American Ballet Theatre dancers Erica Lall and Patrick Frenette teach Detroit School of the Arts students ballet techniques during a master class. ABT will stage "Romeo and Juliet" at Michigan Opera Theatre Feb. 8-11. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
At its heart, ballet is all about training your limbs to do things Mother Nature never intended — like standing with your feet in front of each other, one pointing due west, the other due east.
Ballet training is exacting and unforgiving — as 21 high-school dance students at the Detroit School of Arts could tell you Tuesday after spending an hour in a master class with two young American Ballet Theatre professionals, Erica Lall and Patrick Frenette.
Lall and Frenette, 19 and 23 respectively, will appear in a variety of supporting roles in the production. In the meantime, the two have come to Ann Arbor and Detroit as goodwill ambassadors, visiting schools to talk dance and lead students in exercises.
“It’s good for the kids to meet someone they can relate to,” said DSA dance teacher Nicole Burrell, “and find out their backstory — what inspired them and what made them want to persevere in this profession.”
And perseverance is key.
“I’m always telling them they can do it,” Burell added. “And Miss Palmer, the other dance teacher, does the same because kids can sometimes get bogged down in everyday life.”
If ballet has hundreds of fine-tuned, hard-to-execute moves, you’d never know that by watching Lall and Frenette, for whom these things are as natural as falling off a chair.
Leading the DSA dance students — 19 girls and two athletic-looking boys — Lall coaches them on the finer points of the “pas de chat,” or cat’s step.
This involves a little leap, and landing with one foot delicately balanced behind the other ankle.
Frenette encourages the students to bring that foot to their ankle while they’re still up in the air, not waiting till they land. “This foot stays glued to your supporting leg,” he said.
Sound like a snap? Try it and see how much luck you have.
Lall, whose smile never leaves her face as she instructs her charges, said, “OK — now do a temps levė, glissade, then pas de chat and look at the audience.”
It’s a lot to ask. Yet suddenly, three lines of seven kids are sliding and leaping in beautiful conjunction across the stage. And momentarily, there’s magic under the DSA stage lights.
In the Q&A at the end of class, the students — many of whom are angling for a professional dance career — want to know how Lall and Frenette knew that this was the right path.
“I don’t know,” Lall said. “There was always something about dancing. I always danced — at home, and even in the shower. But I knew ballet was right because it was so challenging,” she added, “and I like a challenge.”
Frenette, who said he started training in elementary school, notes he’s from Vancouver, Canada, where boys are expected to become hockey stars, not dancers.
“Not a lot of guys choose ballet over hockey,” he said. “It was very out of the ordinary, and taught me early on about injustice and hate. That drove me to prove all the naysayers wrong. My inspiration came from a place of not giving up.”
As class breaks up, two ninth-graders — Ariah Harris and Jonathan Ambrose — confess they’re bent on dancing professionally someday.
“Of course, of course,” they each said with a laugh. For her part, Ariah said she started dancing at age 3. Jonathan started even earlier.
“I’ve been dancing with my auntie at her church since I was 2,” he said, “though I didn’t start taking ballet ’till fourth or fifth grade.”
In bidding adieu to the students, Frenette compliments the dancers.
“You guys work very hard,” he said, noting there was no talking or joking during the class. “A lot of you are naturally very coordinated, and you’re focused.” He smiled. “We’ll look for you in New York.”
Lall encouraged them to follow their dreams, however impractical they may look to others.
“Don’t let anyone tell you, ‘You can’t do it,’ ” she said.
‘Romeo and Juliet’
American Ballet Theatre
1526 Broadway, Detroit
Audition for extras at 5 p.m. Feb. 5 for all five performances; no experience required