Cecchetti’s lasting legacy
Cecchetti International celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. In this fascinating historical article, Caitlyn Lehmann looks at the ballet maestro’s continuing influence on Australian ballet.
At the beginning of the 20th century, two dance companies galvanised a worldwide audience for ballet, enthralling first-time dance-goers and aficionados alike with performances of touching profundity, thrilling exoticism and brilliant classical technique. The two troupes – Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the company of star ballerina Anna Pavlova – were both were led by leading dancers from Russia’s Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg. Yet they could not have been more different in their repertoire or the audiences they pursued.
Pavlova, whose slender, ethereal physique belied her inexhaustible energy and single-minded determination, carried her art “into the outposts of civilisation” as one contemporary remarked. Dancing ballets accessible to audiences from England to Panama, Japan to Australia, she toured short, sentimental pieces like The Dying Swan and The Fairy Doll mixed with colourful, alluring dances inspired by Mexican, Indian and Egyptian cultures.
By contrast, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, famed for its daring modernism, held fast to the theatres and opera-houses of metropolitan Europe and America, where the company’s gorgeous, often elaborate scenic decors could be properly displayed and musicians found to play the sophisticated scores of composers like Stravinsky and Poulenc.
Despite the companies’ differing styles and approaches, however, one person was instrumental to the success of both: the celebrated Italian ballet master, Enrico Cecchetti. A mentor to Pavlova, who loved him “like a father”, and employed by Diaghilev as company teacher, Cecchetti had led a distinguished career as a virtuoso danseur in Europe before being invited to join the Imperial Ballet in 1887. There, he “awakened a sense of competition in our own balletic youth,” his colleague T. A. Stukolkin remarked, gaining attention with the agility and strength derived from his Italian training.
Cecchetti’s reputation as a teacher blossomed too when, in 1892, he was offered a teaching position within the company. Reigning stars like Olga Preobrazhenskaya and the impetuous Mathilde Kschessinska (one-time mistress of the future Tsar Nicholas II) took his classes specifically to develop the brilliance for which Italy’s ballerinas were famed. In 1902, Cecchetti abruptly quit though when Russian authorities insisted he renounce his Italian citizenship to quality for a pension. He moved with his wife Giuseppina to Warsaw, but returned to Russia three years later. On resettling in St Petersburg, his association with Pavlova began.
As a student graduated into the Imperial Ballet, Pavlova had at first found Cecchetti’s classes too difficult for her frail physique. However, as a newly-made ballerina in 1905, Pavlova was anxious to overcome her weaknesses. Convinced of Ceccetti’s ability to improve her, she earnestly appealed to him to become her private tutor. He agreed, and over the next two years, the maestro arrived smartly at her flat each morning to give a daily lesson, setting exercises that gradually strengthened Pavlova’s back and enhanced her carriage. For Cecchetti, Pavlova’s gifts made the dedication to her worthwhile. “I can teach everything connected with dancing,” he reportedly declared, “but Pavlova has that which can be taught only by God.”
Other dancers at the Imperial Ballet continued to seek him out too as a mood of restlessness spread within the company. Demands for greater professional autonomy and impatience with artistic policy sparked strike action and unhappiness. In 1908, Pavlova, a participant in the unrest, embarked on a tour of Europe, and quickly found that her popularity with balletomanes in Russia was matched by the passion she excited abroad. The following year, she accepted Diaghilev’s invitation to appear in a short season of ballets in Paris with her colleagues Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. Their performances in Les Sylphides, Le Pavillon d’Armide, Cleopatre and the Polovtsian Dances created a sensation, enfolding the Russians dancers in an atmosphere of glamour that would always swirl about the Ballets Russes thereafter.
Initially, Diaghilev formed the Ballets Russes as a temporary troupe to tour during May and June, when dancers from Moscow and St Petersburg were on their annual breaks. But after his second successful season of 1910 – when audiences were beguiled by the exoticism of Firebird and Scheherazade and the subtle commedia dell’arte humour of Le Carnaval – Diaghilev set to planning for a large private company capable of performing outside Russia all year round.
The scheme was enthusiastically received by the impresario’s supporters. But there was a difficulty: a permanent company could not rely on the Russians’ availability. Dancers for a corps de ballet would have to come from “far and wide”, bringing with them, as regisseur Serge Grigoriev worried, a mishmash of schoolings. Diaghilev needed an efficient ballet master who could ensure uniform style and standards. His “dearest wish” was granted when Cecchetti agreed to fill the role.
Thanks to Cecchetti, the Ballets Russes not only achieved artistic cohesion, but benefited from his ministerings to repair what critic Arnold Haskell dubbed “the ravages of modern choreography” inflicted on the dancers’ classical technique. Michel Fokine, the company’s leading choreographer, also drew on Cecchetti’s splendid talents as a mime by creating on him the role of the old Charlatan in Petrushka. He terrified as the evil sorcerer Kotschei in the company’s revivals of Firebird too, and when Cecchetti celebrated his 50th anniversary as a dancer, he was invited to reprise his role as the wicked fairy Carabosse in Diaghilev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, a role that he had created for the ballet’s 1890 premiere.
Nevertheless, despite his great affection for the Ballets Russes, Cecchetti did not personally admire the company’s more avant garde experiments. He ruefully described Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps as the work of “idiots” and expressed the hope that modernist “artistic decadence” would soon “make room for a rebirth of Classicism.” Pavlova shared similar reservations. Although she danced with the Ballets Russes again in 1911, she afterwards devoted her energies fully to her global tours, leading her troupe on exhausting rail and sea journeys to reach ordinary people in far-flung towns and cities. “Where Diaghilev made his converts in the thousands,” Haskell wrote, “she did in the millions,” inspiring countless girls and boys, including Australia’s own Robert Helpmann, to pursue careers in dance.
Cecchetti himself took time out from the Ballets Russes to join Pavlova on her American tours in 1913 and 1917. He eventually settled in London where he was accessible to both companies, and to the promising talents directed to him for coaching. A young Serge Lifar, sent to train with the maestro by Diaghilev, remembered Cecchetti making his students practise entrechats-six while writing their names on a piece of paper to perfect their coordination. Pavlova continue to seek out her mentor too, returning to him after each tour to restore and nourish her technique.
Cecchetti spent his final years in his native Italy though, where in 1925 he was made director of the La Scala Theatre’s ballet school. Harcourt Algeranoff, a member of Pavlova’s company, visited Milan with her in 1926, where the aged maestro invited them into his studio. Algeranoff memorably described him beating out rhythms with two long sticks as “he whistled the familiar tunes for our exercises, looking rather like an old wizard with two wands hissing out enchainments.”
Cecchetti’s death in 1928 was followed just a year later by Diaghilev’s. Pavlova, paying tribute to the maestro before her own sudden passing in 1931, reflected that nearly all the best dancers of her era had passed through his hands. It was not Cecchetti, in fact, but a group of his former students and admirers who saw the need to preserve his teachings. Through the Cecchetti Society, founded in 1922, they came together with the maestro’s blessing to codify his method and create the foundation for the syllabus taught today.
This article first appeared in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2022 issue of Dance Australia. Did you miss it? Why not subscribe to the print magazine and make sure you never miss an issue? Just go here to have your print issue mailed to your home.