Jacques d’Amboise has died at the age of 86. The great interpreter of George Balanchine ballets and passionate dance educator had been incapacitated after a stroke but was taken care of in his home in Manhatten, where he died on Sunday 2 May.
D’Amboise, together with his contemporaries Arthur Mitchell and Edward Villella, was a mainstay of the New York City Ballet where he was dancer and choreographer from 1949 until 1984. His energetic and virile performances helped to reshape the way male ballet dancers were seen in America.
His main training was at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and he made his professional debut at 12 with the Ballet Society and at 15 he joined the New York City Ballet. He created major roles in Western Symphony (1954), Stars and Stripes (1958), Meditation (1964), and many more. He was the prince in Nutcracker and Swan Lake and danced the title role in Balanchine’s Apollo. In 1980, more than 30 years after joining the company, he was cast in a new Balanchine ballet, Davidsbündlertänze.
In 1970 Balanchine created what is possibly d’Amboise’s most characteristic role in Who Cares? where he echoes the choreography of Apollo as he partners three women. In his biography of Balanchine, Robert Gottlieb, says the role “seemed to sum up his cocky, open, American expansiveness and good humor”.
D’Amboise’s career also took him to Hollywood where he was featured in the films Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), Carousel (1956), and Off Beat (1986) and also appeared on Broadway in the musical comedy Shinbone Alley (1957). As a choreographer, he created The Chase (1963), Quatuor (1964), and Irish Fantasy (1964).
While still dancing with the New York City Ballet, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute in 1976. He said,
[It’s] not necessarily to prepare them to be professional performers, but to create an awareness by giving them a chance to experience the arts. My interest, my belief, my obsession, is that arts liberate a person’s heart and mind to all kinds of possibilities.
He invested $3,000 of his own money and persuaded Balanchine to let him use the stage of the New York State Theater between performances. He started with 30 little boys and three years later there were 300 children in the programme.
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.
D’Amboise’s work with the National Dance Institute was the subject of the documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1983), which won an Academy Award for best feature documentary.
He also taught at the School of American Ballet and served as professor and dean of the school of dance at the State University of New York.
D’Amboise received many recognitions for his work in education receiving the 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, the Capezio Award, the first Producer’s Circle Award for public service in enriching the lives of New York City children, the Governor’s Award for outstanding contributions to the art and culture of New York State, and the Paul Robeson Award for Excellence in the Field of the Humanities. In 1995 he was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor and in 1998 the National Medal of Arts.
Of ballet, d’Amboise said,
Ballet is a universal language. It is a universal art form that can utilize other art forms, but always, it has to do with bettering. That’s what makes it ballet—the use of dance, art and theatre for betterment. The highest expression is classical ballet. It best expresses what ballet is.
And a much quoted statement by d’Amboise reads:
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.
Carla Fracci writes,
My most heartfelt condolences to his loved ones for their great loss. Jacques was an excellent dancer A noble and kind man whom I will keep in my memory and heart with respect and gratitude – Carla Fracci.
Among many entertaining passages of d’Amboise’s autobiography concerns his nickname, “Daisy”, because he was “always optimistic and sunny.” Another was “Georgette,” because the dancers often called each other by their mother’s names…
Jacques d’Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in Dedham, Massachusetts on 28 July 1934 and died in Manhatten, New York on 2 May 2021.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.