We now turn to one of ballet history’s most successful training methods: Cecchetti, a complete and structured system for dancers, which sets a strict, rigid hierarchical regime and which is still an ongoing influence for virtually every major ballet school in the world. Its creator, Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928), was an Italian virtuoso dancer who would in time become a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and train ballet legends such as Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Alicia Markova, Léonide Massine and Royal Ballet founder, Ninette de Valois.
Cecchetti came from a dancing family, his father having taught him the basics of ballet but later sending him to train with a string of dance luminaries. First, Giovanni Lepri, an accomplished pupil of the great Carlo Blasis of the “Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse” (1820), one of the foremost treaties of classical ballet techniques of that era, then with Cesare Coppini at La Scala and Filippo Taglioni. All this practical knowledge served as a background for Cechetti’s own ideas on ballet which he was to develop later as an immigrant in Russia.
Cecchetti was already a virtuoso performer when he arrived in St. Petersburg, astonishing audiences with his great jumps and multiple pirouettes (though he could only turn in one direction) and excelling in mime. Such abilities, best displayed when he created the roles of Bluebird and Carabosse in Petipa‘s The Sleeping Beauty, not only secured him a job as Premieur Danseur with the Mariinsky Ballet but also a 15 year long tenure as Ballet Master of the Imperial Ballet School, where he taught various notable dancers of the era. After teaching in Poland for 3 years he returned to St. Petersburg, establishing a school in 1905 and working as Anna Pavlova’s exclusive coach until 1909. He went on to contribute to modern classical ballet’s birth upon joining Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes as ballet master and mime artist. Later years saw Cecchetti teaching at his own dance school in London (1918) and subsequently returning to his native Italy to teach at La Scala (1923), a position he would hold until his death in 1928.
Cecchetti’s method, developed by mixing his own experiences as a dancer and teacher with Carlo Blasis’s heritage, is a strict form of training. Specific exercises are prescribed for every day of the week and there’s an overall objective of making dancers internalise the principles of ballet and have an innate feeling for graceful lines. This very scientific method leaves no room for improvisation: it dictates that steps be introduced in planned sequences, that all parts of the body be worked on evenly. Daily class consists of barre work, which is then repeated at the centre, followed by adagio and allegro sequences. Only at the end of class may the teacher introduce and incorporate certain new steps to develop the student’s ability to assimilate quickly. Cecchetti strives for pure and clean classical lines, so dancers can respond to the demands of different styles and choreographers.
The method has its own vocabulary, including over 40 set adages and 8 ports de bras, all developed by Cecchetti. Quality rather than quantity is also emphasized (e.g. do the exercise correctly once rather than many times in a sloppy way).
In 1922, assisted by Cecchetti protegés (Stanislas Idzikowski, Margaret Craske and Derra de Moroda), Cyril W. Beaumont collected and codified the basics of Cecchetti’s technique in what became the official syllabus (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet). Cecchetti also allowed Beaumont, a close friend, to establish the Cecchetti Society for the continuity of his principles and preservation of standards and theoretical knowledge. Along with leading methods such as Vaganova, Balanchine, RAD, Bournonville & the French school, Cecchetti continues to train future generations of dancers.
With branches in many parts of the world, the Society promotes the method through a series of graded levels and examinations with specific goals for students to work towards. It originally consisted of three levels (nowadays grades 5, 6 and Intermediate Foundation), but now comprises six grade levels. The major grades are Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced 1 and 2. In order to become a ballet teacher, candidates must pass the “Associate examination” after Advanced 1.
In the UK, the Cecchetti Society has been absorbed by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), even though its syllabus, the Imperial Classical Ballet Syllabus, is still kept separately from ISTD’s own.
Maestro Cecchetti left a great imprint on the English School. The important aspects of his teaching will remain part of the academic tradition of our English Ballet. (Ninette de Valois)
If I had my way, I would always insist that all dancers should daily do the wonderful Cecchetti ports de bras. It inculcates a wonderful feeling for line and correct positioning and the use of head movement and épaulement which – if properly absorbed – will be of incalculable use throughout a dancer’s career. (Frederick Ashton)
Sources and Further Information:
- Wikipedia Entry for Enrico Cecchetti
- Wikipedia Entry for the Cecchetti Method
- The Cecchetti Council of America [link]
- The Cecchetti Society of Canada [link]
- Cecchetti Ballet Australia [link]
- ISTD Cecchetti Ballet Faculty [link]
- The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet: Theory and Technique by Cyril W. Beaumont, Stanislas Idzikowski. Dover Publications (2003). ISBN-10: 0486431770, ISBN-13: 978-0486431772
- Using Class Notes to Document Advances in Late-Nineteenth-Century Ballet Technique by Norma-Sue Fisher-Stitt. International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts. [link]
- Andros on Ballet. An overview of Cecchetti classical ballet vocabulary.