"The Cecchetti School"
It was a great honour to be asked to teach Cecchetti method classes at the Centre national de la danse (CND) alongside Roger Tully, Elisabeth Schwartz and Flavia Pappacena as part of the Toussaint 'stage de danse' in November 2008. The Cinematheque de la danse provided extracts from films showing the work of Cecchetti as danced by some of his pupils, several of whom also became celebrated teachers in their time. The CND course was offered to professional dancers, student teachers and teachers, many of whom had travelled to Paris from far-off schools and conservatoires. Most participants had had little exposure or knowledge of the Method, so it was hoped that the course would stimulate discussion on the merits of Cecchetti's teaching and legacy, and give some insight into the nature and principles of the Maestro's work.
The classes were accompanied by pianist Athanas Kaitchev who responded with great sensitivity to both Roger's classes and mine. The Cecchetti work is accompanied by 'set' music that insists on being played at deliberate tempi so as best to fit the work, which can sound almost perversely unmusical to the trained musician. I am grateful for Athanas' forbearance in my musical demands of the 'set' work, because when played as marked out by a dancer, it is entirely musically and rhythmically appropriate.
The Société Auguste Vestris was instrumental in engineering an event that might otherwise not have become a reality. I would like also to thank Anne-Marie Sandrini for her energy and enthusiasm in launching the project, and the entire CND staff, particularly Anne-Marie Reynaud, Agnès Bretel and Vincent Brico, who sent out the invitations, generally organised, and made the arrangements for our using the CND's premises.
Professor Flavia Pappacena, who teaches in Rome at the Accademia nazionale di Danza and at the University's Faculty of Letters, presented a daily lecture and films on Cecchetti and his heritage. This included a 'Life Forms' illustration of Carlo Blasis' combinations passed down to Arthur Saint-Leon, which was fascinating and provoked a discussion on the seeming impossibility of their execution. As well there was a film made by Massine in 1941 of Cecchetti's great pupil Vincenzo Celli dancing the Maestro's combinations, with a virtuosic but unnamed female dancer - he in blue jeans and tennis shoes after giving class! Perhaps most intriguing of all was a snippet of a film made of the ballet 'Excelsior' from 1913. Cecchetti had danced in the original ballet and mounted it on the Maryinsky in St Petersburg. Although we may all-too-readily assume our own superior technical ability, it was a revelation to study the ballerina in this film, made almost a century ago, executing an intricate and fiercely demanding variation.
Elisabeth Schwartz, the newly-appointed Inspector of Dance of the Paris Conservatoire system, gave a talk on her studies with Margaret Craske. The latter danced in the Ballets Russes, studied with Cecchetti, and took over his London school before eventually settling in the United States where she was, for many years, a very influential teacher. We watched footage of Margaret Craske, then in her nineties, teaching from her chair in a studio in New York City. Interestingly, one of the participants at the CND, ballerina Paola Cantalupo (of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, who has just been appointed to direct the Ecole supérieure de danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower), had also trained with Margaret Craske.
The morning ballet class was taught every day by Roger Tully, who is, at 80, probably one of the last remaining pedagogues teaching the principles through a line that stretches directly back to the Maryinsky tradition in Cecchetti's day. With his unaffected manner, simplicity of explanation and still elegant demonstration, Mr. Tully brought to life the meaning and universality of the classical dance form, with its insistence on épaulement as function (not just decoration), opposition, gravity and dynamics. All these principles, when applied, will allow the classical dancer to optimise his training, and develop a technique free of artifice and tricks. Roger insists that although there is no shortage of artists in the classical dance today, there IS a lack of science.
Indeed, through his Method, Cecchetti sought to train dancers scientifically. Although some dancers may, regrettably, assume that the Method has become outdated, because they may have seen it taught with unnecessary stylistic accretions, the fact remains that the principles can be clearly learned and applied to the work, once you have studied for a while with Mr. Tully. In the afternoon classes I attempted to illustrate and reiterate some of the principles that had been covered by Roger in the morning sessions. The point being that by so doing, one would actually be able to dance the challenging combinations from the Maestro's advanced 'set' work, as he would have given that to students in his day, such as Pavlova, Nijinsky or Tamar Karsavina. Again, although some professionals do assume that our present technical knowledge enables us to dance so much better than our predecessors, I do hope that the fraction of Cecchetti's large oeuvre that we were able to present illustrated to the course participants how narrow-minded we have become. Our vocabulary seems to have shrunk - there used to be a vast repository of steps and combinations at a choreographer's disposal which never anymore see the light of day!
I was astounded and delighted to see Roger's principles spring into action, not the least of which being the timing of a grand plie done with beautiful and musical uniformity by 32 dancers from differing backgrounds and training. Dancers responded particularly to the variety of the allegro combinations. Cecchetti's classes were divided into the Days of the Week, so as to include every kind of step, and the context in which they appear. The Italian school in Cecchetti's day was designed to produce a virtuosic dancer: so many of the enchaînements are virtuosic, and demand an understanding and application of considerable technique.
My hope is that the course gave the participants an insight into another facet of classical ballet. This is an art form with universal meaning, imbued with a real physical understanding of the body as a geometric form, of human beings moving in space, of poetry, serenity and exuberance, joy and artistry. Perhaps this was most aptly and movingly illustrated by Royes Fernandez, a pupil of Vincenzo Celli, in a film of the mazurka from 'Les Sylphides' that VAI Music kindly allowed the Cinematheque de la Danse to present to the participants. What a pity that Royes Fernandez is not better known for the great artist he was!
I hope that this course has engendered discussion, and will lead to further meetings to explore the rich dance heritage we pride ourselves on preserving, for the benefit of our students and future audiences.
February 2nd 2009