The Cecchetti Method

The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet has been developed to educate and prepare dancers from the very first class as a pre-ballet child to the professional level performer who is ready to audition for a company. Good ballet training is not the exclusive property of the Cecchetti Method.  What makes this method so unique and effective is its syllabus and the fact that the dancers are not only trained to dance but educated, as well. The syllabus is developed and organized to be age and advancement specific. Students are taught material that is appropriate to their growing bodies. Dancers are required to learn concepts and theories of movement. The syllabus builds on a constant thread from the lowest to the highest levels and assures that every type of ballet movement is included.

Examinations provide goals for students and tangible evidence of achievement.

The Cecchetti Method is internationally recognized as the preeminent method of teaching ballet. This is a result of the extraordinary brilliance and influence Enrico Cecchetti had during his life time as a dancer, mime and teacher. His career, which spanned 78 years and extended all over Europe, influenced all the major ballet teaching and performing styles we see today. Cecchetti was the first to develop and establish a method of teaching, with a weekly lesson plan, sound placement of movement and steps carefully defined by anatomic principals.

Today at City Ballet, we follow the Cecchetti Method which includes the opportunity for students to learn from trained Cecchetti teachers in order for the student to attain enjoyment, control and understanding as they progress through their ballet training. We encourage our students to participate in the Cecchetti Examination process to assess their progress and level of proficiency.

“A dancer was not considered ‘finished’ unless he or she passed through Cecchetti’s hands.” – Tamara Karsavina

Enrico Cecchetti

Enrico was born prematurely in 1850 on June 21, in a theatre dressing-room with an unexpected dramatic entrance after his mother’s performance at the Tordinona Theater in Rome, Italy.  Enrico’s parents Cesare Cecchetti and Serafina Casagli were both dancers and their children, Pia, Enrico and Guiseppe toured with their parents and ultimately each established their own careers as dancers and choreographers.

Cecchetti’s life revolved around the theater and as an infant his stage debut was as an infant in his father’s arms.  By the age of five he was appearing as a character in The Gambler.  From 1857-1858 at the age of seven,  Cecchetti and his family toured the United States with the Ronzani Ballet company, which was the first Italian Ballet company to tour and performed with his sister Pia.  His debut was at the opening of the Philadelphia Academy of Music on September 15, in 1857.  Cecchetti and the family performed in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Louisville, New Orleans, St. Louis and St. Paul.

Cecchetti’s formal education was very limited as the family traveled and toured throughout Europe.  His most influential teacher was Carlo Blasis who was a contemporary of his father’s.  Blasis had taught some of the most well known ballet dancers throughoutEurope at his studio in La Scala Milan, Italy.  As a dancer Cecchetti performed with the leading dancers from the Imperial Ballet in Russia, such as Carlotta Brianza, Virginia Zucchi, and Pierina Lehnani, etc.

After four years of performing professionally and at the age of sixteen Cecchetti’s Italian debut was back on the stage of La Scala, Milan. Here he concluded his performance with a never seen before execution of thirty-two flawless pirouettes á la seconde across the stage.  This was so compelling that through the audience word quickly spread of his prowess as a male virtuoso.  Cecchetti is also credited with introducing tights to match the color of the men’s costumes in response to an edict from the Pope that male dancers must wear white tights.  This outstanding performance and increasing excellent reputation led him to be hired by the major ballet theaters of the time and he traveled to Denmark, Norway,Holland, Germany, Austria, and England and to the Russian Cities of Moscow, St. Petersburgand Kiev.  He was acclaimed on the publicity posters as “the first dancer of the world!”

With his exceptional abilities in mime several roles were created expressly for Cecchetti such as “Showman,” in Petrouchka, “Astrologer” in The Firebird, “Pantalon” in Le Carnival, “the Marquis de Luca” in Good Humored Ladies, etc.  At his last performance as at the age of 76, he performed the role of “Carabosse,” that he created 36 years earlier at the 60th anniversary of his stage performance and the 100th performance of Sleeping Princess.

Cecchetti was married in his early 20’s and had a son Arrigo.  It is believed that his wife died in childbirth.  He later married Giuseppina de Maria, a dancer with whom he had five sons.  He referred to his wife as “the angel of my life.”

The role of ballet in 18th Century Society – During this time ballet was the social event of the day, week, month and season.  Society flocked to see the latest ballets and ballet dancers.  They were the like movies and movie stars of today.  They audience cheered or booed over the performances criticizing the best pirouettes, jumps, leaps and beats and gossiping over the short dresses and costumes.  From small villages to large towns the theater was the center of entertainment and the stuff of magic and amazement for the social gossips.

Russia – In 1887, after members of the Imperial Theaters had seen Cecchetti perform they hired him as a premiére danseur and assistant ballet master second only to Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.  In 1890 he enchanted audiences in the role he choreographed of Bluebird, performing remarkable beats and pirouettes that Russian dancers had not yet learnt how to perform.  In this ballet he combined his remarkable abilities as a mime in the role of the evil fairy Carabosse with extraordinary athleticism.

During his tenure at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg he set ballets, staged balls, quadrilles, cotillions for the court of Tsar Nicholas II.  After twenty five years of service it was customary for the government to honor a foreigner who had been loyal and of service to the state by allowing them to become a citizen of Russia.  This was a token of gratitude bestowed by the royal family.  However, after only 15 years Cecchetti was offered the same privilege which he found insulting.  He thereby resigned his position and in 1902 moved his family to Warsaw, Poland.

Poland – Once in Warsaw he taught at the Warsaw State School which was a part of the Wielke Theater one of the Russian Imperial Ballet Academies.  He began to formulate his method of ballet training and many fine dancers of the time traveled to participate and learn from him.  Stanislas Idzikoski, Leon Woizikowski and prominent dancers from the Russiamoved to Poland to study from the master.  In 1905 the Russo-Japanese War led to tremendous suffering and anti Russian protests.  Cecchetti having come from Russia felt he and his family were unsafe and they returned to Turin, Italy.  However, poor economic times had led to the closing of many theaters and the remaining ones were on severely reduced performance schedules instead of nightly.  His disappointment that the ballet was no longer supported as in the past caused him to return with his family to St. Petersburg.

Russia – Cecchetti taught at the Bolshoi in Moscow grand set ballets for the theater company.  Here he meets a young protégé, Anna Pavlova who was in need of help with her technique and physical strength.  She had learnt of his exceptional abilities and understanding of the dancers body, and hired Cecchetti exclusively for three years.

Dancers from other theaters were begging Cecchetti to teach them and after Pavlova agreed, he returned to his school in St. Petersburg.  During his time there he also taught such notable dancers as; Vaslav Nijinsky, Krassovskaya, Trefilova, Najinska, Kschessinska, Vera Folkina, Michael Fokine, Leonar Massine, Serge Lifar, Lydia Loupokova and Tamara Karsavina.  These dancers would one day all cross paths again through Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes

Serge Diaghilev was a man of many talents.  His love of the performing arts, photography and literature led him to the world of theater.  After he passed his degrees in music and law he found himself with the opportunity to edit the annual Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg theater yearbook.  He turned this simple program into an outstanding deluxe edition, full of exquisite designs, photographs and commentary.  He was rewarded with the opportunity to stage a ballet.  However, Diaghilev wanted to select the dancers and be given full credit for the production.  He was refused permission and therefore resigned and continued dreaming of the project on his own.

Due to the very conservative theories of the time innovated ideas and expression were crushed by the ballet establishment and feeling artistically stifled the dancers went on strike in 1905.  After returning to their theaters they were punished with minor roles and so many sought other opportunities.

In 1907, Diaghilev had taken a Russian art exhibit to Paris and then in 1908 an opera.  Both of these cultural events were greeted with much applause in France.  He felt now was the time to bring a ballet as the art form had been in decline over the past several years.  He identified talented dancers, artists, composers, scene designers, choreographers and inspired them to join him.  Michel Fokine was engaged as choreographer.  Dancers from the Imperial Ballet Theater were reluctant to leave Cecchetti and so he hired Cecchetti as maitre de ballet.

As maitre de ballet, “Maestro Cecchetti” as he was now called brought the dancers to an outstanding level of technical prowess and artistic competence.  He was able to bring together all their talents and create a cohesive blend as a company.  He demanded and developed each dancer’s strength and technical precision.  His students also included Marie Rambert (Rambert Ballet) and Ninette De Valois (Royal Ballet School) founders of British ballet, and the famous Alicia Markova.

From 1909-1918 Maestro Cecchetti taught all the dancers of the Ballet Russes.  During 1913 he took a season to tour with Anna Pavlova’s ballet company and returned to US.

England- “It was said that a dancer could not be considered finished without studying with Cecchetti.”

By the age of 68 his body had become tired from the demands of constant touring and he retired from the Ballet Russes and moved his family to London, England.  Here he opened another ballet school and dancers came from all over the world to have the opportunity to train with the Maestro. The climate in England did not suit him and in 1923 he returned to his beloved Italy to retire.

Return to Italy

Cecchetti came out of retirement briefly to tutor Vincenzo Celli, after watch the dancer’s performance and being impressed with his possibilities but frustrated with his technique.  After hearing of the return of the Maestro to teaching, Arturo Toscanini who was Director of La Scala, Milan begged him to teach at the theater’s ballet school.  At last he had come full circle returning to the theater home of his childhood debut and fulfilling a lifelong wish.

Towards the end of his career the Maestro taught with two canes and it is said that he used them often to point out the place of balance or movement of a step and often to correct a student.

One day while correcting a student he collapsed and was taken home where he died the next morning on November 13, 1928.  So Enrico Cecchetti who was born in a theater to the parents of dancers, became a dancer, mime and eventually the most sought after ballet master of all time, and who ended his life in a ballet studio doing what he loved best.

Credits and Resources

Author: Julia Carpenter
Our gratitude goes to the following persons from whom extracts of this paper were gleamed.
  • Cecchetti Council of America, Musical Form Teachers Grades I, II, III, Dr. Kathryn Tenniswood
  • A Concise History of Ballet, Ferdinando Reyna
  • Ballet for All, Peter Brinson and Clement Crisp
  • The Dancer’s Heritage, Ivor Guest