A chapter from Following Sir Fred's Steps - Ashton's Legacy, the published proceedings of the conference on the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and his work, held at Roehampton University in 1994, and edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andrée Grau.
The Influence of Cecchetti on Ashton’s Work
In the autumn of 1984, as a result of a discussion we had had when he came to watch a rehearsal of his ballet Pas de légumes at the Royal Ballet School, I received a most interesting personal letter from Sir Frederick Ashton. In this letter, Ashton spoke with great enthusiasm about the value of the method of training handed down by Enrico Cecchetti, and of the influence it had had on him, via his studies with Léonide Massine, Marie Rambert and Margaret Craske. He wrote as follows:
“Having received my first tuition in ballet from Massine, a pupil and great advocate of Cecchetti and his system, and then on to Rambert in ‘my rather rickety beginnings’, I have always had the greatest respect and gratitude for the Cecchetti method and what it gave to me - with further tuition from Craske. If I had my way, I would always insist that all dancers should daily do the wonderful ports de bras, especially beginners. It inculcates a wonderful feeling for line and correct positioning and the use of head movement and épaulement, which, if correctly absorbed, will be of incalculable use throughout a dancer’s career.”
Much has been written about the influence of Bronislava Nijinska’s work on Ashton’s choreography, in particular her innovative use of the torso. But Nijinska’s twists and bends of the upper body — admired and absorbed by the young Ashton - were grafted onto a base of academic classical technique, as was also to be the case with Ashton’s own choreography. Nijinska had started studying with Maestro Cecchetti even before joining the Imperial Ballet School. In her autobiography (1981) she speaks warmly of her studies with him, both at the Imperial Ballet School and later, when she and her brother Vaslav shared Pavlova’s private lessons with the Maestro. Then, in her Monte Carlo diary of 1911 (Cecchetti having just arrived from St Petersburg to give the Diaghilev company classes), Nijinska wrote that ‘Maestro Cecchetti has faithfully preserved the positions of the whole body according to the geometrical proportions and exact equilibrium developed by Blasis’. Commenting on the strict routine of Cecchetti’s method of teaching, Nijinska went on to say that this ‘develops in the student’s body an absolute “habit” to assume the correct position automatically and to preserve this correct position not only on the floor but also in the air’ (1981, p. 334). Clearly, then, the precision and control of the danse d’école constituted the foundation upon which Nijinska built her edifice of choreographic invention. Ashton was inspired by Nijinska’s marvellously original use of the upper body, but, like her, he recognised the importance of the classical basis, which underpinned her choreography.
Invited by the Camargo Society to arrange a ballet for its first performance in 1930, Ashton was quoted in the Dancing Times as follows:
“The idea so often expressed that classical technique is hampering to artistic expression is erroneous and misleading. A sound training, such as one receives through the method of Maestro Cecchetti, embodying as it does a complete and pure theory of movement, awakens within the dancer a response to any style he may be called upon to interpret - and this is surely the ultimate aim of every true artist.” (Ashton, 1930, pp. 124-5)
Ashton did not study with Cecchetti himself - the Maestro had left London for his native Italy not long after Ashton began his first classes with Massine. He says that it was from Massine that he learned ‘about style and about the beauty of port de bras’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 7). Massine himself attributed his own understanding of the use of the upper body to classes he had with Cecchetti with the Diaghilev company; he talked of Cecchetti’s influence on port de bras ‘co-ordinating the movements of the arms and the head in order to develop épaulement’ (1968, p. 54). When Massine left London, he sent his young student to work with Marie Rambert. Rambert had also studied with Cecchetti, and in her autobiography she too stresses the beauty of Cecchetti’s port de bras: ‘when I was taught the Italian arms by Cecchetti, I realised it was possible to have beautiful arm movements in classical ballet’ (1972, p. 103). Rambert had disliked the stilted arm movements of the French Académie. Cecchetti’s use of expressive gesture within the academic framework of classical port de bras was thus an important aspect of the teaching, which both Rambert and Massine were to hand down to Ashton; it was to become one of the hallmarks of his style.
When Cecchetti left London, his studio was taken over by Margaret Craske, and it was here that Ashton learned many of Cecchetti’s famous adagios and allegro enchaînements. These were arranged according to a set weekly pattern of study - different aspects of technique being emphasised on each day of the working week. To anyone who has danced these enchaînements and has also performed in Ashton’s ballets, the link between the two is unmistakable. What Ashton did was to use this movement material as a springboard for his own choreographic invention. By altering an angle of the body, substituting a different arm or head movement, or varying the rhythmic emphasis of the steps involved, he would create a totally new dance out of Cecchetti’s classroom exercises. One of the best-documented examples of this is Peggy van Praagh’s description of the creation of the pas de trois in Valentine’s Eve, based on some of Cecchetti’s Saturday steps (Vaughan, 1977, p. 115).
Many of the arm and leg movements in Les Rendezvous also echo that Saturday work, whilst the terre à terre batterie and nimble footwork of the pas de trois and the men’s pas de six relate directly to Cecchetti’s Friday batterie enchaînements. In this respect, it is interesting to note Ashton’s own reputed ‘ability to do small batterie’ (Vaughan, 1977, p. 27). Part of one of those Friday beaten steps en diagonale was incorporated into the Fonteyn solo in Birthday Offering. The virtuoso element characteristic of much of Cecchetti’s grand allegro found its way into Cola’s solos in La Fille mal gardée (Vaughan, 1977, p. 308). Here the source was the men’s classes being taught by Errol Addison at the time Ashton was choreographing Fille. Addison had been a favourite pupil of Cecchetti’s, and in his day was himself something of a virtuoso. David Blair presented Ashton with Cecchetti-based material from Addison’s classes which Ashton then reworked in his usual way, challenging Blair with feats of technical brilliance which trumped the original both by their technical daring and with those little extra elements of surprise that transform a classroom step into a choreographic gem.
One of the major difficulties of many of Cecchetti’s allegro enchaînements lies in the rapid changes of weight and direction their correct execution demands. This aspect of his work is reflected in many of Ashton’s dances, notably the Red Girls’ duet in Les Patineurs and the pas de trois in Les Rendezvous. In both of these ballets - as indeed in much of Ashton’s choreography - an important element of the movement texture is provided by the gliding motion of the Italian chassé - in which the whole foot slides along the floor, unlike the lighter, ‘pointed foot’ chassé of the Soviet Russian school. The gradual erosion of this characteristic step dilutes Ashton’s style, as much as do the reduced amount of sideways bend and épaulement found in many young dancers today.
The ability to sense a centre of balance, which deviates from the vertical, was an important element in Cecchetti’s teaching, and is frequently echoed in Ashton’s choreography, not least in the added thrill of a renversé movement to punctuate a pirouette, as in Symphonic Variations and Rhapsody. Today’s emphasis on high leg extensions often results in a concurrent neglect of the upper body movement (not to mention a reduction in complexity and speed of footwork). Classical ballet seems to have become an altogether more vertical and statuesque affair, eschewing those marvellous, dangerous-looking sideways bends and swoops of movement found in La Valse, as they were in many of Cecchetti’s classroom steps.
There is a tendency nowadays for dancers - and choreographers – to indulge in a leg-dominated distortion of classical dance. By concentrating the focus of attention on the look of the raised leg in space, with scant regard for the relevant disposition of arms and legs, the harmonious balance between all the limbs is distorted in a way which is contradictory to the demands of Ashton’s choreography - hence his plea for the corrective effect of exercises such as Cecchetti’s port de bras, with their meticulous attention to maintaining a balance of movement not only between both arms, but also between the arms in relation to the legs.
One of the characteristic positions of the Italian school is the so-called ‘Mercury’ attitude. Blasis claimed to have adapted this from Bologna’s famous statue, and it features widely in Cecchetti’s classroom work, as it does in Ashton’s choreography. One can trace its development from the original curved shape as used in Leda and the Swan, dating from 1930, to the more elongated, streamlined look found in Monotones thirty-five years later. This arm position is as much an Ashton hallmark as the famous ‘Fred Step’ (his signature enchaînement inspired by Pavlova’s Gavotte). There is a wonderful photograph of Cecchetti coaching Pavlova as she assumes a variant of the Italian attitude arm position, as used in the Maestro’s sixth exercise for port de bras and his grande préparation pour pirouette en dedans - a period pose prefiguring as modern a work as Monotones by some sixty years.
Anna Pavlova with Enrico Cecchetti
Ashton’s style is in many ways synonymous with what is called the English school of classical ballet. Although Cecchetti died in 1928, during the 1930s - when English ballet was beginning to come into its own – Cecchetti’s pedagogic legacy was still dominant in Britain. It dictated the type of dancer the young Ashton had at his disposal in his formative years as a choreographer. Many of the technical and expressive elements emphasised in their Cecchetti schooling were inevitably reflected in Ashton’s dance invention.
Ninette de Valois has written that ‘Maestro Cecchetti left a great imprint on the English school. The important aspects of his teaching will remain a part of the academic tradition of our English ballet’ (1973, p. 46). She goes on to stress Cecchetti’s insistence on the importance of head and body movements, explaining that ‘we were expected to master the épaulement first’, and she adds that ‘although he had been a famous virtuoso dancer he demanded grace from women before anything else. Unity of movement was a fetish with him’ (1973, p. 45). Are not these the qualities reflected par excellence in Ashton’s work?
Ashton, F. (1930), ‘A Word About Choreography’, Dancing Times, May 1930.
Massine, L. (1968), My Life in Ballet, London, Macmillan.
Nijinska, B. (1981), Early Memoirs, London, Faber & Faber.
Rambert, M. (1972), Quicksilver. London, Macmillan.
de Valois, N. (1973), Come Dance with Me, London, Dance Books.
Vaughan, D. (1977), Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, London, A & C Black