Enrico Cecchetti created a ballet technique, still widely used today, known for two revolutionary ideas: first, that a dancer’s degree of turnout should be based on his or her normal rotation from the hips; second, that technique should be free of stylistic flourishes and instead focus on pure, strong movement.
Cecchetti (1850–1928) was born in the dressing room of the Tordinona Theatre in Rome, to parents who were both professional ballet dancers. He trained with several celebrated teachers, including Filippo Taglioni, the father of Marie Taglioni.
Cecchetti enjoyed an illustrious stage career, known for his agility, strength and technical abilities as a dancer. He became one of the Imperial Russian Ballet’s (now the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg) greatest male virtuosos. He is often credited with revolutionizing the image of the Russian male dancer, after the invention of the pointe shoe had relegated male dancers to little more than a background support for the ballerina. For example, he choreographed and danced the role of The Bluebird in the premiere of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, causing a sensation with his powerful display of big jumps, multiple pirouettes and brilliant batterie.
Soon, he became an in-demand teacher, first at the Imperial Ballet School (1887–1902), then the Warsaw State School in Poland (1902–1905) and finally back in St. Petersburg, where he established his own school. When he met Anna Pavlova, already a famous dancer, she begged him to coach her exclusively, which he did for two years. When Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dancers refused to go on tour because they would miss their daily classes with Cecchetti, Diaghilev hired him as the company’s ballet master.
Eventually Cecchetti tired of touring and settled in London, where he opened yet another school. In 1922, with the help of Cyril Beaumont, he officially codified and published his method. He returned to Italy a year later to retire, but he was invited to resume his teaching career at La Scala, where he had made his own dance debut 55 years earlier. A teacher to the very end, Cecchetti collapsed while teaching a class and was taken home; he died the following day at 78.
The Cecchetti method trains students to move strongly and purely, without stylistic idiosyncrasies. Épaulement (slight turning of the shoulders and head) is introduced early and used heavily. In terms of turnout, Cecchetti technique focuses on a dancer’s normal rotation from the hips, rather than insisting on 180-degree turnout—making it a favorite of modern and jazz dancers.
The Cecchetti method is a progressive system of training dancers, from pre-ballet to professional level. It includes a program of set exercises for each day of the week, divided so that different muscle groups are emphasized on different days, to prevent overwork and injury. The Cecchetti method also differs from other Russian and French techniques in specifics like arabesques (there are five positions in the Cecchetti technique), port de bras positions and basic body positions (Cecchetti has eight, not 11).
The Legacy Lives On
Former students include Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Léonide Massine and Agrippina Vaganova (who incorporated much of Cecchetti’s method into her own technique). His syllabus was passed on through Ninette de Valois, Margaret Craske and Marie Rambert. Today, Diana Byer, artistic director of New York Theatre Ballet, employs Cecchetti training with her students. Franco De Vita and Raymond Lukens of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School have earned Enrico Cecchetti Diplomas.
“Diana Byer: How I teach Cecchetti,” by Jenny Dalzell, Dance Teacher, June 2012
“Technique: Cecchetti’s Choices,” by Janice Barringer, Dance Magazine, January 2007
Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet, by Gail Grant, Dover Publications, Inc., 1967
The Cecchetti Society of Southern Africa: “Enrico Cecchetti”: cecchetti.co/za
Cecchetti USA: “Who was Enrico Cecchetti?”: cecchettiusa.org
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives