Enrico Cecchetti (1850–1928) debuted as a dancer at the age of five and continued performing throughout his life. Known for his meticulous attention to form, he established himself as one of the world's foremost teachers of dance with Russia's Imperial Ballet and later the Diaghilev's Ballet. The Cecchetti method is now a standardized instructional approach taught throughout the world.
Demonstrated Early Talent
Cecchetti was born in a dressing room of the Tordinona Theatre in Rome, Italy, on June 1, 1850, the child of accomplished ballet dancers Serafina Casagli and Cesare Cecchetti. The younger Cecchetti debuted as a dancer at the age of five in Il Giocatore, and two years later had his American debut, alongside his parents, at the Philadelphia Academy of Music as part of a special Italian troupe assembled for the theater's grand opening. Following the Philadelphia performance, the Cecchettis toured the United States for nearly a year, with Enrico and his older sister, Pia, appearing in the ballet Theresa, the Orphan of Geneva. When the family returned to Italy, Cecchetti informed his parents of his desire to become a professional dancer, but they enrolled him in a private school hoping to steer him toward a profession in business or law. Cecchetti spent all his free time studying dance, however, and at the age of 13 he convinced his parents to enroll him at the ballet academy run by Giovanni Lepri in Florence. Lepri had been a star student of Carlo Blasis, a renowned instructor and theorist who is widely regarded as establishing the Italian school of dance.
A standout student at Lepri's academy, Cecchetti made his formal debut at the age of 16, just three years after commencing his studies, in his father's ballet Nicolo di Lapi. Cecchetti began to demonstrate a flair for instruction as well, and his fellow students often enlisted his assistance, fondly referring to him as "maestro." When he was 19, he danced for a season with his parents and sister and, at the age of 20, he debuted as first dancer at the prestigious La Scala in Milan, first dismaying the audience by falling flat on his back during an entrance and later amazing them with a flawless—and unparalleled—sequence of 32 pirouettes ala seconde. Cecchetti soon became one of the most sought–after dancers in Europe and was invited to perform with various companies. Early in his career, he often tried to secure a contract for his sister Pia, in addition to himself, until Pia married and retired from the stage.
Following Pia's retirement, Cecchetti performed with many of Italy's leading ballerinas, and in 1874 he debuted in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), Russia, where he continued to dance in summer theaters for the next seven years. St. Petersberg also inspired one of Cecchetti's early forays into choreography. La Ciociara was a ballet based on two poor Italian children Cecchetti encountered in the streets of St. Petersberg and became a favorite of Italian dance audiences. Cecchetti continued to choreograph new works and to apply his own highly regarded modifications to longstanding traditional movements. He also began to demonstrate his notable talent for mime, a standard role in many ballet performances at the time. Cecchetti married Giuseppina de Maria, a student at Lepri's school, in 1878.
Hailed As 'First Dancer of the World'
Cecchetti debuted in London, England, in 1885, in Excelsior, an extravagant production centering on nineteenth–century scientific achievements and the tension between progress and regression. While Cecchetti drew accolades for his performance, the production was a financial disaster, and Cecchetti eventually returned to Italy where he and his wife performed in Luigi Manzotti's Amor at La Scala. He then produced Excelsior in Fermo, Italy, casting his wife in the principal female role. Cecchetti had begun to teach ballet by this time and also cast one of his star pupils, Luigi Albertieri, in the performance. In the summer of 1887, Cecchetti returned to St. Petersberg with his brother and a troupe of Italian dancers to stage Excelsior, with himself serving as the principal male and Giuseppina Cecchetti cast as the lead mime. The production was well received, culminating in the sculptor Praga presenting the troupe with plaster busts of Cecchetti and the female lead, which were placed on either side of the stage while members of the city's opera crowned the pair with laurel wreaths.
Cecchetti was subsequently offered a contract with the esteemed Russian Imperial Ballet. He debuted with Varvara Nikitina in The Tulip of Haarlem and next appeared in L'ordre du Roi. The following year he was named second maître de ballet. He spent summers performing at the Empire Theatre in London as the principal dancer in 1888 and from 1891–1892. Cecchetti's dance career reached its pinnacle in 1890 when he performed both the mime role of the Fairy Carabosse and the classical role of the Bluebird in Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. His performances incorporated several technically difficult moves which established him as one of the world's premiere dancers. When he later returned to perform in London, he was billed as "the first dancer of the world."
Became Esteemed Teacher
It was with the Imperial Ballet that Cecchetti also established himself as one of the world's foremost teachers of his craft. He began teaching at the Imperial School of Ballet in 1887 and also served as the company's choreographer and rehearsal director from 1892 on. Cecchetti left St. Petersberg in 1902 to accept a position as director of the Imperial School of Ballet in Warsaw, Poland, and he is credited with helping set the struggling school back on its feet. He remained in Warsaw until 1906, at which time he briefly relocated to Turin, Italy, and then returned to St. Petersberg. Upon returning to Russia, Cecchetti was hired by dancer Anna Pavlova to be her private teacher. Cecchetti dedicated all his time to Pavlova for the next three years. As noted in Dance magazine by Lillian Moore, Cecchetti recalled in his memoirs that while he could not influence Pavlova's character, he felt he had helped her perfect her technique: "I could not give her her soul, or her inspiration, but I could give her the benefit of a technique which was strengthening, and which assisted her in expressing herself more freely. . . . Though, as I have said before, her art is prompted by genius, and mechanical defects could easily be forgiven her, still, she herself had a passion for perfection which stopped at nothing!" Pavlova went on to become one of the most famous dancers in the world, raising the stature of Russian ballet internationally.
Cecchetti instructed numerous other stars of the "new Russian ballet," including Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Ninjinsky. The two were so loyal to Cecchetti that when their company, the Diaghilev Ballet, moved to Paris, the pair refused to relocate without their teacher. Director Sergei Diaghilev offered Cecchetti a contract as ballet master and mime, and Cecchetti relocated again while his wife remained in St. Petersberg to carry on the work of his school there. Cecchetti set off to tour with Pavlova in 1913, but returned before his contract had expired at Diaghilev's urging. Diaghilev wished for Cecchetti to begin intensive instruction with Leonide Massine, a new dancer who seemed poised to replace Nijinsky. Cecchetti guided Massine and numerous other dancers whose names became internationally known, including Alexandra Danilova, Leon Woizikowsky, Anton Dolin, Lubov Tchernicheva, and Alicia Markova.
In 1914 Cecchetti and his wife reunited in Turin, Italy, where they vacationed with their children. Giuseppina planned to return to St. Petersberg to continue teaching, but her travel was hindered by the onset of war. Giuseppina joined Diaghilev's company, which continued to travel to neutral countries in Europe, as well as in South America. When the Cecchettis finally returned to Turin at the end of the war, they discovered their son, a soldier, had been gravely injured. He died soon after reuniting with his parents. Following their grief–filled homecoming, the Cecchettis traveled to London to perform alongside many of their pupils as Marquis di Luca and the Marquise Silvestra, roles they had created, in Good Humored Ladies.
Revered Method Published
Cecchetti eventually settled in London and, when he was almost 70, he decided to limit his performances to the Diaghilev Ballet's annual visit to his new hometown. He opened his own dance school there, where he helped launch the careers of such well known dancers as Ninette de Valois, Marie Rambert, and Margaret Craske. While in London, Cecchetti documented his popular and effective teaching method in two volumes: The Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing and The Theory and Practice of Allegro in Classical Ballet. The textbooks were written with the assistance of Craske and Stanislas Idzikowski, one of Cecchetti's star students in the Diaghilev Ballet, and published by noted dance historian Cyril W. Beaumont.
Beaumont also convened a number of Cecchetti's students to form the Cecchetti Society, dedicated to perpetuating its namesake's instructional methods. The Cecchetti method is based on six groups of exercises which cover the full range of movements contained in the classical canon. Enrico and Giuseppina served as the first president and vice–president of the organization. "What impressed me most about the Cecchetti method of teaching was the way in which each exercise played a definite and planned part in the student's technical development," Beaumont once said, as quoted on the Cecchetti Society USA's website. "There is nothing haphazard about the system, nothing which depended on the teacher's mood of the moment. There is a definite plan to daily classes."
Cecchetti remained in London for only three years, then returned to Turin with the intention of retiring. This goal became short lived when Diaghilev sent him another protégé, Serge Lifar, who became the Diaghilev's last premier dancer and later headed the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1925 Cecchetti was invited to direct the ballet school at La Scala, which was waning in stature. He accepted with several conditions: pupils would be accepted on the basis of talent, regardless of nationality; lessons would be free; and dancers would never be interrupted during appointed class times. Cecchetti's students at La Scala included Gisella Caccialanza, who later became a soloist in George Balanchine's original American Ballet; Attilia Radice, who became Italy's leading dancer; and Cia Fornaroli Toscanini and Vincenzo Celli, who opened studios in New York to teach the Cecchetti method. Cecchetti collapsed on November 11, 1928, while teaching a class at La Scala and died the following day.
Cecchetti's teachings live on, however, through his manuals, the numerous Cecchetti Societies that have been formed across the world, and the students who continue to apply his rigorous method to their studies. As for the students Cecchetti influenced directly, their admiration was often unabashed. Pavlova expressed her gratitude in the preface to Olga Racter's The Master of the Russian Ballet, a collection of Cecchetti's memoirs: "In an age when people no longer understand that to teach others it is necessary first to work hard and long oneself, and to have an actual experience of the state; when by the aid of self–advertisement anyone can take the name of 'professor;' when school are opened at random where pupils are taught anything except the art of dancing—you, with infinite patience and loving care, have honestly and modestly pursued the great work of inculcating your pupils with the covenants of true art."
International Dictionary of Ballet, 2 vols., St. James Press, 1993.
Racster, Olga, The Master of the Russian Ballet, E.P. Dutton, 1923.
Dance, September 1953; October 1953.
Cecchetti Society USA website, www.cechettiusa.org (November 16, 2004).