I Was, I Am

One afternoon last winter, in a studio at Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art And Performing Arts, Jacques d’Amboise was teaching a very young dancer how to bow.

Jacques d’Amboise rehearses National Dance Institute students. Photo credit: Eduardo Patino.

“Now take the baby,” he said, crossing his arms as if cradling a newborn.

“Bring it close. Hold the baby.” His pupil—a petite Asian girl in a pale blue leotard, pink tights, and satin slippers, black hair pulled into a neat bun—giggled nervously.

D’Amboise drew his hands up to his heart, shut his eyes and lowered his head. A few dozen children seated up front and parents hovering in the doorway watched as the 77-year-old former New York City Ballet star acknowledged imaginary applause.

In 1984, d’Amboise took his final bow in front of a much larger but equally enraptured audience. His retirement marked the end of the illustrious career chronicled in his new book, I Was a Dancer (Knopf). A member of City Ballet at 15, a soloist and George Balanchine’s protégé at 17, and a principal for three decades, d’Amboise had more works created on him by the master choreographer than any other dancer in history.

But that’s only half of his story. Working with students is d’Amboise’s second act. In 1976, he founded National Dance Institute (NDI), a renowned arts education organization that offers free dance training and performance opportunities to public school kids. It began with d’Amboise informally teaching ballet to his sons and their friends during the late ’60s. Within a few years he was leading classes at 15 city schools.

“My wife, doing our taxes, asked, ‘Why are we short all of this money?’” d’Amboise said last January at a diner near Lincoln Center. Though wizened, his face still retains its expressive stage quality. When he smiles—a wide, toothy grin—his eyes become slits and his bushy white eyebrows slope toward his nose. “And I told her that I had been using it—paying for cabs, musicians—and she said, ‘Why don’t you form a nonprofit? That way the program won’t depend on you, and it’ll exist after you. It’ll be an institution.’”

Thirty-five years later, NDI has reached two million kids, and d’Amboise has received countless awards—including a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a National Medal of Arts. “The premise is that someone who is missing the arts, knowing the arts, is not fully learned,” he said. “And dance is the best catalyst.”

In many ways, I Was a Dancer is a testament to this transformative power of dance. In the book, d’Amboise observes that Balanchine’s synopsis of “Apollo” (which became his signature role) summed up his own life: “A wild, untamed youth gains nobility through the arts.” Born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in Dedham, Massachusetts, he grew up in Washington Heights. He ran with a tough crowd, so his mother enrolled him in ballet classes with his sister. She also had the family adopt her lofty French Canadian maiden name, and Joe started going by Jacques (“Jock” to his friends). Dance was his way off the streets. Though initially reluctant, he was lured by the challenge of leaping higher and higher.

The memoir traces his ascent from St. Nicholas Avenue to the world’s finest stages with humor and humility. The same boisterous spirit he channeled into movement animates his writing. The book’s structure is a series of vignettes—“a buffet of stories,” as he puts it in the prologue (one of many food references). And characters enter and exit as seamlessly as dancers in a Balanchine ballet. Highlights include his courtship of his wife, fellow City Ballet member Carolyn George, and his role negotiating Suzanne Farrell’s return to the company after her bitter fall-out with Balanchine.

There are many arresting descriptions of dance, such as a teenage Allegra Kent “being passed around the waists of her bearers as if they were threading a belt through loops.” D’Amboise notes that he partnered all of Balanchine’s muses except for Vera Zorina, and thus often served as a vehicle for the choreographer’s romantic affections. He writes most candidly about his enigmatic mentor in a scene at his funeral: “Amidst all these people, grieving the loss of the giant of dance, I reflected that aside from his favorite muse at the moment—and, perhaps, Stravinsky—Balanchine never cared much for anybody.”

The book’s chronology gets muddled at times, and d’Amboise regrettably skips over many significant ballets he danced, but one of the most moving passages presages his second career. At the hospital where his two-year-old son, George, is being treated for cancer, he begins entertaining sick kids as a distraction. “I leaped, landed, and my tiny audience was intrigued,” he writes. George recovered, and the seed for NDI was planted.

“Dear one, I committed myself to more stuff,” d’Amboise said into his cell phone as we sat down to lunch last February at Sardi’s, in the theater district. He was speaking to his assistant—whom he calls incessantly—and I heard her muffled voice rise in volume.

“Shit, I know,” d’Amboise replied, repeating her exasperated response.

In He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, the Oscar-winning 1983 documentary about NDI, d’Amboise’s son, Christopher, says the organization gave his father a way to channel his excess energy after retiring. He still maintains a head-spinning schedule. D’Amboise carries a notebook-sized day planner with him at all times, tucked inside a patchwork tote bag he hoists over his shoulder like Santa’s toy sack. Top to bottom, corner to corner, the pages of the calendar are covered with his scrawl. He doesn’t use computers or e-mail.

In 1999, at the age of 65, d’Amboise hiked the entire Appalachian Trail to raise funds and awareness for NDI. He brings the same zeal to developing its Event of the Year, an annual June performance for which he choreographs and writes the script. When I joined him for a visit to an NDI partner school in Jersey City, he shared a song about apples from this year’s show on the PATH train—to the bemusement of other passengers.

It took d’Amboise a decade to finish I Was a Dancer because of his many commitments. But he claims it was easy to write. Much of the book was adopted from detailed diaries he kept at the time. He weaves in juicy tidbits—examples of Balanchine’s petty side and Lincoln Kirstein’s brazenness (in a crude explanation of his incentive for funding the company, he told d’Amboise: “You’re a dancer today, Buster, because I wanted to fuck Lew Christensen”). But the narrative is refreshingly free of spite. Like d’Amboise himself, it’s driven by an unflagging optimism. “It may disappoint readers at the end, when there’s no death,” he joked.

One death in particular is missing—that of his wife, Carrie, with whom he fathered four children. She passed away in their Manhattan home in 2009 of primary lateral sclerosis.

“That’s a whole other book,” d’Amboise said, and asked me to stop taking notes.

At the end of his autobiography, d’Amboise admits he rarely goes to the ballet anymore. Watching dancers from the audience, he longs to join them onstage. His fingers fidget, involuntarily responding to a phantom female partner. Age has taken a toll on his work with NDI as well. With bad feet and two knee replacements, he requires teaching artists to set his choreography. But his body still yearns to move. While rehearsing a piece for the Event of the Year, he shuffled to the center of the studio to demonstrate an arm movement: “Do like this—my shoulder’s torn—but you see the little circle it makes.”

His latest work is a reimagining of Balanchine’s “Apollo” with a 12-year-old female lead. In one practice session, four young men hoisted her horizontally above their heads and started running around the room. They bent and dipped her face-first toward the floor and then swooped her up again, tracing waves in the air with her tiny, taut body.

“Travel! Come on,” d’Amboise shouted. “You’re carrying the icon!”

A week later, the piece looked more polished. The lead dancer, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Go ♥ Your Own City,” exuded confidence. But some students struggled with the Stravinsky score. “You lost the counts. Are you counting? No,” d’Amboise snapped during a run-through. Then he relented. “Well done, all of you. But you’re late.” 

Physically he may be slowing down, but d’Amboise’s creative impulse remains robust. As a future project, he plans to adapt some of his NDI scripts and stories into a children’s book. But first he wants to return to a novel he started four decades ago. He calls it a “fictional thriller based on truth,” set at City Ballet during the making of Balanchine’s “Jewels.” He hopes to publish it next spring, to capitalize on the success of Black Swan.

Writer, teacher, choreographer, fundraiser—d’Amboise’s success spans many fields. So at one of our meetings, I asked the author of I Was a Dancer, what if he wasn’t?

“I would have been a gangster,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I wanted to be a doctor, or a priest, but I probably would have made a good criminal.”

After a pause he added, “I wanted to fly.”



I Was a Dancer, by Jacques d’Amboise, was released in March. Image courtesy of Knopf.

Contributor

Elaine Stuart

ELAINE STUART is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and graduate student at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where she is working on a book about dance.

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