|Jacques d’Amboise, choreographer and National Dance Institute founder, leads a dance group at Radcliffe in 1999. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File 1999)|
A ballet legend dances through the stages of his life and art
In his captivating new memoir, “I Was a Dancer,’’ Jacques d’Amboise recounts a story that beautifully illustrates his reach as a teacher. On a packed subway train in Manhattan, he suddenly noticed the people around him retreating. “Staring at me was a ferocious toughie. As eye contact is something to avoid in the subway, my fellow passengers had inched away nervously. The thug spoke up, ‘I was a tomato. . . . It was great.’ ’’ Not quite the expected confrontation, and d’Amboise was heartened to realize he was referring to one of his extraordinary children’s dance shows, this one featuring students from PS 40 as dancing vegetables.
As the founder and head of the National Dance Institute from 1976 until his retirement in 1994, d’Amboise got children dancing all over the world (more than 2 million so far and counting) through teaching, outreach programs, and vivid dance extravaganzas on prestigious international stages. He has won numerous awards, and the documentary about his work, “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’,’’ won an Academy Award. If the National Dance Institute were his only legacy, that would be plenty.
For balletomanes, however, d’Amboise is also a vibrant living link to the early days of New York City Ballet and the extraordinary career of George Balanchine, who is almost as much a central figure in “I Was a Dancer’’ as d’Amboise himself. D’Amboise was a principal dancer with the New York troupe for more than three decades, entering the company at 15, and the memoir traces his remarkable life partnering the legendary ballerinas who became Balanchine’s muses, including his “artistic sibling’’ Melissa Hayden, Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Allegra Kent, and Suzanne Farrell. Balanchine choreographed more ballets for d’Amboise than any other dancer.
Anecdotal and episodic, the book zigzags back and forth in time, “a buffet of stories about the experiences and relationships that shaped me as a person, dancer, and teacher.’’ D’Amboise writes with a chatty, personal style, confiding in tone and revealing a lively sense of humor. He tells tales about his family, his New York ballet cohorts, and the creative visionaries with whom he worked, from Lincoln Kirstein to choreographers like Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor.
He starts at the beginning, charmingly tracing a slightly offbeat childhood shaped by the resourcefulness and “volcanic energy’’ of his tiny, French-Canadian mother, who changed his name from Ahearn to the more artsy, exotic-sounding d’Amboise. He got his love of stories from his Irish father, at one time the personal telegraph operator for Joe Kennedy. Born in 1934 in Dedham, d’Amboise and his family endured a number of moves, even homelessness, as Pop struggled to find jobs after the telegraph became obsolete. They finally ended up in New York City, where young Jacques was dragged along to his sister’s ballet classes and cleverly manipulated into studying the art form himself. From the nurturing environment of Madame Seda’s Dance Academy, he graduated to Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, “a laboratory of theater and dance that would shape and influence the performing arts in this country for the rest of the century.’’
And there the book gets thoroughly engrossing. As he traces his own development as a dancer, his stories reflect the evolution of ballet in America. Tour triumphs and horror stories are interposed with fascinating character descriptions of seminal artistic figures — the troubled genius of Kirstein, the artistic passion of Balanchine, a hilarious portrait of Virgil Thompson, “an ancient baby.’’
The memoir leaves some big holes and questions, mostly regarding the impact of the National Dance Institute, that sent this reader traipsing off to
Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at Karencampbell4@rcn.com.