Cecchetti vs. Vaganova Continuing Ballet History
By Angelika Stegmann
When I started to teach in this country, I quickly realized that the dancers were trained in a different school than I have been trained in. Growing up in the Russian School founded by Agrippina Vaganova I was not familiar with the Cecchetti Method, which is widely spread throughout the U.S. I was curious about the difference of styles and their history.
The difference is quite subtle but enough to throw a student off the path. Arm positions have different numbers; for instance, the fifth position en haute in Cecchetti is the third position in Russian. As long as the name is the only difference, the dancer still knows how to execute this. But when it comes to how to hold the head at every given moment, it becomes trickier and the dancer needs to concentrate.
It makes sense that there are only slight differences in the style considering both schools’ beginnings. Born in Rome, Italy, the dancer and ballet master Enrico Cecchetti (1850 – 1928) came to St. Petersburg to teach at the Imperial School in 1887. He had debuted as a dancer at La Scala in Milan when he was twenty-years-old and had toured Europe as the best dancer known in his time until he settled in St. Petersburg, at least for a while, to mesmerize the audience with his strong leaps, multiple pirouettes, and flashing beats. The Russian audience, which was more accustomed to watching grace, charm, artistry and personality, welcomed the firework of energy Cecchetti and the ballerinas Carlotta Brianza and Pierina Legnani brought to their attention.
Eventually, Cecchetti was engaged as ballet master at a time when the Franco-Danish-Russian School influenced by the Swedish Christian Johannson dominated the schools. For a while, there were two separate schools, much to the confusion of everyone. In 1902, Enrico Cecchetti moved on to teach in Poland, went on tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and eventually opened his own school in London.
Meanwhile in St. Petersburg the young Agrippina Vaganova (1879 – 1951) had first struggled through her years at the Imperial Ballet School only to gain respectful success as a dancer. At the height of her career in 1916, Vaganova retired from the stage to give her undivided attention to teaching.
One year later, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 threatened the future of the ballet. Many Russian dancers fled the country and settled in England and France but Vaganova stayed in what was now Petrograd and later Leningrad, and refined her teaching methods. The Russian ballet master Nicolai Legat had started to incorporate Cecchetti’s speedy pirouettes and various entrechats into the graceful fluidity of the Russian style. Vaganova continued and combined all the different styles of her days with her own rich knowledge and insight. With her book “Basic Principles of Classical Ballet”, published in 1934, she put down her legacy. Her method became the basic method of the Soviet Choreographic School and in the last decade won more and more followers in the U.S.