Julie Cronshaw is a graduate of the Royal Ballet School’s Teacher’s Training Course and has danced professionally in ballet companies in Germany, the United States and Russia. Currently, she is the Artistic Director of the Highgate Ballet School in England. Julie gained her Cecchetti Teaching Diploma in 2009 and Fellowship (the highest teaching award given by the ISTD) in 2010. Julie guest teaches regularly in Paris. She is a founding member of the Auguste Vestris Society, a non-profit, Paris based teaching organization which is dedicated to promoting classical ballet, particularly the work of great ballet masters such as Enrico Cecchetti and August Bournonville.
Q. When did you start dancing?
At age 5, I started after-school ballet classes at the Stella Mann School of Dancing in Hampstead, north London. Then at 16, I attended the Royal Ballet School for three years and took the Teacher’s Training Course Diploma under Valerie Adams.
Q. What made you think seriously of dancing professionally?
I wanted to become a classical ballet dancer – or choreographer – from as early as I can remember.
Q. What were your auditions like?
When I was in my final year at the Royal Ballet School I went to audition in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, as many students did at that time. We were advised to consider dancing abroad because of the paucity of contracts with UK companies. A friend and I traveled on the European rail card from one theater to another and took company class or attended ‘cattle call’ auditions which were generally held in the autumn of each year. Some of the company class auditions were very useful experience, inasmuch as you could see how the dancers in each company differed, at least in those days, the mid 1980’s.
Q. What is your advice for auditions?
Do your homework! Call to ask if you can take class or their open audition.
Most companies will need to see your CV and photos. Check for minimum height requirements, look at their repertoire so you can get a feel for what the company does and its particular style, and find out as much as you can about it before spending the airfare and hostel money. If they will allow you to attend company class separately from an open audition, this is a good idea.
Q. You danced in Germany, Russia and the US. Was there a big difference?
Yes, there were considerable differences between the companies in each country. I would have welcomed a chance to stay longer in Russia. There is something special in the theatrical environment for a ballet dancer there, and my perception of dancers in Russian society generally was that they were a valuable cultural asset. It was a respected and privileged community to be a part of, as well as the feeling of being in a ‘ballet family’ at the theater itself. In Russia, the dancers live for their art and it is their life completely.
In German companies you are also part of a State-managed system (the pay and pensions are excellent) yet a dancer can lead a life outside of the theater – raise a family for example – and not become too preoccupied with rising through the ranks, although as always there are the exceptional ones who will become principals. The repertoire I was doing in Germany was more experimental than in Russia and choreographers mixed ballet with contemporary and Tanztheater.
In the USA, in my experience, a dancer who is in a company is looked after reasonably well. When I was working independently it was more challenging, but if you are prepared to work hard and persevere, you can make your own path. I did benefit from that period in the USA of dancing with different companies, both professional and semi-professional and enjoyed moving into the roles of ballet mistress and teacher, particularly because in the USA, dancers love dancing, and like the Italians and the Japanese will dance at a very high amateur level.
The other differences between the working attitude of the Russian and the American dancer can, I believe, be found in the schools. American ballet training is still relatively varied; great dancers are often nurtured by independent teachers long before they show up in any apprentice program. They are very much individuals, set their own personal goals and take pride in their individuality. In Russia all students go through a State system of training. The identity of the Russian dancer is inextricably linked with their school and the Russian sense of cultural and spiritual identity.
Russian dancers, being from State academies, must take classes in art history, classical music (they all learn an instrument), character dance, and pantomime. These support a dancer’s classical training, which is where US dancers, with their more eclectic studies, may lose out.
The loss of national dance identity is a serious issue, I believe. I have just attended a ‘Vestris’ meeting with young teachers in Italy, where one of the main subjects we discussed was reviving the teaching methods of the so-named Italian school of the latter part of the 19th century. There were others besides Cecchetti, of whom we know little, who trained artists like the famed Virginia Zucchi, Pierina Legnani or Carlotta Zambelli.
Q. You’ve opened your own ballet school in London and you use the Cecchetti Method. Why is that?
I opened my school in 1995. After a few years of teaching, using elements of my professional experience in the USA, I decided that the Cecchetti Method was the way forward for my pupils. At first I chose that Method for practical reasons. It is recognized as a standard of quality in the UK with graded ballet exams for children and teacher accreditation. Over the course of 8 years, I became a Licentiate teacher, took my Cecchetti Diploma and became a Fellow in Cecchetti Method. Gradually teaching experience and study began to reveal the Method to be so much more than a syllabus. Then I realised just how valuable it is for the training of classical ballet today and for the future and decided to research the Method in depth.
Q. Who is Cecchetti and what is his Method?
Maestro Cav. Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) was a virtuosic dancer and teacher, whose Method of teaching classical ballet was pre-eminent worldwide, until the late 1950s. His own training was a unique combination of the Italian coreodramma tradition he learnt with his parents – Cecchetti was born in a dressing room in a Roman theater – and the classical ballet technique of the French School.
Cecchetti’s father sent him to study with in Florence with Giovanni Lepri, a student of Carlo Blasis, whose Elementary Treatise (1820) is still studied today
Whether at the Maryiinsky Theatre (1890-1902), or in the Ballets Russes, where Cecchetti was ballet master from 1909-1918 (and intermittently until his death), or in London where he taught from 1918 to 1921, anyone who was anyone in the dance world then, would have learned Cecchetti’s Method.
Amongst his celebrated pupils: Anna Pavlova (Cecchetti’s private pupil from 1906-1909), Karsavina, Nijinsky, Spessitseva, Kschessinkaya, Preobrajenskaya, Kyasht, Massine, Egorova, Markova, Lifar, Lopukhova, de Valois, Rambert and his students who went to the USA: Albertieri, Caccialanza, Craske, Celli, Danilova and Nemchinova … and the list goes on.
Few know that Agrippina Vaganova was very keen to study with Maestro Cecchetti. As she was not allowed to take his Classes of Perfection in St Petersburg, she asked Preobrajenskaya to tell her what he was doing.
What Cecchetti created was a Method of teaching classical theatrical dancing, as opposed to a System such as Vaganova’s. His Method is taught through classes which focus upon a series of steps and movement qualities on each day, and which he called the Days of the Week. As a dancer progresses through each Day, they will work on, refine and ultimately perfect those steps and movement qualities. No chance of ignoring or omitting any particular step one dislikes or would rather avoid! Consequently, once a dancer has learned and understood the Method – assuming it be taught well – he will have acquired a real and pure technique to a very high virtuosic level, a vast movement vocabulary and highly developed interpretative skills.
Q. What is the difference between the Vaganova, Balanchine and Cecchetti techniques?
Vaganova is a system. It is a one-size-fits-all, academic system designed for specific development over a specific time frame. In conservatoires around the world, dancers are picked according to a set of criteria in order to learn this system and fit the ideal image of the ‘Russian ballet dancer’. When you are in Russia this makes complete sense. It is designed for their sensibility and body type. When you are not Russian and try to imitate the training, the results are not always successful, focusing more on gymnastic flexibility and stage-tricks than on the necessary elements of pure classical ballet technique.
Balanchine “technique” is a misnomer, in my opinion. It is a style, and was not, originally, considered a technique.
Balanchine was a choreographer whose neo-classical ballets were influenced by his early Maryinsky heritage and later on, his life in America. Until the late 1960’s at least, most of the ballerinas were not trained by him, and acquired the style through dancing his choreography. Even the later generations of NYCB dancers who came through the School of American Ballet in Balanchine’s lifetime were trained in a combination of Russian (through Dubrowska and Danilova for example) and Danish or Bournonville (Stanley Williams) technique.
Cecchetti Method is a comprehensive technique for learning ‘classical theatrical dancing’ as Cecchetti terms it and enables any dancer to make the best possible technical and artistic progress over time, precisely because no step is ignored or movement quality left out. The classes were named The Days of the Week and each Day focuses on a series of steps with their particular technical and interpretative challenges.
The barre is not choreographed and is designed to get the dancer on their aplomb and ready for dancing in the center. It can be compared with a musician tuning up and playing their scales and arpeggios, for example. Au milieu, there are two sets of ports de bras, center practice exercises which are similar to those found at the barre, adages, pirouettes with both adage and virtuosic quality, allegros, exercises en diagonale, pointe work and virtuosity.
There is a perception that the Method is too rigid and prevents the teachers from incorporating their own exercises. This is a misunderstanding. Cecchetti adapted the exercises according to who was attending his class at the time. He had for example, a ‘Karsavina’ class, a ‘Pavlova’ class and so on.
The comprehensive nature of the Method ensures that the dancer will eventually reach a high level of training, no matter where, when or how he started. Although it follows a rigid class structure, a teacher can work with each individual dancer on their needs, creating an all-round, very able dancer for a career either in classical ballet or contemporary dance, not to mention also creating a vast movement vocabulary for choreographers to draw upon.
Q. Why do you like Cecchetti?
Initially, as a student at the Royal Ballet School, I was attracted to the theatrical quality of the exercises. It felt like real ballet! Now I appreciate the long fluid lines, the coordinated style of dancing, all the different variations on jumping, and Cecchetti’s clever musicality. Every time I begin to teach an advanced adage or allegro they feel constantly fresh yet timeless and classic, and reveal new aspects of musical and artistic interpretation.
After a few years’ teaching, I realized that Maestro’s genius also lies in the structure of the Days of the Week. It builds in a chronological development in body movement potential and awareness through basic but universal physical principles. This makes understanding and teaching classical ballet technique much more straightforward and is why it is so successful as a Method for teaching classical ballet to dancers at different stages in their ballet training.
The 6 physical principles are:
Monday – aplomb
Tuesday – épaulement
Wednesday – turnout (amplification)
Thursday – transference of weight
Friday – the aerial plane
Saturday – ballon
Cecchetti was also superb mime artist, and well-acquainted with Europe’s traditional folk dances, including Escuela Bolera. Even his classroom exercises are highly “theatrical”. They speak!
There is another reason I love Cecchetti’s Method! I see myself as a stage, and not a classroom, dancer and teacher. As such, I feel very strongly that classical ballet has to convey thoughts and emotions in a very precise way. An audience will appreciate these aspects of ballet in the long term more than watching a display of circus tricks and gymnastics.
Q. Should a dancer know all three?
If they are fortunate enough to have this experience I would say yes, with the hope that they understand the differences between a System, a Method and a Style.
Dancers even in Cecchetti’s day (and he was most opposed to the Ballets Russes’ modern ballets), had to cope with the demands placed on them by different choreographers and this is also true today.
Q. If three ballerinas are dancing the same role in Swan Lake and each has been trained in a different method, will there be a visible difference in their performance?
Yes, absolutely. Dancers from Russia hear the music differently from western European dancers and Americans hear it differently again. This affects their dancing and interpretation. It’s like language. When you are speaking in one language for example, but have to switch to another to communicate it alters your thought processes, gestures and perhaps less consciously, the perceived view of your surroundings.
A more obvious comparison is this: If you listen to three orchestras playing Swan Lake, the Russian orchestra will sound completely different to the German and different again from the English or the American.
Q. You are a founding member of the Société Auguste Vestris and have taught master class events for the Society’s Nuits blanches du Centre de danse du Marais. For young dancers in America what should they know about Auguste Vestris?
Dance students benefit from learning about dance history, not only who Vestris was, but also, the ‘founding fathers’, such as Noverre, Angiolini or Blasis, to name but those few illustrious names. Putting events in their proper perspective may help some understand why they have chosen to learn classical ballet over another form of dancing. Revisiting the masters of the art will help us take ballet into the future.
Most, though not all, ballet steps come to us from ancient, so-called ‘traditional’ European dances; part-and-parcel of dance history and vocabulary, they should not be ignored.
Q. You are obviously involved in the history of dance and keeping alive the legacy of old masters. What does this knowledge bring to the modern world of ballet? Is it relevant?
Yes, completely relevant. The ancient Romans knew well that to conquer and rule they had only to extinguish the original culture of the people they invaded. Forget the past at your peril!
In my opinion, most ballet classes now tend to be rather generic and dull. The same narrow selection of steps and rhythms are used universally while the classical ballet vocabulary seems to be shrinking. Many classes quite literally descend into what is really little more than rhythmic gymnastics on pointe. I think it is so very boring, given the potential talent found in many schools!
It’s quite shocking but I read that at a recent dance conference it had been decided that épaulement was an optional extra! This epitomizes an appalling lack of understanding of a fundamental principle of this art form.
Q. You’ve even produced a film with the dancer Muriel Valtat (ex-Royal Ballet), designed to document The Physical Principles behind Cecchetti’s Days of the Week. Please tell us about this film and when and where it will be available?
The film is being made and edited at the moment. I expect it will be ready by the summer of 2016 and will be released as a DVD with short sections published on TheCecchettiConnection.com website and on YouTube.
The film aims to illustrate the 6 Physical Principles of classical ballet through Cecchetti’s most advanced classroom exercises, which are danced by Cecchetti trained professional dancers. It is not a syllabus film, although the exercises are in Cecchetti’s advanced and Diploma work. There will be additional snippets of related vintage film and a documentary of the Maestro’s background, to frame the dancing.
Cecchetti’s exercises are often dismissed as ‘old fashioned’ and ‘too difficult’. Well, fashions come and go, but a really pure classical ballet technique and artistry are timeless. As for Cecchetti being ‘too difficult’, why then are we constantly being told that today’s dancers far outstrip the previous generation? This is another of the reasons why I am making this film, any well – trained classical dancer who integrates the physical principles into their work will be able to dance anything.
Here are more details on the film and a link to the crowdfunding appeal: http://www.helloasso.com/utilisateurs/augustevestris-597295/collectes/ma…
Q. You’re also launching a new website, www.TheCecchettiConnection.com, as a forum to present his Method. When will that be up and running?
I intend to launch the website in the summer of 2015.
Q. Can a film or a website really provide any valuable insight into dance technique as compared to a teacher?
Although of course there is no substitute for a teacher, media can illustrate, often in novel ways, the Idea behind the Action!
Q. Do you see anywhere in the modern world of dance, people like Cecchetti or Balanchine or Vaganova who can establish principles for modern dance and modern dancers?
The teachers I have been working with for many years are master teachers of classical ballet. I am not very familiar with modern dance makers nor do I attend many performances of modern dance. But then I am a classical ballet teacher and this is where I look for inspiration. And that is where I feel choreographers with a classical ballet background need to be looking as well.
There are individual teachers doing a fantastic job of training dancers, and choreographers in all genres are creating new works which incorporate technological gimmicks and address contemporary social issues. All this is fine … but I would like to see more joy, grace and beauty in classical choreography which lift the spirit and stir the imagination. Also, there appears to be a high injury rate and intense disillusionment across the industry.
Q. What age does a dancer have to be to learn and benefit from the Cecchetti Method?
Any age is fine. It is a Method and can accommodate anyone willing to learn, that is the genius! Sir Frederick Ashton, the Royal Ballet’s Director from 1963-70 and arguably its most talented choreographer, learned the Method at the age of 17 from Rambert, who had trained with the Maestro. Ashton’s choreography embodies all of Cecchetti’s spirit and principles.
Q. Do you like competitions? Do you train your students for competitions?
Actually I do not mind the occasional competition as it can be a platform for a talented student to get stage time and have the opportunity to perform a classical variation outside of a classroom or recital environment. When it leads to a scholarship with a prestigious school or even a contract with a ballet company, it is an attractive proposition. However, I would prefer not to see competitors exhibit their gymnastic abilities and favor virtuosic tricks over musical and artistic interpretation as it is ugly and ungraceful.
Some of my students participate in the annual UK Cecchetti ballet and choreographic competitions and very much enjoy taking part.
Q. As a dance teacher, what advice do you have for ballet students?
I speak to their parents. Is ballet for fun or is it a compulsion? I will make them aware of the rigorous entry criteria should a dancer wish to pursue vocational training. Without enough of the innumerable physical attributes required by ballet schools, entry to them is impossible anyway.
Enjoy your ballet classes, whether you are an amateur attending once a week or intend to become a professional. Dance for joy and for the expression of yourself as an individual! If you do not love what you are doing, there is no point carrying on.
Q. Who are the people in the history of dance that you feel that every dancer should know and study?
Begin with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and the dancers and choreographers who brought ballet into the 20th century, including Anna Pavlova who was a very modern business woman as well as a great artist. Read about the dance makers and companies of the later decades of the century – Ashton, Tudor, Balanchine, Cranko, Macmillan for example.
Then look further back, at classical ballet in the 18th and 19th centuries: Blasis, the rise of Romantic ballet, Bournonville in Denmark and Petipa in Russia. And if you’re really interested in dance etymology, go back to ancient India, which is where it all came from, along with the turn-out itself!
Q. What are some of your favorite ballet books?
I like reading biographies of dancers and dance makers because I enjoy history and find this relationship of a dancer to their period fascinating.
For example, Victor Dandré’s biography of Anna Pavlova in Art and Lifepublished a year after her death) is much more than a eulogy to his wife. The photos alone are worth seeking out the book, but it is the insights into Pavlova’s extraordinary temperament, artistry, and spirituality which reveal why she was considered such a great ballerina and so loved across the world.
Q. What are some of your favorite ballet movies?
You can get films of Fonteyn and Nureyev dancing which shows their partnership.
As a young dancer in the 80’s I enjoyed the three films that Baryshnikov made and his dancing was beautiful.
Then of course, anything with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing is great fun, as Fred Astaire was a truly brilliant dancer, also Gene Kelly.
Q. What are some of your favorite ballet quotes?
The Russians use the term plastique to refer to “holding the shapes”, quite an arduous task in challenging enchaînements! Perhaps the pithiest definition ever is Roger Tully’s:
When the shapes are clear the dancing will appear!
Roger Tully also says, paradoxically:
Always dance your shapes!
Cecchetti is remembered as having said:
A job well – commenced is half done.
Which I think holds not only for the ballet class but also for life.
More pertinent still, for practitioners of any such discipline that requires years of constant and unwavering study, Cecchetti says in his Manual:
Nulla dies sine linea which means: No day without a line.
That said, it is perhaps important to note that Cecchetti’s classes go across SIX days of the week implying that the 7th day is an important day to rest and reflect on the work done… and the work to come.
I would recommend all students of classical ballet to find a copy of Cecchetti’s Manual and read his Advice to those contemplating the study of dancing. It is as valuable today as it was when Cecchetti was alive.