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Jacques d’Amboise, a Ballet Star Who Believed in Dance for All


When the dancer Jacques d’Amboise was in his early 20s, he was approached to put in writing a ebook. At the time, he wrote years later, his response was, “Ridiculous! I haven’t lived yet.”

But may that actually have been true? D’Amboise, who died on Sunday, most likely packed extra life into one yr than most conventional individuals do in 10. I by no means had the nice fortune of watching him dance in individual with New York City Ballet, the corporate he joined in 1949 — at 15 — so I can solely think about what it was like. But I used to be capable of witness, even on a small scale, his full, unwavering zest for life. The man will need to have had a twinkle in his eye even when he was sleeping.

Even in his 80s, d’Amboise possessed a physique and a thoughts so alert and alive that it very practically vibrated. In efficiency — and this definitely reads on movie — he radiated that vitality with youthful, fervent warmth. He helped to usher in a new type of male ballet dancer, one which blended the refinement of classicism with the informal American physique. But his charisma wasn’t solely about on a regular basis athleticism. His dancing was heroic, but he additionally knew find out how to convey an inside life. He made dancing, and ballet dancing at that, cool.

He was by no means a snob about dance. D’Amboise was identified for his extraordinary profession at City Ballet, but he additionally carried out in movies, together with a charmingly clueless flip in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” And in 1976, he fashioned National Dance Institute, a mannequin in arts training. He began by knocking on principals’ doorways and volunteering to show dance for free so long as it was a part of the curriculum.

It’s one factor to have joie de vivre; it’s one other to be beneficiant with it. D’Amboise, whereas nonetheless a principal with City Ballet, devoted himself to introducing the humanities to youngsters. Not the uncommon children, these proficient and privileged sufficient to attend the School of American Ballet, the City Ballet-affiliated academy the place he skilled, however the youngsters of New York City. If you’ve lived in the town lengthy sufficient, you’ve most likely met an grownup or two who recall giving up their free time to discover ways to dance — and a lot extra — with d’Amboise.

Maybe it was one thing that linked him to his personal childhood, which was far faraway from the world of Balanchine and ballet. As he delved deeper into dance, he got here to comprehend that he didn’t wish to be one other child in Washington Heights hanging round with gangs; however he did take a few of his previous with him. In a 2004 interview, he instructed me that whereas rising up, “I enjoyed being the boss, but I knew how to manipulate and cajole so that everyone would play my games. I’d give up the lead if I had to.”

At City Ballet, main components had been his for the taking, notably in “Apollo,” which George Balanchine revived for him in 1957. D’Amboise doesn’t simply dance the steps, he tells a story by means of his dancing. A 1960 efficiency, preserved in a black-and-white movie made for broadcast in Canada, showcases the facility not simply of d’Amboise’s electrified physique, which takes off in jumps that appear to whoosh from one aspect of the stage and finish on the opposite, but in addition in his glittering eyes.

Here, definitely, is that vibrant inside thoughts. When he appears to be like excessive into a nook, you sense that he’s truly taking a look at one thing. As the dance proceeds, he grows from a boy, uncooked and wild, into a man who, in discovering the Aristocracy of objective, appears to shock even himself. The impact is startling, spontaneous; it doesn’t appear like he’s even seen the ballet earlier than a lot much less danced it.

In 2011, he did lastly publish a memoir: “I Was a Dancer.” It is value a thorough learn with Post-it notes; afterward, preserve it close by to dip into when life feels too unusual. His love for all issues dance was enhanced by his profound curiosity for the world round him. And, no shock, the ebook is about extra than simply himself; it’s concerning the world that he inhabited. In one second, he watches the ballerina Suzanne Farrell from the wings and wonders: “Who’s in there transforming her? Certain dancers become larger than just a dancer doing a role; they seem to channel a greater force. Suzanne danced possessed, as if inhabited by a goddess of dance who was using her as a vent.”

It’s not an excessive amount of of a stretch to say that d’Amboise, an distinctive associate in the corporate, cherished ladies. When I interviewed him in 2018, he mentioned that he most loved dancing with Farrell, Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden, whom he visited when she was dying. He may see that she was fading; he kissed her on the brow. In retelling the story, he panted to indicate how labored her respiration was and quoted her final phrases to him — which had been concerning the afterlife: “‘ There is one. It’s what’s left after the way you lived. We did a good job. Goodbye.’”

D’Amboise mentioned, “I walked out of there singing with joy that I knew such a woman.”

I nonetheless keep in mind his face in that second: The approach his smile stretched all the way in which as much as his dancing eyebrows. I take into consideration the abandon of his “Apollo” — discuss channeling a higher drive! — exhibiting us the way it needs to be executed. And now the world can comply with his lead. We can sing again, too, with pleasure, that we knew such a man. He did a nice job. Goodbye.



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