The Cecchetti Society in its early days
How Examinations started
A talk given by Laura Wilson
Although I cannot claim to be a founder of the Society, I think it was only in its third year when Margaret Craske, whom I had known, admired and liked very much when we were both in the 1921 Diaghilev Seasons, persuaded me, much against my inclination as I had a great aversion to examinations, to join the Society. Eventually, I agreed and took the three Major examinations in rapid succession. In those days for the Elementary (currently Advanced 1) and Intermediate (currently Advanced 2) there were three Examiners, one of whom was always Mr. Beaumont who asked the theory questions and was very quick at spotting faults and asked very cunning questions. The Advanced Examination (currently Maestro Cecchetti Diploma) had five Examiners.
I remember just after doing the Intermediate examination Miss Craske asked me if I would mind going with a small group of children and teenagers to a hall, I forget where, to demonstrate some of the work, the three Grades and a little of the Major work. I imagine this was one of the early Congresses. The only thing I remember about it was a little skinny girl who seemed very talented and who eventually became Helen Wolska.
Soon after taking my Advanced I was invited to become a Committee Member, another thing which I found very daunting.
To begin with the Advanced examination had no syllabus, one had to know all the Adage and enchaînements; those Examiners who had been pupils of Maestro, either at his private classes or like myself at company classes all had our notes and lists of the set work. The barre and the centre work were simply regarded as warming up and using the muscles in all the ways necessary to keep the machine in running condition. Then the Adage, each day its particular ‘motif’ as it were, these were again the regular ones, and then several more elaborate of which two three were done at each class. Allegro always started with some simple enchaînements based on the particular movement of that day and the more elaborate ones, so many that one seemed to be constantly encountering new ones.
After several sessions of Advanced examinations, teaches began to clamour for a written syllabus in order to have a more definite guide as to the work needed. So a sub-committee was formed consisting of Miss Craske, Miss Lake, Miss de Moroda, Madame Rambert and myself, to choose from the welter of notes, the most useful enchaînements which would give examples of the variety and range of the Method. We used to meet in the evening in Madame Rambert’s house in Camden Hill as she, in those days was the only one who had children, and being busy with her school and the beginning of the Mercury Theatre, she did not care to be away from home in the evenings.
It was a very interesting time, we indulged in endless arguments as to the merits and demerits of one step or another, inevitably some had different versions, and of course the Maestro could and did vary some steps at different times, and why not, he was not having to go by the book. Being dancers, followers of a speechless profession, we talked an awful lot, sometimes so noisy that one or other of the children would call to their mother ‘to please keep the ladies quiet we cannot get to sleep’.
These meetings were more or less weekly and continued for over a year. Finally we were able to present it to the full Committee, and in the following Summer show it in a big demonstration at Congress, held in the Portman Rooms, a large ballroom with a very slippery floor in Baker Street. I am not sure of all the people who did that first demonstration but certainly Jocelyn Yeo, Mary Skeaping, Peggy van Praagh and I were some of them. Though there have been some alterations in format and the work which we considered a necessary selection of Maestro’s vast repertoire of exercises to produce an Advanced dancer, this has now been divided into three by shortening the amount of the Advanced work and introducing the two Diploma examinations. These do contain, I think all the work of the original syllabus we produced all those years ago. Of course there were many full meetings of the Committee at 75 Charing Cross Road, Mr. Beaumont sitting behind his not very large roll top desk, probably Madame Rambert and Miss Craske on the two chairs, the rest of us perched precariously on piles of books. Every item of the syllabus had to be discussed and agreed upon, and even in the few inches of floor space very often one of us would get up to show how they thought a step should be done. Again much argument with Mr. Beaumont, with that incredible patience of his, listening, making comments or amendments in wording, often going on till 10:30 or so. The shop would have been closed by Mrs. Beaumont who took charge on these occasions. Some time during the evening, having gone down the very narrow cork screw stairs to the cellar where, beside the famous printing press on which the beautiful books Mr. Beaumont and his wife and friends printed (and hand coloured some of the ballet publications) was a small cooking apparatus and sink, she made us tea and somehow carried tray, cups, and saucers, a plate of cake, generally Madeira or Russian cake, and never spilled anything. I only went down there once and didn’t like those stairs at all, and I was so much younger and more agile than she.
About the time that we finished the Syllabus (around 1930) the I.S.T.D. took some rooms in the upper part of Charing Cross Road. By that time the Cecchetti Society had been incorporated with the I.S.T.D. so our examinations took place there. The number of candidates was increasing and there were great numbers of children entering the Grade examinations. There were many requests from teachers in the provinces that they might have visiting examiners at their studios, because of the difficulties involved in bringing children from places like Bath or Manchester or Liverpool. After much discussion it was decided that Miss Craske and I might be sent to Manchester.
Mr. Beaumont, except for a fortnight’s holiday in Bournmouth, as far as I know, never left London. However, Miss Craske, Mr. Beaumont and myself visited two schools there and saw some nice work. The ice having been broken, the Provincial examinations multiplied rapidly. This was just as well as it had become increasingly difficult to fit in all the examinations at Charing Cross Road, even when the HQ moved to Imhof House, where there was more than one studio it was quite a problem. By this time Mr. Beaumont, fond though he was of children, could not spare the time to attend all their examinations and the other examiners took their turn at writing the reports. We did not sign the certificate ourselves as we had done during the earlier years.
We were of course as Committee members rather amateurish and unruly. I think that our dear Mr. Beaumont indulged our own individual egos too much, and looking back over the vast number of years that have flown by, I sometimes wonder how he put up with us all.
On the other hand of course there were times when we found him a little trying, points on which we seemed to be stuck for ever, and one could not get on with a long agenda. But how much we owe to him, and, though the younger generation over here did not know her, what a debt we owe to Margaret Craske for her gentle, impeccable teaching, her tremendous kindness and appreciation of her pupils’ talents and problems, and her intellectuality and integrity. Although in many ways so different there were ways in which she and Miss Barker were much alike. We became great friends and indeed my daughter was named after her.
I have been worried as to how to end this talk about our early days. Perhaps it is better not to end as the work, the Art, is timeless and therefore without end. I would like to think that everyone will remember that the taking of examinations is not an end in itself but a means to ensure that dancers and teachers have the requisite knowledge and skill to serve this beautiful Art which is sometimes so ill treated, and determine to see that it is used ever more fully and creatively, worthy of the Maestro and those great people Cyril Beaumont and Margaret Craske without whose courage, determination and love, so much would have been lost.