Jacques d’Amboise: Exuberant ballet star who championed dance for all

After a glittering career on the stage, the star established the National Dance Institute to educate children

Sarah Halzack@sarahhalzack
Thursday 20 May 2021 00:01
<p>D'Amboise speaks on stage at the National Dance Institute’s annual gala in New York in 2019</p>

D'Amboise speaks on stage at the National Dance Institute’s annual gala in New York in 2019

Jacques d’Amboise, an exuberant star of the New York City Ballet for three decades and a favourite of its legendarily exacting choreographer George Balanchine, has died aged 86.

Balanchine was famously fixated on women dancers, turning to them as artistic muses and making them the centrepieces of his ballets. D’Amboise, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet from 1953 to 1984, was an exception. Balanchine created more than a dozen leading roles for him, the most for any male dancer in the company’s history.

D’Amboise originated key roles in works such as the upbeat and patriotic Stars and Stripes (1958); the minimalist Episodes (1959); and Jewels (1967), a lavish, three-act work with no plot. Although Balanchine created his classic Apollo (1928) for another dancer, d’Amboise’s expressive, high-energy rendition of the role became one of the best-remembered.

Throughout his career, d’Amboise partnered with some of the leading female dancers of his generation, including Tanaquil Le Clercq and Allegra Kent. And though d’Amboise choreographed works for the New York City Ballet, it was as a performer that he most enticed audiences, with his bravura and raw virtuosity.

“What stayed with me was d’Amboise’s matchless delight in moving on a stage,” Dance Magazine editor Allan Ulrich wrote in 2007. “You felt he was put on earth for the sole purpose of giving himself and his audience pleasure through dancing. He could execute the most demanding Balanchine combination with debonair freedom that banished all thought of exhibitionism.”

In addition to his career with the elite ballet company, d’Amboise danced on Broadway alongside singer Eartha Kitt in Shinbone Alley (1957) and in films including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical Carousel (1956).

When d’Amboise started his career as a child, he was living with his parents in Washington Heights, a gritty neighbourhood at the northern end of Manhattan. He ran with a local street gang.

“On one side of the street was life as a gangster. On the other side was the ballet,” he later told The Washington Post. It was a dichotomy d’Amboise never forgot. In 1976, he worked with his wife, Carolyn George d’Amboise, who was also a dancer, to found the National Dance Institute, a non-profit organisation that provides dance education to children.

His organisation partners with schools to provide dance classes for thousands of students, many of them disadvantaged or disabled. The institute serves thousands of children in New York and thousands more through satellite programmes across the country.

A 1983 film about d’Amboise’s work at the dance institute, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, earned an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Emmy Awards for the director, Emile Ardolino, and several producers.

D’Amboise received some of the art world’s most coveted prizes, including the 1998 National Medal of Arts, 1995 Kennedy Centre Honours and a 1990 MacArthur Foundation Award, often called “the genius grant”.

With his peers and his students, d’Amboise placed a premium on dance’s power of expressing individuality. “A thousand instruments can play a high C at the same time, and it’s all the same, but a thousand people pointing – directly the same way – is a thousand different gestures,” he told a reporter in 1991. “A different length of arm. A different personality. There are as many different ways of dancing as there are people.”

Joseph Jacques Ahearn was born on 28 July 1934 in Dedham, Massachusetts, to Georgette d’Amboise, a nurse’s aide, and Patrick Ahearn, an elevator operator.

When d’Amboise was seven, his mother enrolled him and his older sister Ninette in a ballet class. To get the rambunctious boy to pay attention, d’Amboise’s teacher told him to focus on jumping higher than the girls. That directive got him to concentrate on the steps instead of putting his energy into disrupting the class.

After noticing his unusual talent, the teacher encouraged d’Amboise’s mother to take him to the more challenging School of the American Ballet, the education arm of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.

The choreographer instantly took a liking to d’Amboise. “I was performing right away, at eight years old. Balanchine was doing a little thing for some rich man’s party in the summer and I was Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I got 10 bucks. So that’s very seductive,” he told NPR in 2010.

By the time he was 15, d’Amboise had become a member of the nascent New York City Ballet.

A 1958 New York Times review of one of his performances described a well-balanced artist, one who was “graceful and elegant as a partner, yet capable of all the breathtaking jumps, leaps and spins which set an audience to shouting”.

Balanchine was so enamoured with d’Amboise’s talent that he found ways to keep the dancer on stage long after his prime. Even as he aged and his capabilities dwindled, d’Amboise dazzled critics. In a 1979 review, New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning wrote: “His quietly expert handling of Miss Farrell in the ballet’s tumbled lifts recalls his reputation as one of the most secure and sensitive partners around. If the signature breezy jumps and insouciant turns are not part of this ballet, there was still d’Amboise’s familiar, attentive lunge and jazz dancer’s taut grace and joy.”

Within the ranks of the New York City Ballet, d’Amboise met Carolyn George, a fellow dancer who would become his wife. “I fell in love immediately the first minute she appeared in ballet class,” he told the Associated Press in 2009. “She was very young and silly – like a young horse, an American filly.”

D’Amboise’s children played a key role in setting him on the path of dance educator. When his two sons were young, d’Amboise wanted to expose them to dance, but didn’t want them to endure schoolyard taunts for doing something often stereotyped as feminine.

He began offering free, boys-only ballet classes on Saturday mornings in a spare room at their school. Soon, using $3,000 of his own money, he launched the National Dance Institute, which, in its early days, only offered classes to boys. (Today, the program serves boys and girls.) The inaugural group had only 30 children.

For the rest of his life, d’Amboise remained a tireless champion for his institute and its mission. In 1999, he embarked on one of his most attention-grabbing fundraising ideas: hiking all 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail while stopping along the way at schools, community centres, and even a prison, to teach dance and collect donations.

He was 65 at the time, suffered from arthritis and had endured three knee surgeries and a foot operation. “Some of that trail in Maine, I was on my hands and knees crawling like a crab,” he told the Asbury Park Press.

Still, d’Amboise completed the hike and raised about $600,000 for his organisation. Along the way, he met fellow hikers, who had heard about his project and, in some cases, asked to learn some dance steps. “We meet as strangers, we dance, and we part as friends,” he later told a reporter. “It just reaffirms the power of dance as a universal language.”

He is survived by four children. His wife, whom he married in 1956, died in 2009.

© The Washington Post