Near the close of his high school years, Michael French summoned the courage to tell his parents of the momentous decision he had made.
He did not want to go to college, he announced, he wanted to go to Budapest and dance.
“Most of the great idols for male dancers--Nureyev, Vasiliev, Baryshnikov--are from Russia. I couldn’t get into Moscow at the time, but Budapest seemed close. I just wanted the European experience,” said French, a 27-year-old dancer with Orange County’s Ballet Pacifica. “My parents were extraordinary and they just supported my decision. Instead of shelling out whatever it costs to go to UCLA every year, they sent me to Europe.”
It seemed the logical thing to do--to prepare for a professional ballet career near the source of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments. He lived in Europe for the next three years.
“The experiences I had there, the things I got to see and feel, added as much to my education as a dancer as the actual ballet classes. All these ballets, the great classics anyway, were born out of Europe. You can almost get a sense of what the people at the time these works were being created were feeling.
“One afternoon, I was walking down the street in Vienna with a friend and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s Mozart’s apartment.’ I stopped dead in my tracks with my jaw open.
“Experience helps give you depth. So much of being a ballet artist is to bring your soul out in the dance. Otherwise, ‘Swan Lake’ is just a girl in white tutu flapping her arms.”
French first turned to ballet at age 14 after a childhood filled with musical theater performances, minor movie roles, and modeling work for print and television advertising.
“I got involved in ballet to become a better jazz dancer. I had ambitions to go to Broadway. About a year into it, I got hooked and dropped everything else I’d been doing. I had to throw it all out the window because ballet is so all-consuming. There was no room for anything else--it’s demanding of your time.”
After seven years of study, French joined the Long Beach Ballet at age 21 and has since performed with the Atlanta Ballet, the California Riverside Ballet and the Cincinnati Ballet. The Anaheim Hills resident is completing his first season with Ballet Pacifica, a season he began by playing the lead role in UCI choreographer David Allan’s “Out of the Shadows.”
But his first year in Orange County ballet almost came to a premature end when he sprained his lower back. Dancers, like professional athletes, face constant risk of injury, French said.
“It was one of the worst injuries I’d ever had. It was with me for a good six months. It just happens. You just end up in the middle of rehearsal one day in a lot of pain. You get treatment and therapy and come back, and you get injured again. Right now--knock on wood--I’ve been perfect for two months. I’m assuming I’m pretty much through it.
“I don’t see myself being one of those dancers that punches it out until I’m 40. I don’t even really see myself being a dancer at 35. I don’t think I’ll want it when I can’t do it exactly as I’m doing it now.”
To maintain his level of performance, it takes French a minimum five days a week of exercise and training. For fun, he spends his off-hours bodysurfing and rock climbing.
“They say for every one day off, it takes three days to get back to where you were. What some people see as a kind of soft sport for men is really hard as nails. It would be nice if people would realize that. I think they do more than before. I don’t think people are as uninformed as they used to be about what the male dancer is all about.”
Because there is not enough financial support for Ballet Pacifica to pay for a full-time ballet company, dancers are paid only for a three-day week in addition to performances.
French believes Orange County’s 35-year-old ballet company, under the artistic direction of Molly Lynch, can achieve an international reputation with its balance of traditional and modern works. The challenge, he says, is to enlist the enthusiasm of a wider audience.
“The old classics don’t have to be boring and dusty. When they are done right, they are still interesting to watch. And there’s a lot more being offered than the classics.
“What human bodies can do today far exceeds what was being done 20 years ago in ballet. People didn’t do what Michael Jordan did 20 years ago, and the same thing is happening in ballet.
“We’re jumping higher, we’re turning more times, we’re pulling off aerial feats that weren’t being done before. The lines are cleaner, the legs are stretched more, the feet point harder--and that’s just from the pure circus side of it. There’s the circus side of it and the refined side of it. All of the aspects of ballet have moved forward.”
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Profile: Michael French
Residence: Anaheim Hills
Education: Began ballet studies at age 14; three years with the San Francisco Ballet and two with the Hungarian State Ballet; additional studies at the Swedish Royal Ballet School and ballet schools throughout Europe from age 18 through 21; Joffrey Ballet workshop
Background: Began in musical theater at age 5; bit parts in movies, modeled for print and television advertising during elementary school years; joined Long Beach Ballet at age 21; performer with Atlanta Ballet, 1992-1995; worked with California Riverside Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, and now completing first season with Orange County’s Ballet Pacifica
On imported ballet: “At the Performing Arts Center, they pony up big bucks to bring ballet companies in. What they spend to bring in a company for a week could run a local company for a year. Why does it always have to be imported?”
Source: Michael French; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times