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“He'd hold my hand and say, ‘No Vulgarity!’”

photo Erik Tomasson @SFBS

The acclaimed American ballerina Cynthia Harvey talks to balletposition.com about learning from Mikhail Baryshnikov and passing on his exacting standards to 21st century ballet dancers.

Cynthia Harvey wants classical ballet to have a future, but only if it remains true to its classical roots.

“We’re seeing students using social media, for example YouTube, to learn solos,” she told balletposition.com. “And they learn what they see, which is the technical aspects. I felt, along with some colleagues, that the emphasis has been on quantity – how many pirouettes, how high the leg goes. And the intention of the choreographer is lost.”

So, having dedicated her whole life to ballet, she decided to do something about it. Two years ago she set up En Avant Foundation to provide specialised coaching to professional dancers and students. “The way we can help is to coach soloists primarily. In San Francisco we focussed on Swan Lake, also in New York last year. What we do is bring in experts who have danced these roles and can explain [beyond the technique] why you do what you do.”

She warms to her theme: “When you’re Odille, for example, you’d be surprised how many dancers just make faces because they think, ‘this is evil.’ But to have someone like Isabelle Guérin (a fellow member of En Avant Foundation) say ‘you walk seductively’ or ‘it’s mysterious, think about it…’ – coming from a person they respect means they’re more likely to take it on board.”

All this was drilled into Cynthia Harvey from an early age. Trained in her home state of California, she joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1974 and quickly climbed up the ranks to become one of the company’s best loved principals.

Cynthia Harvey as Aurora Royal Ballet photo Leslie Spatt
Cynthia Harvey as Aurora Royal Ballet photo Leslie Spatt

Twelve years later she would join Britain’s Royal Ballet at the personal invitation of Artistic Director Sir Anthony Dowell – the first American principal to be awarded a company, rather than just guest, contract.

“I’d been a huge fan and idolised the Royal Ballet my whole training,” Cynthia told balletposition.com. “If I’d had the opportunity to go to the school in London, I would have; but they didn’t seem open to people from the outside then.”

She spent three years in the company, and danced all the major classical roles. She didn’t feel too foreign – she did, after all, speak the same language – and is discreet about the other dancers’ reaction to her arrival.

“There was a sense of nationalism that I was very aware of. I think it’s different now, 20-odd years later because there are so many more international dancers in the company.”

ABT beckoned, though, and she returned three years later. The legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov was still Artistic Director, and his influence on Cynthia Harvey’s approach to ballet cannot be overstated.

Their 1983 performance of Don Quixote has been filmed and is a must watch for ballet lovers. She recalls it as “a wonderful experience that I’ll always hold dear to my heart,” even though, she says, “I felt like I was so beneath him, not only because he was my boss, but he was already a megastar when I was coming up in the company, so I was scraping with my nails to try to come up to his level.”

Baryshnikov’s approach to the classics – his “exacting standards” – rubbed off on her. “Most people feel that Act III of Don Quixote should be a very dynamic performance, very show off-y; but before we went on stage he would hold my hand and say ‘no vulgarity! I want to see a classical piece, totally classic.’”

And that “totally classic” quality is what Cynthia Harvey is trying to impart to productions of ballets that she’s been invited to mount in companies as far apart as Norway and Singapore since her retirement from dancing in 1996.

Singapore Dance Theatre Don Quixote photo Bernie Ng
Singapore Dance Theatre Don Quixote photo Bernie Ng

Her production of Don Quixote for the Singapore Dance Theatre was an unqualified success, described by the Company’s Artistic Director, Janek Schergen, as “unique.” He told balletposition.com: “Cynthia has first hand knowledge of all the aspects of Don Quixote in choreography, characterisation and detail. (…)The dancers of the company responded to Cynthia’s brilliant way of working in the studio, which allowed them to bring out the best in their technique and artistry.”

En Avant Foundation is still in its embryonic stage, but already extends not only to professional dancers but to students, too. Is Cynthia’s method when teaching students very different from her approach when coaching professionals?

“Yes. I’m fortunate that I’ve been asked to coach ballerinas quite a lot. I’ve been working with the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden and they have some wonderful, wonderful dancers. You don’t have to teach them how to move, so I tend to speak more about what they are thinking or what works and what doesn’t work. It’s more about the flow, the fluidity or where they’re directing their gaze.

photo Bernie Ng
photo Bernie Ng

“With students you have to feed them a little bit less at a time because they can’t take it all on board… they like to think in technical terms.”

photo Daria Klimentova
photo Daria Klimentova @Prague Masterclass

Cynthia Harvey believes classical ballet can thrive in the 21st century. She’s scathing about the notion that everything is evolving away from ballet and into “dance,” because ballet is becoming, some say, obsolete.

“No! I mean, you don’t say that about Mozart – ‘obsolete!’ The classics are classics for a reason (…) but our emphasis must be a little less on quantity and more on the story and moving people. It can be classical and still be pertinent today. “

So how must young dancers play their part in keeping classical ballet both true to its roots and pertinent to our times? Cynthia doesn’t even hesitate:

“I would suggest that they learn the difference between what is beautiful and what is not.”

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  1. Seneka Abeyratne says:

    Brilliant! Cynthia Harvey’s observations, comments and advice are timely and spot on. The present generation of young ballet dancers have no idea what it means to be totally classic due to their preoccupation with the showy and commercial aspects of dancing, which amounts to a serious depreciation of classical ballet.

  2. charmaine smith says:

    wonderful and informative insight to teaching young dancers … great benefit to Kenyan dancers .. who are trying all the time