Ballet Training à la Mode

January 13, 2009

Fabrice Herrault says French training is “not about style, but about details, and making every transition clear. It’s about the look of a classical ballet dancer: straight, elegant but strong; that focus in the eyes that really is everything; the line, sensitivity, and feeling in the movement, and the musicality, which is number one.”


He demonstrates this philosophy in a private lesson with a 14-year-old girl who trains at one of New York’s best schools. “High demi-pointe,” he says, as she holds a passé. “Lock your upper back, feel the back of the neck long. Pull up the back of your standing leg. Lock that ankle and do not move.”


The girl is suddenly longer, stronger, and more secure. She has taken weekly private lessons with Herrault for the past three years. Already, she stands out for her beautiful line, precise fifth position, and the consistency and elegance of her dancing. Herrault appreciates the opportunity to supplement her training.


“Young dancers need to be in a professional environment to understand training and competitiveness. The Paris Opéra Ballet School is extremely disciplined, very tough. In private classes, I give that discipline,” he says. “It’s easy for kids to pick up bad habits. I deconstruct the steps so they know how to work correctly. One thing I don’t see enough of is dancers working in fifth position all the time. Without it you can’t be a dancer at the professional level.”


Herrault, 39, started ballet at age 10 at the Académie Chaptal with Daniel Franck, a teacher from the Paris Opera Ballet School. Six months later, he was accepted into the POB School. But he was put in a class with more advanced dancers who had started training earlier and was let go after a year. He continued training with Franck and was accepted into the Conservatoire, where the teachers were from the POB School. At 19, he joined Le Jeune Ballet de France, then the Hamburg Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Ballet National de Marseille Roland Petit, and the Paris production of the musical Cats. Arriving in the U.S. in 1992, he performed with Twyla Tharp. He began teaching after a knee injury nearly ended his career.


“I love to teach. My goal is to help students acquire a very clear technique, become versatile, and be able to adapt to any style,” he says. “I train kids without music at first so they can be in touch with the body without other distractions. We focus on the counts and coordination. I also videotape them so they can see how they are working. It’s usually an awakening for them, and then they work harder.”


Herrault stresses having a “clear start and finish. That’s what gives your dancing consistency.” His 35-minute barre thoroughly warms the muscles for pirouette combinations in the center and a half hour for jumps. New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre dancers regularly take his class at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “In open class, it’s hard to please everyone, but if you challenge people with technique and musicality, you can get results.”


“You have to think about everything working together at the same time when you dance. It’s the head, arms, hands, feet, legs. Lots of dancers focus on the feet and legs, but with the upper body, nothing’s happening, and then the expression is not there anymore.”


In contrast to his own tough training days, Herrault prefers a more supportive approach to teaching. “I like to encourage dancers. If you mess up it doesn’t matter, it’s part of the process,” he tells his students. “If you’re negative, you slow down your progress. You have to be optimistic, you need the drive, you have to be passionate.” —Nadine Lavi