Summer Classes with Vincenzo Celli, New York 1955

New York was a furnace in the summers before air- conditioned studios. In a cramped West Side studio, with the two windows facing the street open to catch any passing waft, I experienced my first taste of the Cechetti method. My maestro was Vincenzo Celli, a frightening man indeed to a twelve year old from the provinces. As the class was about to begin, in swept Mia Slavenska, who was placed at  the top of the class, in front of the window.[There was a barre along one wall and a free standing barre] I was by far the youngest and smallest in the class and squigged in between two other dancers at the rear of the barre. I was certainly not used to everyone from beginner to ballerina being in the same class.

Then the class began with a brief discussion of the exercise wanted. All the other students/dancers seemed to know the sequences without Celli marking them, just his slight verbal  indication, i.e. ‘battement, developpe’ or a slight twinge in his foot with some epaulement thrown in. Cechetti sequences are long and sustained to develop strength, and I desperately tried to follow and remember at the same time.

When it came to the Centre practice, Slavenska was in the front and I tried to hide at the  back of the class. Maestro was quite strict and carried a rod with him. He used it to pound the tempo on the floor or to strike dancers at the barre when anything stuck out, like rear ends. I have never pulled up and in so much. I could hardly breathe. Indeed, this method does stress a strong core, vertical body. While Celli was pounding the floor on this day, his rod snapped.  He walked out of the class and returned shortly with a broom which he turned upside down, and we continued. In long combinations which you do not know and which stress continued balance on one leg, it is difficult to perform without falling, because if you are to balance you need to anticipate how to proportion your weight. If you are meant to rotate your right leg from a developpe a la seconde into first arabesque and then to pivot  en dehors and to end with a rotation to seconde once more you need to prepare.

Then came Adagio. My eyes were fixed on Slavenska when Maestro spotted me at the back, walked to me and dragged me into the front, placing me next to Mia, who took no notice. I had no one to follow, except by staring into the large mirrors at Mia . It was necessary to try to keep moving. Maestro stood directly in front of me with his broom, and then he shut his eyes and would not open them, indicating that he could not bear to look at me and passed on to Mia.

Because I could jump and turn, I felt a bit more confident in the Allegro, but the stress caught up with me, and I had to pique turn out of the studio and into the bathroom in order to vomit. I could hear some dancer saying to the back of my neck, ‘breathe, breathe’.

I was about the same size as the child with Maestro Celli in the photograph. There is just a final memory of the smell of sweat and the soaking wet floor in that long, hot summer. There was no special flooring, and we used rosin on our shoes from a wooden box which was stepped into. Mia Slavenska did the class on pointe.

Please see the clip above of Mia Slavenska. She is the ballerina with the blonde hair.

An historical note:

The class before Celli’s, in that same studio, was taught by an extraordinary tap dancer, Paul Draper. He  had a speech impediment which meant that there is not much Hollywood film footage of him. Please see two clips: One clip is of his improvising as an older man; another, of a talented student dancing his choreography in the way I remember his dancing.

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