When dancer Jacques d’Amboise was in his early twenties, he was approached to write a book. At the time, he wrote years later, his reaction was, “Ridiculous! I haven’t lived yet.
But could it really have been true? D’Amboise, who passed away on Sunday, probably packed more life in a year than most normal people in 10. I never had the chance to see him dance in person with the New York City Ballet, the company he did. he joined in 1949 – at 15 – so I can only imagine what it was. But I was able to witness, even on a small scale, his total and unwavering joie de vivre. The man must have had a twinkle in his eyes even when he was sleeping.
Even in his 80s, d’Amboise had a body and a mind so alert and alive that it almost vibrated. In the performance – and it certainly reads on the film – he radiated that energy with youthful, fervent warmth. He helped usher in a new type of male ballet dancer, which combines the sophistication of classicism with the relaxed American body. But his charisma was not just about everyday athletics. His dance was heroic, but he also knew how to convey an inner life. He did dance, and ballet dance to that, cool.
He was never a dance snob. D’Amboise was known for his extraordinary career at the City Ballet, but he also starred in films, including a charming clueless ride in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. And in 1976, he created the National Dance Institute, a model in arts education. He started knocking on principals’ doors and volunteered to teach dance for free as long as it was part of the program.
It is one thing to have the joy of living; it is another to be generous. D’Amboise, while still principal at the City Ballet, devoted himself to introducing children to the arts. Not the rare children, those talented and privileged enough to attend the School of American Ballet, the City Ballet affiliate academy where he trained, but the children of New York. If you’ve lived in the city long enough, you’ve probably met an adult or two who remember giving up their free time to learn to dance – and so much more – with d’Amboise.
It was perhaps something that linked him to his own childhood, far removed from the world of Balanchine and ballet. As he delved deeper into the dance, he realized he didn’t want to be another kid in Washington Heights hanging out with gangs; but he took part of his past with him. In an interview in 2004, he told me that growing up, “I liked being the boss, but I knew how to manipulate and cuddle to get everyone to play my games. I would give up the head if I had to.
At the City Ballet, he took on the main roles, notably in “Apollo”, which George Balanchine brought back to life for him in 1957. D’Amboise was not content to just dance the steps, he told a story through his dance. A 1960 performance, preserved in a black-and-white film intended for broadcast in Canada, showcases the power not only of Amboise’s electrified body, which takes off in jumps that seem to whistle from one side of the stage and sweep to one side of the stage. finish on the other, but also in his sparkling eyes.
Here is, certainly, that vibrant inner spirit. When he looks up in a corner, you feel he is actually looking at something. As the dance progresses, it changes from a boy, raw and wild, to a man who, finding the nobility of the goal, seems to astonish himself. The effect is striking, spontaneous; it doesn’t seem like it’s even seen the ballet before dancing much less.
In 2011, he finally published a memoir: “I was a dancer”. It is worth reading in depth with post-its; then keep it nearby to dive in when life seems too ordinary. His love for everything that happens in dance was heightened by his deep curiosity for the world around him. And, unsurprisingly, the book speaks more than itself; this is the world he lived in. In an instant, he’s looking at ballerina Suzanne Farrell from behind the scenes and wondering, “Who’s transforming her?” Some dancers grow taller than just a role-playing dancer; they seem to channel a greater force. Suzanne danced possessed, as if inhabited by a dance goddess who used her as a vent.
It is no exaggeration to say that d’Amboise, an exceptional partner of the company, loved women. When I interviewed him in 2018, he said he enjoyed dancing the most with Farrell, Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden, who he visited while she was dying. He could see that she was disappearing; he kissed her on the forehead. As he told the story, he gasped to show how painful his breathing was and quoted her last words – which concerned the afterlife: “There is one. This is what is left after the way you lived. We did a good job. Goodbye.'”
D’Amboise said: “I came out of there singing with joy that I knew such a woman.
I still remember his face then: the way his smile extended to his dancing eyebrows. I am thinking of dropping his “Apollo” – talking about channeling greater force! – show us how it should be done. And now the world can follow his example. We can also sing with joy that we have known such a man. He did a great job. Goodbye.