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Ballet Scene | Class à la Cecchetti

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BalletSceneAn exam-based syllabus for teachers and students yields high-level ballet dancers

By Theresa Corbley Siller

“All right, first and second arabesque.” The students at Cuppett Performing Arts Center in Vienna, Virginia, all in level seven (out of eight) in the Cecchetti method of ballet training, have finished stretching and are getting ready for center work. It’s time to steel themselves for an exercise requiring focus and determination.

(Photo by Theresa Corbley Siller)
(Photo by Theresa Corbley Siller)

Cecchetti training is respected all over the world. George Balanchine would occasionally ask his dancers at New York City Ballet—during a Wednesday class, for example—“What were Cecchetti’s Wednesday steps? Let’s do them today!” Even Merce Cunningham—once a student of Margaret Craske, who studied under Cecchetti—wove Cecchetti patterns into his modern-dance choreography, says Pamela Moore, director of the National Ballet School and Company in Crofton, Maryland.

Where it all began
Italian-born Enrico Cecchetti (1850–1928) trained with Giovanni Lepri, Cesare Coppini, and Filippo Taglioni (all students of the great master Carlo Blasis) and made his debut at La Scala in Milan. As a ballet student, Cecchetti frequently corrected his peers, earning him the affectionate title “Maestro.” His natural gift propelled him into teaching, and his classes had a huge following. As a ballet master at the Imperial Theatre (Kirov) and teacher at the Imperial School, he raised the technical level of the Russian dancers dramatically. In 1909 he became the official instructor for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris and later opened a school in London. Among his students were Anna Pavlova, Léonide Massine, Adolph Bohm, Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, Serge Lifar, and Anton Dolin. He danced until 1926; two of his most famous roles were the Blue Bird in The Sleeping Beauty and the Charlatan in Petrouchka.

Recognizing the importance of his work, Margaret Craske and F. Derra de Moroda, two of his longtime students, along with Cyril Beaumont, a dance writer and publisher, recorded Cecchetti’s daily classes on paper. When their work was finished, they had compiled a manual that included adages and allegros for each day of the week. Cecchetti collaborated with Beaumont and Stanislas Idzikowski on A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Classical Theatrical Dancing: Cecchetti Method, published in London in 1922. After Cecchetti’s death Craske, Derra de Moroda, and Beaumont revised the original manual and later worked on other manuals. Craske and Beaumont collaborated on The Theory and Practice of Allegro in Classical Ballet (Cecchetti Method); Craske and Derra de Moroda on Practice of Advanced Allegro in Classical Ballet (Cecchetti Method).

Cecchetti’s students learned his set patterns so well that they did not have to think about what came next. With consecutive movements deep in their muscle memory, they were free to concentrate on quality, artistry, and musicality. This system of unique and demanding exercises has produced dancers of extreme competence since 1922, when the Cecchetti Society was formed in London.

With consecutive movements deep in their muscle memory, Cecchetti’s students were free to concentrate on quality, artistry, and musicality.

With a standardized vision for teaching young dancers through adulthood, the Cecchetti Council of America (CCA) was born in 1939. Its president, Sandra Glenn, describes its mission: “The organization uses Cecchetti’s teaching and writings in a sequence of grades, carefully measured as to degree of difficulty and physical development, and provides a system of accredited examinations to test the students’ proficiency within those grades.”

In the classroom
In the real world of teaching this ambitious syllabus to youngsters and teens, teachers must also inject fun into it. In well-run Cecchetti classes, good-natured ribbing shares class time with more serious probings: “What’s the goal of adage?” The students are proud that they can answer: “Slow, controlled movement. Coordination of arms, legs, and head with the music. Fluidity.” Terminology is part of the learning in each Cecchetti level.

Jennifer Meyer, a Cecchetti teacher at Cuppett and at Chris Collins Dance Studio in Alexandria, Virginia, has dedicated her life to ensuring that students learn correct technique and a beautiful style. Meyer, an exam registrar and former chairman of the CCA’s East Coast Committee, has completed six student grades of Cecchetti and seven teacher grades. (There are eight grades for both students and teachers.) Her students consistently get high grades on their Cecchetti exams. “Students of Cecchetti who go on to study ballet at college retain their knowledge of terminology and technique and have never failed to impress their professors,” Meyer says. “They are ahead of their dance peers who never had the opportunity to train in the Cecchetti method.”

Along with the Vaganova and Royal Academy of Dance systems of training, the Cecchetti technique has goals of balanced exercises, mastery, and accountability. For some parents, like Nancy Doyle Groves of Jeffersonton, Virginia, a syllabus is important. “When I was looking at studios for my daughter, Lauren, I wouldn’t even consider one without a specific method of ballet training. Otherwise, how do you know your child is progressively learning everything she needs?”

Teaching ballet with a syllabus is an insurance policy that no skills will be missed in the students’ training. A syllabus avoids overstressing certain concepts in class to the neglect of others; a balanced barre prepares students for center work; progressive exercises warm up students adequately, to avoid injuries. And set daily patterns ensure a balanced week that allows students to build strength. Grades I–IV of the Cecchetti method lay the foundation of placement, strength, and equilibrium that allows students to later tackle the professional work in Grades V–VII and Diploma.

Benefits to students
Lisa Adamson Grau, Cecchetti director at Cuppett, says she sees the benefits in students. “Because the students have a specific syllabus that they are trying to perfect in preparation for an exam, out of that exam experience one can see improvement and beauty in their performance quality onstage,” she says.

Pirkko Sirén Lawlor, a Cecchetti examiner and director of The Ballet Conservatory Dance Centre in Winter Haven, Florida, compares Cecchetti training to learning a language. “[It’s] like studying the language with vocabulary and grammar. With this method, the dancer achieves classical line with sound technique, which is pleasing to look at. Just like a well-spoken language, which is a pleasure to listen to.”

Mastery cannot be achieved in any endeavor without drill. Proper practice supervised by an attentive teacher ensures correct muscle memory, line, and technical proficiency. Pamela Moore of the National Ballet Company and School, a Cecchetti examiner of 30 years, says, “The work in Cecchetti is wonderful if properly taught and in the hands of people who know what they’re doing. Teachers must adapt the work for each individual body they are teaching; students are not all the same!”

Exams
At the end of each dance year, teachers decide who among their students is eligible to be presented for a Cecchetti exam that will qualify them to advance to the next level. At Cuppett, letters are sent to students’ homes each September so that students and parents know that taking the exam after only one year isn’t an automatic step. Typically only three or four students are deemed ineligible each year, and they are notified about six weeks before the exams are administered. If they choose to repeat their level, sometimes they are made “leaders” of their class, helping other students master the terminology and the step order in the patterns.

For the students chosen for Cecchetti’s practical and verbal exams, two examiners—who may be flown in if the local examiners have taught the test candidates—administer up to four days of testing. (The exams get longer as the level of the material advances, starting with 45 minutes for the Grade I exam.)

Students enter the studio in a ballet walk and line up. Each has a number pinned to his or her clothing. Girls wear black leotards and pink tights, with their hair in a neat bun. Boys are in black, fitted pants, white T-shirts, white socks, and black ballet shoes. They then perform the material they have practiced all year and answer questions on dance terminology and theory.

The possible grades are: Retake, Pass Conditional, Pass, Pass Plus, Pass Commended, and Pass Highly Commended. A Retake grade means the student must study the material at her level for another year and try the exam again. Pass Conditional allows the student to begin the next level but requires a two-year wait, not the usual one year, to take the exam for that level. Almost every student tested at Cuppett in the last two years has passed.

The teacher’s role
Accountability is an enormous part of teaching an established method of ballet. Teachers have been trained in the Cecchetti method and have passed the teacher exams; they understand what they must produce in their ballet students. Teacher exams include answering technical questions as well as executing the physical material.

Teachers must be able to convey correct technique and artistry to their students, passing down the knowledge they gained from their teacher training. Teachers whose students do not pass an exam (which rarely happens, because students are closely evaluated before being presented for examination) learn what those students need to accomplish to pass the next time. Detailed comments and corrections are given to each student in writing after their exam.

Meyer insists on quality from her students and she challenges them to correct each other. She demands precision, and so do all teachers and examiners who are members of CCA and Cecchetti USA. CCA, with about 650 members, is the larger and older of the two organizations, though both are dedicated to helping teachers be the best they can be, through continuing education and exams in the teacher’s grade levels, membership meetings, and twice-yearly workshops. At the summertime Special Diploma Intensive and CCA Teachers Seminar at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, examiners, teachers, and students converge from all over the world.

Getting started
Studio owners who want to start a Cecchetti program must first find a certified Cecchetti coach who will instruct them in the Grade I teacher’s syllabus. (The necessary materials—books and CDs—can be bought through CCA.)

Coaches are paid $50 per hour, but sometimes two or three prospective teachers take a coach’s lessons together and split the expense. For Grade I teaching certification, a teacher might take a two-hour coaching session twice a month, with more coaching time required as the exam draws near and as the teacher advances to more demanding levels.

After a year or more of work with the coach, teachers are ready to become candidates for exam. Candidates must have been teaching for three years and have a sponsor as well. Once they have passed, they become members of CCA and are permitted to present students for a Grade I exam. Teachers with strong ballet backgrounds sometimes complete Grades I and II in a single year. They could then teach a Grade III class under the supervision of a Cecchetti-certified teacher and take the Grade III teacher exam at the end of the school year, repeating that process with higher grades as they continue their training.

 The teacher-level exam fee varies from $75 for Grade I to $400 for the top Diploma level, with the proceeds covering the travel and lodging costs of CCA’s traveling examiners.

Many teachers don’t advance to the top tier of Cecchetti training; one whose studies had stopped with the fifth level would be equipped to handle anything but the most demanding pre-professional class. Reaching that level could take seven to nine years.

Being a CCA member in good standing requires participation in at least two Cecchetti workshops per year or one Teachers Seminar (in Michigan) per year. Attendance at meetings and continued study are mandatory.

Teachers who have become Cecchetti converts rave about the method’s results. “The Cecchetti program has improved our students 1,000 percent, not only in ballet, but in their other dance disciplines as well,” says Chris Collins, owner of Chris Collins Dance Studio. “It’s done nothing but help them.”

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