Teacher's Wisdom

October 31, 2007

Known for focusing on the elegance of classical training, Fabrice Herrault teaches students to dance with clarity of line and precise positions. After a performing career with Hamburg Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Ballet National de Marseille Roland Petit, Twyla Tharp Dance, and The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, he has become a sought-after guest teacher. He recently established his own school in midtown Manhattan, the Fabrice Herrault Studio, for private instruction. Sonja Kostich spoke with Herrault about his teaching style and philosophy after watching his class at Steps on Broadway.


You studied at the Académie Chaptal with Daniel Franck, a teacher from the Paris Opéra Ballet School. How do you see French training being different from training in the United States?


There should be no difference whether you train at the Paris Opéra or here in the United States. Some people think that because I was trained at the POB I emphasize detail and precision. The truth is, detail and precision are what classical ballet is. If you do not have that, it is because you were not taught classical ballet correctly. The same goes for how you use épaulement. There is only the correct way or the incorrect way. I always tell my students there are no secrets. Training to be a dancer is about discipline, hard work, and the communication between teacher and student.


If I were to point out one technical step that the French excel at, it would be “beats,” something that is not emphasized enough here. Also, some of the schools in America do not teach the full classical ballet vocabulary. POB follows rigorous traditions of classical ballet. Nothing has been watered down since its inception.


What is the first thing you teach a new student?


How to stand still. Students have a difficult time not moving and maintaining focus. Standing still requires all your muscles to be engaged, including the mind. You have to actually do something physical to stay still. And stillness also includes the eyes. You have to establish a certain focus. Someone with little training or not much technique will reveal insecurity in the eyes and in the face. When we allow our eyes to wander, our dancing becomes messy. It looks like we don’t really understand the language. You cannot simply look wherever you want. It is impossible to dance clearly without a defined focus.


You often deconstruct steps in order to teach the mechanics of the body. How does this help when most students just want to dance and not work on the steps?


I work slowly with my students regardless of how old they are. They must understand the basic elements so I try to make my teaching as simple as possible. It is physically very hard to work slowly. When you are young it hurts the body just to move one foot and isolate the rest of your body. Students have to first learn their positions, how to hold themselves facing the barre, how to repeat the same exercises. They will slowly develop strength in the feet, arms, head—everything. With time they learn the placement of the arms, how to hold the back, how to rotate, and to keep the feet flat on the floor without rolling—to find the perfect alignment and strength. Then awareness and understanding will come. They want to dance, but there is a long way to go before that.


How do you use music in your coaching?


Musicality comes with confidence. If you are not sure of what you are doing, you cannot be musical. If you don’t understand how to move your body in space, you cannot be musical. You can achieve awareness of your body only when you are precise. That is classical ballet—the line of the body and the precision of the steps. Even if you execute multiple turns, high jumps, etc., if you do not (for example) turn out, you cannot create a beautiful line and you will have no control of transitions.


Why do you place so much emphasis on clean fifth positions?


Fifth position is your support and your foundation. Technique is designed so that a tight fifth is where your strength and energy is held together. Without a precise fifth position you will be out of control. Dance is about how you start and how you finish. This is what the audience remembers. So not only is fifth position key for strength, it is your beginning point and your end point.


What do you tell students who are looking to attain artistry?


Artistry grows with your training, with your musicality. How you coordinate your arms and legs will allow you to develop artistry through your movement. When you’re young, what is artistry? It is very difficult. It is progressive. In order to get there you have to know your craft, and that takes time. To have a good teacher is a gift. And discipline is key. I tell students even if they mess up they shouldn’t give up. You learn from your mistakes. You can’t hide anything in classical ballet. When my students cry because they can’t do this or that, I tell them that frustration is part of the process. I want to help anyone who needs help, and I love working with kids. It’s my passion. How you communicate with students and build their confidence is essential to their growth technically, mentally, and artistically.