Henry Berg is not your typical San Francisco ballet teacher. He is old-fashioned in his mission for students to “get it right.” Ballet for him is physical and scientific. Likewise, his manner of teaching is anything but self-indulgently philosophical. When ODC Director Brenda Way hired Berg years back to teach for her company, whose repertory is based in the modern tradition, she says what worked in that partnership was that “He was kind of a fundamental ballet guy, and that’s what we were looking for. It wasn’t Balanchine where it’s way up on the balls of the feet or very specific skills that you want for the choreography. He was just solid, good, analytical, exciting ballet.” I watch him teach a morning floor barre class at his school on Minna and 10th streets. Students begin lying on their backs while Berg explains that ballet must build from the ground up.
Berg’s approach to his class is as straightforward as the exercises themselves: point, flex, bend, stretch. Sit-ups. The silver-haired teacher has distinct facial features optimal for the stage and posture equally fit for a princely tunic and tights or a common black t-shirt as he is gracefully wearing today. Berg calmly delivers information; he teases, “We’re going to do some hamstring stretches. By the time it’s over, we can go to the seashore.” One adult student presses, “Can we?” “Yes.” And so they begin. Simply put, Berg and his students work hard and love to dance.
Berg teaches beginning through advanced levels for children and open adult classes at The Ballet Studio, which he opened in 2004 after spending 14 years at the nearby City Ballet. For over ten years he has conducted a tri-weekly injury rehabilitation dance class for the San Francisco Ballet. A handful of his stand-by adult students are modern dancers who have been with him in San Francisco since the late 1970s Livia Blankman is one of these. She appreciates that “He takes this so seriously” and “Really teaches.” In all these years, she says, “I feel like I learn something every time I come. And it’s a mixed group here [in open class] — sometimes we have professionals, but mostly it’s us ‘old ladies.’”
A Southern California native, Berg began his professional career dancing in Hollywood films. He joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1961 and the New York’s Joffrey Ballet in 1967. Over time he developed a floor barre method in part due to his own experience rehabilitating after a knee injury and surgery. Berg’s early dance training involved a variety of local teachers and a host of “Hollywood people” as his classmates. Among this mixed group was a petite 55 year-old acrobat who could hang from her teeth as well do pointe work.
Berg says it wasn’t until he was about 16 that he really became interested in classicism. Inspired by watching the legendary Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso dance he absorbed himself in the rigor of ballet class. Now it is primarily classicism that interests him. “The fact that dancers can seemingly fly in the air in beautiful shapes and forms,” says Berg, explaining his fascination with the form. For Berg, “Classical ballet is a study of the economy of movement to achieve the greatest beauty.”
He looks to the example of Irina Jacobson, a renowned teacher whose method he considers to be the epitome of classicism. A woman well known to dancers of the San Francisco Ballet company and school, having taught and coached many of them during her tenure there from 1987-2000, Jacobson carries a special legacy on at least two accounts. A soloist for 20 years with the Kirov Ballet, Jacobson was one of the last pupils trained directly by Agrippina Vaganova, the woman who crystallized the Soviet system of ballet technique. Irina Jacobson also curates the work of her husband, the late radical Soviet choreographer Leonid Jacobson, whose historically important work was censored in the Soviet Union and largely unknown in the West until the late 1960s. Her expertise as a master teacher and coach of the classical ballet repertory as well as of her husband’s ballets is sought all over the world. Now, at the age of 83, she travels mainly throughout Europe to work with professional companies and to train other teachers. Jacobson’s adherence to the unwavering discipline of classical ballet combined with her openness to new ideas, such as a particular pointe technique brought to the United States by choreographer George Balanchine, has influenced Berg immeasurably.
Berg insists that his key to teaching is “nothing mysterious.” Following the Vaganova syllabus, Berg waits until students have understood how to do a certain step correctly before moving forward to more complex ones. This way, they understand the progressive system of technique: “Everything you do is to apply.” Classicism exists in the method of working rather than the image that is created. Choreographer Margaret Jenkins, who worked with Berg in ballet classes and in solo material he created for her in the 1980s, says that “Henry looks at what any particular body is capable of and works with that, as opposed to forcing them into a line or position that doesn’t have anything to do with that individual’s flexibility.” Working correctly is thus a practice of injury prevention.
Whichever form of dance you choose to pursue, Berg believes the principles of classical ballet can be useful. Berg describes Jacobson’s class, the perfect example: movement is clear and legible, and steps are formatted to challenge the body without exhausting it. Any ballet dancer, amateur or professional, could take her class and improve his or her dancing in it. Jacobson no longer lives in San Francisco, but local dancers can be assured of Berg’s commitment to and patience for teaching. Like Jacobson, Berg’s respect for the working process is a reminder of what is worth continuing in classical ballet. Jenkins adds, “I think he’s one of the field’s quiet gifts that should be treasured and paid attention to.”