Jacques d’Amboise on ‘I Was a Dancer’
March 8, 2011 | by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Jacques d’Amboise, born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in 1934, began his dance training at the age of seven with Madame Seda in Washington Heights. Within a year, he was hopping on the subway to the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the fledging company started by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. By the age of fifteen, he had joined the New York City Ballet, and by seventeen, he had dropped out of high school and become a soloist. For the next three decades, d’Amboise partnered with some of the most exquisite ballerinas of the day, and as Balanchine’s protégé, he had numerous ballets made specifically for him. Critics hailed him as “the definitive Apollo,” a role that he claims changed his life. He was also known for his wildly exuberant screen presence, most notably as Ephraim in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the Starlight Carnival barker in Carousel.
As his dancing career was winding down, d’Amboise embarked on a spectacular second act: founding the National Dance Institute in 1976, a program that brings ballet into public schools around the country through classes, residencies, and performances—all for free. His memoir, I Was a Dancer, published this month, recalls his seven decades of dance. Although d’Amboise says he is slowing down, the evidence suggests otherwise: as we sat over cups of café au lait in SoHo, he felt compelled to rise from the table to demonstrate a particular sequence of ballet steps. The other patrons were as surprised—and delighted—as I was.
Where did your mother get the idea that you should study dance?
She never finished elementary school, but at home, everybody read books. Especially French books: Victor Hugo, Maupassant, Dumas. She always dreamed that she would be an actress, in drama, and that educated her: she’d dance, recite poetry, use beautiful words, speak French, and act and sing. And her dream was that all her children would be brought up that way.
And it came true!
It did—for three of us. In the early days of New York City Ballet Society, we were all in. My sister stopped because she married the company doctor and she was quarter ballet girl. She had a minor solo once in a while but nothing really. I think I did my solo before I was seventeen and I was doing principal roles while I was still quarter ballet. And Freddie Ashton came to the U.S. and did a ballet for me, and then I did my first movie. I turned eighteen on the set. I just did what I wanted and had everything given to me. And in a way that was why I started National Dance Institute: I never had to audition for anything; I never had to pay for a dance class.
It started with just boy’s ballet in the late sixties, so that children would get introduced to ballet. After a year or two of that, they would perform in huge shows. But in 1975, I really started going into schools, trying to re-create what I had done myself. I had taken dance with a very high quality, to live music, and performance oriented. So I went into schools and gave free classes, once a week, to boys. Well, the girls rebelled, and I had to do both. And I just couldn’t do one grade, I had to audition or try third, fourth, and fifth grade. But because six people would get up and leave in the middle of regular classes, the teachers didn’t like it. So now the entire class, no matter what, has dance. And if you’re in a school where there are five fifth grades, with thirty to thirty-five children in each class … you know we have no drop-outs? We teach four thousand children.
Your book is so filled with joy—the joy of dancing, of being a dancer, of being around dancers—and I found that so refreshing, given the way popular culture, like Black Swan, wants to take the suffering and the pathology and put that at the forefront.
And also the salacious elements. I get lots of people who say, I studied at the School of American Ballet, and oh, I’ll never forget Mr. Balanchine with his stick. The cliché of the ballet master with the stick, hitting the leg and so and so, right? And that’s a false cliché! Now, was there a time? Yes, probably, and some people. But if you have to define Balanchine, it’s good manners. He would never sit if there were a woman in the room. He would never allow a coffee cup on a piano. He’d come in and he’d look around the room, and if he saw a ballet bag or a coffee cup, he wouldn’t say anything but he’d take remove them, and then he’d say, “Start! First position!” That’s all he needed to do!
It’s so clear that you loved Balanchine, but in the book, you write that you loved Lincoln Kirstein more.
Because Lincoln was a total wreck, a mess, a giant dysfunctional genius of mad energies and passion. Everything you said, he feared he was wrong. He’d yell out, “Good taste is my taste, buster, good taste is my taste.” At the same time, he’d think, I’m wrong, I couldn’t do it, I’ve picked the wrong artist, or I’m supporting the wrong person, I’m doing the wrong thing. He was so vulnerable. He was a wounded elephant, with all the power of an elephant, full of doubts and fears.
There’s a line in the memoir that I love: “With Robbins, you were amplified; with Balanchine, you were transformed.”
I think it’s the single best line in my book. And I think it came from a conversation. I was talking with Kay Gaynor and other people about trying to describe what Robbins did and what Balanchine did. One was the transformation of what you already were, and the other was what you didn’t realize you were capable of being. Jerry took what you are, watched you, studied you, and then amplified it and used it. Balanchine looked, and said, “Oh, very beautiful girl, very nice—I bet she could move faster. Maybe she could be a pony. Maybe I’ll do a ballet about ponies.”
What is the texture and rhythm of a ballet dancer’s day?
It’s an extraordinary thing to be a ballet dancer. You cannot divorce yourself from the music. You get up in the morning, you warm up, you stretch, you do a little floor mat. And now ballet class starts and for the next hour or hour and a half, music is your floor, and you are interpreting that music by the way you move. No sooner do you finish, and then you have five minutes before you’re in rehearsal. You rehearse for three hours. You may be in one room with Jerome Robbins, you may have three hours with Balanchine, you have an hour’s break to eat lunch but you don’t eat lunch, because you’re going to be rehearsing all afternoon. So except for a one-hour break, you have been going nine hours with music. Now, it’s six o’clock. You’ve got two hours before the curtain goes up. During those two hours, you eat something, but not much because you’ve got to perform. So you shower, you wash, you put on your makeup, you go on stage, and you practice what you’re going to do when the curtain goes up. Or work with your partner. Or if somebody’s injured, you learn what you’re going to have to do to replace them. Now it’s a half hour, right? You’re in your costume. Fifteen minutes, curtain goes up, you’re out there with the symphony orchestra. Stravinsky’s conducting, or Robert Irving. And you’re dancing to Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn or Chopin or whatever. Incredible music. Now it’s eight. If there was a pas de deux and I wasn’t a principal dancer yet, I’d always be in my dressing-room costume and get down to catch the last act. It’s now eleven o’clock. You’re ravenous, exhilarated, on a high. And you go pig out on food and you go to bed at twelve thirty or one o’clock, and then get up and do it all again. And more on Saturdays and Sundays. When we’d go on tour—four, five months—on your day off, you wouldn’t take class. You’d go sightseeing in Florence or Amsterdam or Copenhagen or wherever. So except for that one day a week, you have music all the time. All the time.