Cynthia Harvey: “Dancing is like breathing, but also the ability to portray what you’re feeling”

Sitting in front of Cynthia Harvey, one of the ballerinas I admired more since I was a young girl, in the time when I was never tired of watching at the same video infinite times, is a beautiful dream unexpectedly realized. The sky is grey, we’re in a noisy bar but it doesn’t matter: Cynthia’s silvery laughter is so limpid, her smile is so sincere and her words are so true and interesting to make me forget all the rest.

It’s a great pleasure for me to be here with you. First of all I’d like to let you know the Don Quixote you danced with Michail Baryshnikov and ABT (American Ballet Theatre) has been the first VHS videotape I received as a gift when I was maybe thirteen years old: I watched it so many times that now there are many points where you can only see a kind of white noise…

It’s always nice to hear that! When this recording first came out there were only old fashioned VHS videotapes and then the company contacted both of us to say that they would have turned it into a DVD, but at the time we were just aware about what a VHS  was, and we had no idea about how they could make money from that. But it was nice because it exposed me to many people in order to see ballet.

It was the version recorded for American tv, isn’t it? 

It was recorded live, on performance. It was 1984. I was not supposed to do it, two other people were meant to perform it. I had not done Don Quixote that year on the tour, so when they said me “We’d like you to do it” I was panicking, of course. I had never done some of the variations before and, as jumping for me was easy, Misha (Michail Baryshnikov, ndr) wanted me do the jumping variation, so I had to put all together very quickly. Finally in the first act the jumping variation never got better: I think that when you’re young and you can jump like crazy it’s funny, energetic.

Later on I had danced the ballet with other partners, and I have some private videos I will never show anyone, with, for example, Julio Bocca and others, even with Misha, and some of it I did better, so I wish there were legal videos of that.

I think that is one of the best versions of Don Quixote I’ve never seen: personally when I think to Don Quixote I have the ABT version in my mind, I can even remember different details of this production, for example in the first act, suddenly after your first entrance, you broke your fan… And somebody gave me another one, very quickly! (She laughs) That’s because there is so much energy, so much life, it moves very quickly, there are some elements like vaudeville, musical theatre, musical comedy… I think there are many ways to approach it, but this was Misha’s way.

Did you want to dance since you were a child or did your parents decide to send you to a dance school?

No, it was me! I turned them crazy! When I was a child I stood in front of the tv (here, we go back to the days when it was black and white! – she laughs again), trying to imitate. My mother was worried about it because I looked terrible, so my parents decided to send me to a local teacher and I joined a summer course, where I just understood dancing was the right thing for me. It just felt right from the very beginning, and I’ve been really lucky to immediately find a very good teacher and small classes where I got a lot of personal attention. My teacher wanted a daughter, she had two sons, and I think she considered me as her own daughter; she spent so much time with me working on little things, and I hope I paid her back, because she just was the right teacher, I had the right parents, it was the right time, and everything worked. There’s not only one single thing that makes a dancer, it’s just all, several things together.

Which ballet role was your favorite one?

I would say my favorite role was Giselle. First of all because there are no fouettés: for me it was a good start! And because I love the romantic period of ballet. Most people who had seen me in Don Quixote don’t know this, but I feel more comfortable in dancing Giselle, I really love this style, and then there is  the acting element. It’s wonderful when you can put so much into a role: there are so many ways it can be interpreted, it could be like an onion, you peel many layers and you keep the best. In every performance you discover something new, something about yourself you can put into the role.

Did this role taught you something?

Yes. First of all it taught me the feeling of forgiveness. I think Giselle forgives Albrecht in the end, and I believe at a higher level, as a person, you can actually do this in real life. You could go the other way like Myrtha or you can be like Giselle: it’s important to have the sense of forgiveness and the feeling of not having revenge in real life. I learnt this from the ballet, I think you have to find some of yourself in the ballet and some of the ballet in yourself, in order to make it seem true, to be able enough, real enough to perform it, for the public.

Is there a particular moment in your career, or even when you were a student, that you remember more than others?

There are some moments in my whole life I don’t remember at all, and it’s strange. Now, with social media, it’s much easier because people remind things about you maybe you had forgotten… The biggest moment I remember in my career was when Anthony Dowell chose me to do Kitry for the first time. Anthony Dowell was the best at the time: I mean, I had his pictures on my wall!

Among the good experiences first of all there is dancing with Misha. He was a man of few words, but what he said was usually important, and of those things I remember everything.

I also remember Erik Bruhn: he worked with us at ABT and I was kind of a fledgling, just at the end of my soloist time, and he chose me to do La Sylphide. I was having to rehearse in front of the other ballerinas but I had never been in a room where I was learning a principal role with other ballerinas in the company. I was completely intimidated, so he brought aside, and said to me: “I wouldn’t have chosen you if I didn’t think you could do it!”. I think I burst into tears or something like “Oh my God! He’s Erik Bruhn, he’s a ballet god!”

Among the good things I remember touring with Misha and friends, and dancing with Rudolf (Nureyev, ndr) on one of his friends occasions. Thank goodness I remember all these good things!

Is there a performance you particularly remember?

When I think about performing it’s weird because it’s not tangible: the performance ends and you only remember details like “I didn’t make that fouetté”, or “I didn’t hit that fifth position”, things audience don’t really care about. It’s very difficult to walk away from the performance and say “it was good” or “it was not so good”, because you’re not a very good judge towards yourself. I generally tried not to bring on stage my bad or good emotions of the day, but I remember one time (I think I was angry with something), a ballet mistress said me: “You danced so much better with your anger!” I thought she was joking because I didn’t feel it good at all, but instead she was very serious!

Many dancers at a certain point decided to stop their career, but after few years they came back on stage: you didn’t.

No, I didn’t. For many reasons: if I had had the facility and the physicality of a Sylvie (Guillem, ndr) or an Alessandra (Ferri, ndr) I would have possibly considered in continuing longer, whether I had a child, but I never had this, for me it has never been that easy. That’s not to take anything away from them: both of them are marvelous artists and I know they work hard, so it’s not to say it’s just easy, but a certain physique is much more adaptable to ballet than another, and then I had injured myself. You know, if you don’t suffer accidents in your career you have a better chance of continuing to do your job when you’re older!

What would you consider the most difficult thing in your career as a ballerina?

I suppose it’s a problem of expectation. I mean the image you portray, for example as a ballerina, is not necessarily the image of what you are in real life. When you are a ballerina people very often expect you to be perfect in real life but it’s just a simple expectation they put on you.

Personally I suppose I wasn’t very good in multitasking: having a private life, as well as being a dancer, was very difficult to me, so at a certain point I decided to stop dancing because I couldn’t be a good mother and a good ballerina at the same time.

And as a teacher?

As a teacher I would say maybe it’s expectation again. First of all I learned a lot from Baryshnikov, and I lived and danced in the Eighties, the golden age of dance: there were so many wonderful artists and they didn’t have the technique the dancers have today. I think with the technique of today, if they could imbue their performances with these things I saw, that kind of heart, the soul, then we could push dancing further and further. But right now to me the frustration is when I go in a studio or I teach worldwide and the interest is all on “how many” and “how high”: I’m afraid when someone only cares about how many turns you do, or about how high your leg is. The expectation is now for dancers to do more, higher, longer and it has become about this but that is not what dance is about, and never was that for me. I want to see people move, it’s not just a step or a leg, it’s not an isolation exercise, dancing is a movement, and that’s a verb: to move! To travel, to take up space, and also the ability to portray what you’re feeling inside.

You actually teach and coach in many different places, you are often invited in the companies, you travel a lot…

I think I’m like a gipsy in some way, I like this not being in one place very long, I think I get bored very quickly. Actually I’m living in the English countryside, in a very isolated village, with my son and my family: when I left my career as a ballerina I realized sometimes I missed the camaraderie, I missed being among other people thinking in the same way I did, and laughing at the same jokes. That’s why traveling in big cities, in many different companies and schools is good for me.

For you and also for the dancers you coach!

That’s why I think for a company is so important to have outsiders coming in, because when you see something for longtime you lose the perspective,  and I rather like having a distance in a way. When I come in is like seeing with fresh eyes and I think that’s why it works for the companies and schools having me back, because I know the repertoire pretty much and I can come in with a fresh outlook. I think the dancers appreciate that. It’s not about how good a teacher is, because most of the times we say almost the same things: it’s the way in which it’s delivered, maybe it’s slightly different, but dancers usually react in a positive way and it helps the ballet staff and the company, as well as me. Even on students that usually works, because when a coach or a teacher is an outsider and she/he stays for a limited period, she/he usually goes quicker, so they are going to react faster. My foundation is specialized in exactly this coaching.

What is the name of this foundation and how does it work?

“En avant”. Because we want to go forward, not backward!

Me and my colleagues, we go in companies and schools, we do masterclasses. Personally I travel a lot, to give the dancers the chance to hear what experts have to say. We also work on secondary roles, should not necessarily be doing Odile! The purpose of the foundation is to give a supplement to what dancers are getting in their companies or schools because sometimes a focus is on different things. I remember last year, I was rehearsing the girls, I think it was Giselle, I showed them something and they said “Oh, we had no idea!” That happens because the information they’re getting is from a video and, instead of really understanding the intention, they’re watching a beautiful dancer like Zackarova but they don’t understand that that’s not necessarily what they’re supposed to be and to do: the fact that her legs go very high is just her physicality and that’s what she can do with it. The focus is on something else: we’re telling a story. That is the purpose starting this foundation. Actually I’m very happy because boys and girls who signed up in our classes last year are all coming back this year.

What do you think a teacher really has to do to grow up good dancers? I often hear teachers saying dancers have to go over the technique: what do you think about that?

You necessarily have to start with technique. To me the first thing is to demonstrate students what is beautiful and what is not, because they have to know: dance is an esthetic art.

I always try to enjoy what I’m doing, I have fun when I’m teaching, and music takes a great part in this because it has different timings, you can introduce different rhythms, it’s a prime for me. When students are comfortable with basic technique and music, that is the good moment to show what we worked on, because the purpose is to get out on stage on show, not to stay in a studio all your life long. I can be the one who is in the studio all the time because I don’t have to perform now! I think enjoying  the process is much more interesting than the result, because that’s intangible and you usually don’t remember it, as I said, but in the studio you remember everything: there’s a lot of other people doing the same thing as you, there is a mirror, so there’s almost no way you can forget what you’re doing, and the best thing you can do is really enjoying that. For me that’s much better than performing!

What about your future projects?

I’ve recently been in New York and San Francisco, then next meeting will be in Paris in October: at the moment I have Nicholas Le Riche, Clairemarie Osta and Isabelle Guérin as coaches. Maybe we will focus on Giselle, he can take on Albrecht, Nicholas is such an artist!

It would be nice if they could help the future generations, I think they want to offer young people and fans to understand some of the intricacies of the various roles of this ballet, so I’m happy to be able to support and produce that for them.

We have a space, in the magazine, called “Danzaperché?”, especially dedicated to people who want to tell us why do they dance, why do they love dancing. “Danzaperché?”,  for you?

Because I can’t do anything else. It’s like breathing, I have to dance, and that goes back since I was a child. And then because in the music I can find my own place, my peace. Was it my destiny? I just don’t know, and I don’t care, because I’ve never done anything else, so I have no idea about what I could ever have been, maybe a mayor, or an academic, who knows? Who can imagine? Yes, this is hypothetical.

Outside the sky is still grey and it’s even starting to rain but I’m very grateful for the time Cynthia dedicated me because she did that with simplicity, without having ever known me before and without knowing anything previously. I’m glad I can put aside the portrait of one of my favorite ballerinas ever the one of a marvelous woman, simple and open, who always speaks you with a smile on her face. I hope to have the chance, in the future, to meet her again.


Photo: Ian Whalen

Oggi è il 26 Settembre 2021