The influence of tradition
Among the great pedagogues and theorists who have made a substantial contribution to the development of ballet technique, Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) is one of the most prominent figures. Cecchetti, in the same way as Thoinot Arbeau, Pierre Rameau and Carlo Blasis, owes his fame mainly to the written codification of his teachings and to the creation of a ‘method’ through which his doctrines have been passed on to posterity.
This Italian dancer, choreographer and ballet-master is generally regarded as the man who perpetuated the principles of a tradition which otherwise might have been lost. According to documented biographical sources, Cecchetti received the fundamentals of his art from Giovanni Lepri, a former pupil of Carlo Blasis who is considered ‘the first pedagogue of the classical ballet’ (Beaumont 1959). In consequence dance historians have considered the ‘Cecchetti Method’, codified and published in 1922, to be directly derived from Blasis’s precepts. This assumption can, however, be questioned, for it is based on a superficial equation which omits significant elements. Moreover, the attention paid to the analysis of both the Method and its vocabulary has diverted dance research from other and no less important aspects of Cecchetti as an artist.
For example, with the exception of some biographical accounts, a study of the milieu in which the young Cecchetti began his career has not been written. Similarly, the years he worked in Russia as a performer, a teacher and a choreographer have largely been ignored, the only element of interest being his influence on the evolution of the Russian ballet technique, regardless of his other activities. Finally, there are no written works providing a comparative analysis of Cecchetti’s career.
It is significant that Cecchetti operated within three different areas of theatrical dancing: that is, the Italian ballo grande, the Russian Imperial Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, passing from one to the other with remarkable eclecticism. What is surprising is that his artistic principles, formulated during the first years in Italy, suited all these different contexts. This is particularly evident in relation to the work Cecchetti did while with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Within this context, the Italian ‘Maestro’, as the dancers of the company referred to him, could have easily appeared to be the living symbol of both the balletic tradition and the theatrical conventions which they were expressly leaving behind. None the less the ‘Maestro’ was invited to teach the company and to coach some of its most important stars, including Nijinsky and Lifar. Furthermore, his artistic skills, mainly as a mime dancer, were used in several ballets belonging to the new genre such as Le Carnaval (Fokine, 1910), Shehérazade (Fokine, 1910), Firebird (Fokine, 1910), Petrushka (Fokine, 1911) and The Good Humoured Ladies (Massine, 1917).