Enrico Cecchetti was a Premier Danseur, choreographer and teacher and a huge icon of great importance in the field of male dancing. Born on the 21st June 1850 in Rome, Italy, both Cecchetti’s parents were dancers – his mother, Serafina Casagli was a Prima Ballerina and his father, Cesare Cecchetti was a Premier Danseur and Ballet Master. In an amazing twist of irony, Enrico Cecchetti was literally born into the theatre world, for his mother gave birth to him in her dressing room at the Tordinona Theatre.
Cecchetti spent his early childhood touring Italy with his parents and made his stage début at the age of 5 in Giuseppe Rota’s ballet Il Jocatore. However, his parents were at first opposed to their son becoming a professional dancer, but the young Cecchetti was determined and the parental opposition wore off. He was sent to the Ecole de Danse in Florence where he studied ballet under Giovanni Lepri, a pupil of the great Carlo Blasis, and developed a brilliant virtuoso technique. Blasis, himself, saw Cecchetti dance when he was a student and saw great potential in him. In school performances, Cecchetti often danced various pas de deux with his sister Pia and when he was 16, he danced in his father’s ballet Nicolo di Lapi, in which Pia was Prima Ballerina. In his early career, he toured around Italy, dancing in places such as Rome, Turin and Pisa. At 19, he was given an engagement to dance for a season with his parents and sister and was met with particular praise when he danced at the San Carlo in Naples, but the engagement that would catapult him to fame was still to come.
A year later, in 1870, at the age of 20, Cecchetti made his début at the Teatro alla Scala and it was here that he first put his stamp on the ballet world. However, his engagement at La Scala was not entirely smooth. Signor Casati, the maître de L’Ecole de Danse, had a favourite nephew whom he wanted to dance instead of Cecchetti and tried to dissuade Cecchetti from dancing. However, his attempts were in vain. Cecchetti finally made his La Scala début, but there were several mishaps during the performance; Cecchetti’s nerves got the better of him and resulted in a leap, which involved the use of wires, going wrong. Cecchetti let go of the wires at the wrong moment and landed sprawling on the floor. The second mishap occurred when he slipped on wax and fell again. A third mishap happened during a pas de deux in which Cecchetti and the ballerina were startled and disturbed by a sudden thud noise from the wings; a big lustre filled with oil had broken off the cords and fallen to the ground with a crash.
It seemed as though his La Scala début was going to end in disaster, but however, Cecchetti completely turned things around when, towards the end of the ballet, he performed a sequence of 32 pirouettes á la seconde, something no other dancer had ever done before. Cecchetti executed the sequence flawlessly and it caused a sensation among the audience; it was his tour de force.
Enrico Cecchetti became Premier Danseur and travelled across Europe, often with his mother and sister, giving successful appearances in Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Holland. In the summer of 1874, Cecchetti made his first appearance in Saint Petersburg, where he was immediately welcomed by the Russian audiences and would be welcomed again for more engagements over the next six or seven years. During an engagement at Naples, he met and fell in love with the ballerina, Giuseppina de Maria, who had recently made her professional stage début in Florence. When her father refused Cecchetti’s request to marry his daughter, the young couple eloped to Berlin, where they were married on the 7th December 1878. They later had five sons, three of whom became dancers in their youth and later went onto pursue different careers.
In 1885, Cecchetti made his début in London when he danced in Luigi Manzotti and Romualdo Marenco’s ballet Excelsior, which had premièred at La Scala in 1881. His performances were hugely successful and after his first visit to London, he returned to La Scala, where he was to create the lead role of the Satyr in Manzotti’s new ballet Amor, which was based on a older ballet Il Misolungi. The success of Amor was followed by the creation of more ballets by Manzotti at La Scala in which Cecchetti danced the lead roles, including Rolla, Narcnta and Sieba. In 1887, Cecchetti and his brother brought a troupe of Italian dancers to Saint Petersburg for a summer season, in which they staged and performed in Sieba and excerpts of Excelsior. This engagement in the former Russian capital was a huge success and among the audience members were dancers of the Imperial Ballet, Petipa and Ivan Vsevolozhsky. This was the summer season that sealed Cecchetti’s place in Russia, for by the end of the engagement, he was offered the place of Premier Danseur with the Imperial Ballet; an offer he joyfully accepted.
Enrico Cecchetti made his début with the Imperial Ballet as Peters, the lead male role in Lev Ivanov’s three-act ballet The Haarlem Tulip, alongside the Russian Prima Ballerina Varvara Nikitina, who danced the lead female role of Emma. This was followed by Petipa’s revival of what was originally his 1886 four-act ballet Le Ordre du Roi, in which Cecchetti danced the role of Dupré. Dancing the lead role of Pepita was his fellow Italian ballerina, the great Virginia Zucchi. For this revival, Petipa and Riccardo Drigo created a new pas de deux for Cecchetti and Mme. Zucchi entitled Le Pêcheur et la Perle (The Fisherman and the Pearl). Cecchetti’s repertoire continued to expand with roles such as Conrad in Le Corsaire. In 1888, Cecchetti became second ballet master of the Imperial Theatre and staged a successful revival of Cesare Pugni and Jules Perrot’s 1846 ballet Catarina, ou La Fille du Bandit, based on his father’s own staging. He also established a place as a teacher, not just to professional dancers, but to the aristocratic society as he gave dancing lessons to Dukes, Duchesses, Counts and Countesses and choreographed dances for Imperial balls.
In 1889, Cecchetti solidified his influence on the future of male dancing in Russia when he created the role of Uragan in The Talisman. In this role, he proved that there was so much more to the danseur’s role than partnering the ballerina. The following year of 1890 saw the creation of his most famous roles – Carabosse and the Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty. These two roles gave Cecchetti the opportunity to display his abilities as two types of artists – a mime artist and a Premier Danseur.
Cecchetti later became a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School, where he introduced the training method of the Italian school, from which he eventually codified his own famous teaching method – the Cecchetti method. The virtuoso Italian school differed vastly from the more elegant, graceful French school, but by his second year of teaching, Cecchetti was giving some of his students private lessons. Among his Imperial Ballet students were some of the greatest names in ballet history – Nikolai and Sergei Legat, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Alexander Gorsky, Matilda Kschessinskaya, Georgy and Lydia Kyaksht, Agrippina Vaganova, Mikhail Fokine, Vera Trefilova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Elsa Vill, Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova. From 1892 to 1894, Cecchetti acted as Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatre after Petipa fell ill and was forced to take leave. During these two years, he worked with Lev Ivanov and choreographed Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell’s three-act ballet Cinderella, which introduced Russia to Pierina Legnani and the 32 fouettés. Enrico Cecchetti’s years in Russia greatly contributed to the Classical Era.
In 1902, Cecchetti left Saint Petersburg when he was offered the post of Director of the Imperial Ballet School in Warsaw, Poland. His reason for leaving Saint Petersburg, however, was partially due to his differences with the new Director of the Imperial Theatre, Col. Vladimir Teliakovsky. Cecchetti’s departure was not met without regret and a fabulous farewell benefit performance was staged for him, in which he was presented with many gifts and tributes from the public and his many friends and students. Cecchetti’s time in Warsaw saw him making a huge difference to the art of ballet and opera, but after the outbreak of the 1905 revolution, the city became too dangerous a place to remain in. Cecchetti and his wife returned to their native Italy, only to find that ballet and opera had greatly changed during their absence and, in Cecchetti’s mind, not for the better. He spent a great deal touring around Italy in an attempt to restore the two art forms to their former glory, before returning to Russia for a time, where he opened a private ballet school.
In 1909, Cecchetti received an invitation from Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes as a mime artist and Ballet Master. Madame Cecchetti took charge of his school in Russia while Cecchetti fulfilled his new engagement. With the Ballets Russes, he performed the mime roles in some of Fokine’s most famous ballets, including the Majordomo in Scheherazade, Koschei in The Firebird and Pantaloon in Le Carnaval. In 1913, he took leave from the company to join Anna Pavlova on her tour of the United States, returning to the Ballets Russes the following year. In that same year, 1914, the First World War broke out and Madame Cecchetti was forced to leave their school in Russia and flee the country; she then joined the Ballets Russes. All five of Cecchetti’s sons served in the war and tragically, two of them were killed. In 1921, Cecchetti and his wife returned to London and rejoined the Ballets Russes. During his time with the Ballets Russes, Cecchetti’s list of great students expanded as his students in the West included Léonide Massine, Lydia Lopokova, Serge Lifar, Gisella Caccialanza, Vincenzo Celli, Olga Spessivtseva, Sir Anton Dolin and Dame Ninette de Valois.
The year 1923 saw the end of Cecchetti’s time with the Ballets Russes, for his health began to deteriorate; the London atmosphere no longer agreed with him. Cecchetti and Madame Cecchetti returned to their native Italy, where they settled at Lake Maggiore. Eventually, Cecchetti returned to teaching and was appointed Director of the La Scala Ballet School. In 1927, another tragedy hit Cecchetti’s life when his dearest wife Giuseppina – who he called “the angel of his life” – died, leaving Cecchetti heartbroken and he never fully recovered from the loss. He continued to teach for another year, but one morning, on the 12th November while giving class, he suddenly suffered a heart attack and had to be taken home.
Enrico Cecchetti died on the 13th November 1928, aged 78. He is buried with his wife and son Cesare in the small cemetery in Quarna Sotto, located in the Province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola in the Northern Italian region Piedmont.
- Racster, Olga (1923) Master of the Russian Ballet – The Memoirs of Enrico Cecchetti. Hampshire, UK: Noverre Press
- Beaumont, Cyril (1929) Enrico Cecchetti: A Memoir. UK: Beaumont
Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.