dance is in the main, reduced to a most unclassical picking up of the leg, spinning dizzily, and effecting the splits in all manner of positions, Cecchetti's method is so far above and ahead that he is not, as our American friends would say, in the same ball park. "Un'arte, e non uno sport", in the words of another Italian artist.
It was quite thrilling to see a proper chassé, for example, going deep into and across the floor and then growing up like a flower out of it, or Mr. Griffith's wonderful assemblée, with the push-off leg right off the floor, his brisés en tournant with a completely relaxed head and shoulders (the spitting image of Blasis' own drawings), and Miss Brill's marvellous temps levé à la seconde, like a flash of blinding light in the midst of a dark-and-difficult renversé combination.
In the tradition of Blasis and his Renascence masters, Cecchetti wants forms that are strongly épaulé. This, as Giulia Menicucci, now teaching at Lucca, has pointed out, foreshortens the body visually (making the dancer look marginally "shorter" or better, "ramassé"), as opposed to the tense, ramrod-straight lines that have prevailed since the turn of the Twentieth Century. Cecchetti, like Bournonville, draws the body into a powerful, curving pathway, winding about the line of aplomb like a tendril about the vine. Since, from an anatomical standpoint, there is virtually no straight line in the human body - a seething mass of "Riemannian surfaces" - the artificial construct would rather seem to be the "straight line" approach, while that of Cecchetti would be most in tune with Nature, and how Nature is pleased to move.
Below, a comment by Pier Paolo Gobbo, a dancer amongst those most actively involved in the Blasis/Cecchetti events.
Held on October 16th and 17th 2006, the Paris conference on the Italian School of Dance, entitled "From Blasis to Cecchetti", proved to be an exceptional moment of debate and discovery for all participants - teachers, professional dancers, vocational students and balletomanes as well as the general public.
Speaking for myself, a young Italian dancer, encountering here for the first time Cecchetti's work, through Richard Glasstone (a South African who has been teaching for many years now in England, and is Senior Examiner for the Cecchetti Society), I experience it as the serendipitous discovery of a treasure-trove that is not merely worthy of preservation - it must actively be promoted. As is well known, the Russian school everywhere prevails in Italy, and to a degree, that our own, Italian tradition is overshadowed, indeed brushed aside, as dusty, outdated, even obsolete. Wherever one looks in the world today, classical dance has become a standardised commodity, at the expense of national specifics, abraded away by a tendency to conform to whatever current fashion may dictate.
On those grounds, the Blasis/Cecchetti conference has served its purpose, in placing centre stage the origins of classical dance, its line of descendance through the painting and sculpture of the Renascence and neo-classical period, and in seeking to point to the dense field of ideas that should, in actual fact, lie behind each movement, as opposed to the contemporary preoccupation with movement as an end in and for itself. The object being to restore the dance in all its fullness, both of meaning, and of beauty. Épaulement, port de tête, and port de bras are thus three principles of the greatest importance, described by Professor Glasstone as "the alphabet of dance", lending the dancer's body depth, perspective, light and shade. That is what enables him to convey to his public the style and the characteristics peculiar to the musical, dramatic and geometric notions intended by a given work of art.
In order for class to unfold in a properly-balanced way, the Cecchetti method lays down a programme for each day of the week, not unlike that defined by Auguste Bournonville in Denmark. Professor Glasstone insisted that the barre be rigorously task-orientated, designed to enable the dancer to grasp the principles that will finally emerge in the centre work, notably the dynamics for the jump. As a result, Cecchetti's barre is neither "choreographed", nor is it done simply to provide a warm up. But the barre is short, to leave plenty of room for centre practice. The latter opens with port de tête and port de bras, followed by a "repeat" of much of the barre, before moving on to temps d'adage, and allegro.
Enrico Cecchetti's language of steps and enchaînements translate his own, Italian, origins, into a radiant form of dancing that, though joyful, is nonetheless serene, musical, and eloquent. Two students kindly "lent" to the conference by English National Ballet School, Benjamin Griffiths and Ruth Brill, demonstrated, and very brilliantly at that, during Professor Glasstone's conference and two master classes. Both are possessed of the skills demanded by Cecchetti: precision coupled with spontaneity, control with speed, rigour with brio and virtuosity.
What most impressed me (and I imagine that I was not alone in this), is first, the expressive range afforded by épaulement, that is both strictly functional in technical terms, on account of the oppositions (in classical dance, lest we forget, "form is function"). Secondly, the calm, sunny and natural use of the head and neck, which use now tends to be sacrificed to sky-high legs (that mean a rigid upper-body and neck, and the rigid facial expression that goes along with). Equally important, from my standpoint, was to find in Cecchetti's class a pure, simple academic form of movement, free of parastical gesturing that drags the dance towards manierism.
Cecchetti's teaching, now as in the past, rests on principles that are independent of time and place, principles that will never "go out of style", the truthfulness of which place them in direct dialogue with the other great art forms. These principles, that correspond to anatomical good sense, in other words, to the artist as a human being, reflect constructive ideas and values, and set up what might fairly be described as a fraternal environment for the Paris presentations. Certainly, I for one should be delighted if such events, where one can learn and exchange with others, took place more often, as this would help to give classical dance back its status, its weight, and its richness, and pass its values on to the next generation.
Pier Paolo Gobbo
At Paris, October 24th 2006