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By Rachel Howard
With his large eyes, silver hair, and long neck, Henry Berg possesses both elegance and a sense of mischief. During level four ballet class, he winks and calls out phrases like, “It’s nice and grueling—I mean, nice and slow” before adding, “Fifth is your friend.” A former dancer with San Francisco Ballet and the Joffrey, Berg is known for his methodical training approach and close attention to alignment. He also teaches the injury rehabilitation class for members of San Francisco Ballet. In 2003, Berg opened The Ballet Studio near downtown San Francisco, where Rachel Howard spoke with him.
Can you describe the Vaganova method as you learned it from former SFB ballet mistress Irina Jacobson? The Vaganova system is so logical, and that logic is the heart of classicism. The essence of Vaganova is that everything you do on the floor, you do in the air. You train so you can fly.
But you have to soften the syllabus a bit. I got that from Irina. She softens it because there are so many nuances you can’t get from a book. If you’re doing any given step you go from position A to position B—that’s the same. But she’d say, “Why don’t you show the shoulder like this?” She’d throw it back on the dancer to make subtle decisions so that you develop taste and style.
Did Jacobson also teach you how to put a dancer at ease? Yes, Irina had no patience for someone who didn’t want to work hard. But if a dancer got worked up and frustrated and started beating herself up, Irina would point to first position and say, “Remember, one time this was difficult too.” I still think to myself every day, “What would Irina do?” There’s always a billion questions I need to ask her. I’ll see her this summer at her house in Haifa and we’ll sit together and eat strawberries and talk about ballet.
You are known for your floor barre regimen. Why do you feel floor barre is important? Way back in the early ’70s, Zena Rommett taught at the Joffrey, and I took floor barre from her. Years went by. I settled in the Bay Area and helped run a company called Pacific Ballet, which was mostly dancers in their 20s and 30s with little technique. And I started teaching them floor barre. I couldn’t really remember what I had done with Rommett, so I had to invent my own. Mine became very focused on rotational exercises. It takes half an hour and I teach it every morning, open to everybody. Even if you can only do it a couple days a week, it’s helpful. And you can’t start it too young. It’s especially good for boys, who tend to want to just fly across the floor, without much consciousness. It’s a tool to get people to understand the small muscles, especially in the feet.
Why do you put so much emphasis on the feet in your teaching? I asked SFB’s company doctor Richard Gibbs what to look at in injuries, and he said they’re almost always caused from the knee down. I also learned from an anatomy book that said to look carefully at the hands in order to understand the feet because the bones are nearly the same. The more you can articulate the feet, the stronger you will be throughout your whole body. It’s not about needing to be born with a certain shape of foot. It’s about using what you have.
Does that hold true for turnout and flexibility? What do you say to dancers who feel their bodies weren’t developed in the right ways by their early training? It’s never too late. Dancers are born, not necessarily made. All you can do as a teacher is guide them. I’ve been struck by this at SFB, that with so many members of the company, no one else in their family is a dancer. They just had to do it. So someone comes to you with all the dedication, and you guide.
Also I feel that as teachers, who are we to say you can’t do a turn? I say, Here’s the information you need, do what you can with it.
Your classes are very focused on having students find their standing axis. Yes, in level one, the children have both hands on the barre, and in level two they move to standing with one hand. So between level one and two, that’s what cuts the mustard. It’s hard work to stand up.
How do you keep training from becoming tedious? You have to let the students go sometimes. At the end of the class, just let them fly. Even with Robert Joffrey’s classes, before we left he’d have the pianist play a big waltz and just let us dance. That’s what I do with my students.
With adults, there’s a lot more humor. And with an adult class, I can explain on an intellectual level from the beginning. With kids, you need to be more rote. But you have to help the students relax, whatever the level.
Company class—that’s a whole other situation. If someone doesn’t like a combination, she can walk out the door. Now, Irina, the way she worked, she would correct you. And if she corrected you again and you ignored it, that’s it. If you’re doing her class and you choose a different port de bras than the one she shows, you don’t know what’s coming next, and you’ve overworked a part of your body. It’s important to respect that your teacher has a progressive plan for the class as a whole.
What’s your key piece of advice for young dancers? When in doubt, turn out. And just stay at it. People expect a pianist to do exercises 12 hours a day, and then the performance is brief. It’s the same for a dancer.
Berg teaches at The Ballet Studio in San Francisco. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy The Ballet Studio