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Jacques d’Amboise (1934 - ) 

By Kristin Wilkinson

Jacques d’Amboise became the poster child for the athletic and good-natured dancer, altering American perceptions of male stereotypes and their roles in ballet.  Born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in Dedham, Massachusetts,  d’Amboise was encouraged by his mother to revert to her maiden name, thinking it made him sound more aristocratic and European, and hence more likely to be accepted in the arts world.  Ironically, d’Amboise became known not only for his classical ballet style, but his pure athletic physique and boy-next-door charm; his French name was somewhat at odds with his all-American image.  He began his training with the School of American Ballet in 1942.  At a young age he also trained with Madame Seda, a well-respected Armenian Ballerina who also taught Leo Danielian. In 1948, New York City Ballet was launched, completing Lincoln Kirstein’s and George Balanchine’s vision for a school and company. A year later, d’Amboise became the first male virtuoso to come from the company’s own school, joining NYCB at the age of 15.

After his first principle role as Tristram in Fredrick Ashton’s Picnic at Tintagel (1952), d’Amboise found himself being heralded as George Balanchine’s “protégé;” Balanchine subsequently created over 24 roles for him at New York City Ballet.  Dubbed the “definitive Apollo” while dancing the title role in Balanchine’s Apollo in 1957, he was praised for his rawness and emotion as well as his complete transformation from boy to man during his performance.  His portrayal resurrected this 1928 work through the eyes of a new audience, making him the first American male superstar of the post-World War II era.  In his memoir, I was a Dancer, d’Amboise talks with awe about working directly with not only George Balanchine (1904-1983), but also Lincoln Kirstein(1907-1996) and Igor Stravinsky during this time in his career. 

His virile interpretations of such roles as Mac in the revival of Lew Chistensen’s Filling Station (1953) and one of the cowboys in Balanchine’s Western Symphony (1954), led to a short but exciting film career.  Probably best know as Ephraim in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) with choreography by Michael Kidd (1915-2007), and the Starlight Carnival Barker in Carousel (1956), d’Amboise also had a role in the film The Best Things in Life are Free, which highlighted his expansive dancing and partnering skills.  D’Amboise remembers in his memoir, “People said, ‘You could be the next Gene Kelly; he’s getting old.’ I didn’t know if I could act, but I knew I could be a great ballet dancer, and Balanchine put out the carpet for me.  Ballet became the ocean I swam in for the next 30 years.”[1]  His contract required him to receive special permission from Balanchine to appear in these films, and also ensured that d’Amboise would return to New York City Ballet.  He continued with the company in virtuoso roles, over 20 of them created for him by Balanchine, in ballets like Stars and Stripes (1958), Episodes (1959), Raymonda Variations (1961), Movements for the Piano and Orchestra (1963), Meditations (1963), Brahams-Schoenberg Quartet (1966), Jewels (1967), Who Cares? (1970), Union Jack (1976), and Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbundlertanze” (1980). He was known as a natural and strong dancer as well as a wonderful partner, having partnered with Suzanne Farrell (1945-) and Maria Tallchief most notably during his career.  D’Amboise retired from New York City Ballet in 1983. 

However, his retirement as a professional dancer did not mean his retirement from the field of dance.  In 1976, while still a principal dancer with NYCB, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, an organization focusing on exposing public school children to dance.  The program often combines music and art with broader studies of histories, cultures and literature, presenting an inimitable and all-embracing performing arts experience.   To date, his work in dance education has influenced over 2 million children with his model program.  And his program knows no boundaries, having partnered with a number of schools designed for the visually and hearing impaired.  Having grown up in a low-income family in Washington Heights, New York City, d’Amboise knows first hand the places an arts education can take children no matter their culture or class.  His inspiration concerning this endeavor came from his firm belief that “the arts have a unique power to engage and motivate individuals towards excellence.”[2]  “The arts open your heart and mind to possibilities that are limitless.  They are pathways that touch upon our brains and emotions and bring sustenance to imagination.  Human beings’ greatest form of communication, they walk in tandem with science and play, and best describe what it is to be human,”[3] D’Amboise once stated.  About his teaching Howard Gardner, the Director of Harvard University Graduate School of Education, professed, “They say you can see the universe in a flower.  In one hour, teaching a jig to a motley crew of students of all ages, Jacques d’Amboise lays bare the essence of all good education: discipline, effort, beauty, struggle, joy.  In the process, he opens up a universe of possibilities for all who participate and reveals why an education in the arts must be the birthright of every human being.”[4]

Even though his film career did not make him the next Gene Kelly, d’Amboise took his knowledge and experience with motion pictures to promote a new level of dance exposure for the American public, directing, choreographing and writing the films Event of the Year (1981), Fifth Position (1983), and He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1984), the last of which won an Academy Award, six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a Golden Cine, and the National Education Association Award for Advancement of Learning through Broadcasting.  D’Amboise approaches his directing and teaching similarly to the way he approached his first choreographic works with the New York City Ballet, which were followed by roughly 20 commissioned works in his career. His first choreographic work came in 1960 when he was assigned the Uruguay section in the production of Panamerica, and he continued to choreograph pieces for New York City Ballet including The Chase (1963), Quatour (1964), Irish Fantasy (1964) with music by Camille Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky Suite No.2 (1969), and Celebration (1983) with music by Felix Mendelssohn.  He strives to identify and work with young dancers who have star potential.  While motivated by the all-inclusive philosophy that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience and learn dance, d’Amboise has traveled the world looking for gifted young dancers in some of the most remote places (Siberia, Ethiopia, and Nepal to name a few).  He was instrumental in bringing Suzanne Farrell and Kyra Nichols to Balanchine’s attention, jump-starting their professional careers.

Frequently dubbed a “dance humanitarian,” d’Amboise continues to push the boundaries of how Americans expose themselves and their children to dance, breaking the stereotype of the American male dancer.  In 1999, at nearly 65 years old, he started a seven-month, 2,157-mile trek on the Appalachian Trail to raise money for the National Dance Institute.  Along the way while hiking d’Amboise taught a pre-choreographed Trail Dance to fellow hikers willing to learn, asking them in turn to teach it to others and pass it along.  This fundraising event was filmed as a documentary by director John Avildsen. 

Ever the dancer, d’Amboise continues to write about his wealth of technique and movement philosophy expertise.  His belief in the mind-body connection among dancers is a theme he has carried during his entire career.  An advocate of rigorous rehearsals, he was known for figuring out all the factors of the choreography and their relation to his own body before taking the stage in performance.  Rehearsing a piece at heightened speed or extremely slow; moving through the piece in his mind while remaining perfectly still on stage; over-exaggerating movements and reversing the effect to keep his movements constrained, were all part of this attempt to perfect his performance quality for each new audience.  When discussing dance, d’Amboise speaks of the pure joy and delight of the field.  His essential nature as a performer expresses pleasure through dancing not only for himself, but for his audience as well.  “He could execute the most demanding Balanchine combination with a debonair freedom that banished all thought of exhibitionism.”[5]

Jacques d’Amboise has been a driving force behind dance in every possible aspect, from his contributions as a young soloist who singlehandedly defined the handsome, blithe, and vigorous American male dancer to his continued efforts in arts education.  “Dance is the most immediate and accessible of the arts because it involves your own body.  When you learn to move your body on a note of music, it’s exciting.  You have taken control of your body and, by learning to do that, you discover that you can take control of your life.”[6]

His legacy in dance has also been extended through his family. In 1956 d’Amboise married late NYCB dancer and photographer Carolyn George.  Together they had four children; George, Christopher, and twin girls Catherine and Charlotte.  Christopher went on to become the artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet and Charlotte has performed in many Broadway productions.  D’Amboise was also the recipient of countless awards and honorary degrees, including The American Academy of Arts & Sciences (2007); The Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture (2004); Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts at the Juilliard School (2000); The Dance Magazine Award (1999); The National Medal of Arts (1998); The Kennedy Center Honors (1995); a 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, and The Capezio Award (1990). A full list of d’Amboise’s honors and awards for artistic excellence and humanitarian contributions is available on the website of the National Dance Foundation.

 

 NOTES

1 “I was a Dancer” 

2 www.nationaldance.org

3 www.nationaldance.org

4 “A new chapter for Jacques d’Amboise”

5 “The Apollo Next Door”

6 www.nationaldance.org” 


Kirsten Wilkinson holds a BA in Dance and Modern Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an MA in Dance and Research from American University in Washington DC. Kirsten has worked within the not-for-profit field of dance in various capacities, and is currently a project associate at the Dance Heritage Coalition, where she received consecutive fellowships in 2005 and 2006. Kirsten is also a Dance Archivist at the Library of Congress within the Music Division. Besides her passion for dance preservation and documentation, Kirsten is also a professional dancer and instructor. She is Artistic Director of her own contemporary dance company, KWdance, and has performed and presented original choreography around the world, as well as lecturing around the country about topics in Dance Preservation, Dance Theory and Dance History. Kirsten is currently teaching and choreographing in the DC area while she also continues to research and support dance documentation and preservation on all fronts. Follow her blog at www.kwdanceblog.wordpress.com

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Barboza, Steven. “The Man Who Is Called the Pied Piper of Dance.” Smithsonian (March 1990): 84-95.

Barboza, Steven. I Feel Like Dancing: A year with Jacques d’Amboise and the National Dance Institute. New York: Crown Publishers, 1992.

Campbell, Mary. “d’Amboise Chooses Children of the World for ‘Event of the Year’.” The Daily Gazette (5 January 1994).

D’Amboise, Jacques. I was a Dancer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

D’Amboise, Jacques, with Hope Cook and Carolyn George. Teaching the Magic of Dance. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Farrell, Suzanne, with Toni Bentley. Holding on to the Air. New York: Summit Books, 1990.

Gelb, Barbara. “Jacques d’Amboise: The Pied Piper of Dance.” New York Times Magazine (12 April 1981).

Goodman, Saul. “Spotlight on Melissa Heyden and Jacques d’Amboise.” Ballet Today (May-June 1970).

Lawson, William James “D’Amboise, Jaqcues.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. Ed. Selma Jeanne Cohen. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Looseleaf, Victoria. “A new chapter for Jacques d’Amboise.” The Los Angeles Times (15 May 2011).

Mason, Francis. I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Rosen, Lillie. Jacques d’Amboise. Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1975.

Ulrich, Allan. “The Apollo Next Door.” Dance Magazine (July 2007).

Zeldis, Yona. “Jacques d’Amboise on ‘I was a Dancer’.” The Paris Review (8 March 2011).

Online Resources

Website of the National Dance Foundation:

www.nationaldance.org

Moving Image

The Art of the Pas de Deux. Video Artists International, 2009.

The Best Things in Life are Free. Michael Curtiz, Twentieth Century Fox Films, 1956.

Carousel. Henry King, Twentieth Century Fox Film, 1956.

Davidsbundlertanze. Merrill Brockway, 1981.

“Diana Adams & Jacques d’Amboise in Apollo”. YouTube, 2 July 2012.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWft-39NHAc

Extraordinary Minds: Jacques d’Amboise. Kultur, Kultur Video, 2011.

Firestone Dances: Historic Ballet Performances. Voice of Firestone, Kultur Video, 2008.

The Flood. Robert Craft, Columbia Broadcasting System, 1962.

He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. Edgar J. Scherick, National Broadcasting Company, 1983.

“Jacques d’Amboise dances Afternoon of a Faun”. YouTube, 5 April 2007.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmnnhq_ZXlw>.

“Jacques d’Amboise in George Balahcine’s Apollo (Prologue)”. YouTube, 21 July 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlhH7EaqbRM

“Jacques d’Amboise, Gordon MacRae, Sherre North-Song and Dance!” YouTube, 18 September 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfNWdlu61Bg>.

“Jacques d’Amboise in Dance to the Rescue”. YouTube, 10 March 2011.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH8RMLXOMIQ

“Jacques d’Amboise in Dance to the Rescue Part 2”. YouTube, 10 March 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAi_8Dm6C9k

“Jacques d’Amboise/Masterclass Episode 2”. YouTube, 5 March 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjOlitU-aCY

Jacques D’Amboise: Portrait of an American Dancer. Allan Altman, Video Artists International, 2006.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. George Balanchine, Films Oberon, 1967.

Off Beat. Michael Dinner, Touchtone Pictures, 1986.

Rehearsing a Dream. Karen Goodman, Simon and Goodman Pictures, 2006.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Stanley Donen, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1954.

Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse. Anne Belle, Winstar, 2001.

“Tanaquil Le Clercq and Jacques d’Amboise Western Symphony”. YouTube, 18 June 2012. < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llJmiAaR_9o>.

Who’s Dancin’ Now? Judy Kinberg, Winstar, 2001.

 

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Jacques d'Amboise in George Balanchine's Apollo, Photo by John Dominis

About

Jacques d’Amboise has single-handedly done much to broaden appreciation for ballet in America. As a principal dancer with New York City Ballet he shattered stereotypes by creating a masculine, all-American image for ballet, and since retiring from the stage he has brought dance education to countless public school children. Born Joseph Jacques Ahearn on July 28, 1934 in Dedham, Massachussetts, he grew up in Washington Heights, New York City, and entered the School of American Ballet at the age of eight. At just fifteen he joined New York City Ballet, becoming one of the first dancers to graduate from the school into the company. George Balanchine created a wide variety of roles for him, and he was especially celebrated for his interpretation of Balanchine’s 1928 ballet Apollo. He was known for his exuberance, athleticism, skilled partnering, and on-stage joie-de-vivre, qualities that were also on view in films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). In 1976, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, which brings arts education and appreciation into public schools. His work with the Institute has taken him around the world, and he has also promoted dance through films, television programs, and books. He has been widely recognized and honored for both his artistic excellence and his humanitarian work. www.nationaldance.org

Pictured above: Jacques d'Amboise in George Balanchine's Apollo, 1963. (Photograph by John Dominis.) D'Amboise was acclaimed by critics as "the definitive Apollo" for his interpretation of this 1928 ballet. In his autobiography, I Was a Dancer, d'Amboise writes that he saw his own journey reflected in this signature role, described by its choreographer as depicting how "a wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art."

Cover design for He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'

 

 

Pictured left:Cover design for He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin', a 1983 Academy Award-winning documentary about Jacques d'Amboise by Emile Ardolino. The documentary includes footage of d'Amboise teaching schoolchildren through the National Dance Institute, which he founded to bring dance and arts education to public schools.


FURTHER RESEARCH: JACQUES D'AMBOISE

Essay by Kirsten Wilkinson -- Selected resources


 

Jacques d'Amboise in Ballet Encounter

 

Pictured right: Jacques d'Amboise in Ballet Encounter, a program organized by d'Amboise in the 1970s that presented compilations of ballet excerpts with a touring company including fellow NYCB dancers. D'Amboise has long been committed to expanding the audience for ballet. (Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago.) 

 

D'Amboise in Stars and Stripes

Pictured right: Jacques d'Amboise in George Balanchine's Stars and Stripes. (Photograph by Gjon Mili). Set to Sousa marches, this ballet captured the quality of all-American exuberance and athleticism that Balanchine found in his adopted country and in Jacques d'Amboise, who became the choreographer's protégé after joining New York City Ballet at the age of 15.