Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise's memoir a love story to the arts

Jacques d'Amboise has had a charmed life. "I've always been happy,'' he writes at the end of his memoir, I Was a Dancer, and indeed, his trademark as a star with New York City Ballet was his exuberant, high-flying style. One of his nicknames was "Daisy,'' because he was "always optimistic and sunny.''

How many people could drop out of school at 15, as d'Amboise did in 1949, join New York City Ballet at the invitation of its legendary artistic director, George Balanchine, and go on to work with a roll call of great mid 20th century artists like Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky?

I Was a Dancer is a suitably starry affair, ranging from d'Amboise's anecdote of hitching rides with Rock Hudson to Hollywood rehearsals for the 1954 movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to his definitive performance in the title role of Apollo.

"It would be the turning point in my life as a dancer,'' he writes of the Balanchine ballet, which the choreographer summed up in a sentence: "A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art.'' This also serves as a theme of the memoir.

D'Amboise's account of his childhood is a stirring testament to the allure of the arts to working-class families who made it more or less intact through the Depression. Growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, he had contact with street gangs and tells how he once got into a knife fight with a neighborhood bully. In a footnote, he gives instructions on how to make a zip gun.

In 1946, just before his first season with Lincoln Kirstein's Ballet Society, his formidable French-Canadian mother ("the Boss''), whose most ardent dream was to have "cultured children," persuaded her Boston Irish husband to change their name from Ahearn to her maiden name. "It's aristocratic, it's French, it has the 'd' apostrophe,'' Georgette d'Amboise argued. "It sounds better for the ballet, and it's a better name.''

So Joseph Ahearn became Jacques Joseph d'Amboise.

I Was a Dancer has plenty of firsthand impressions of Balanchine ("He wore small, open-necked polo shirts, short-sleeved, with black pants, and, like everyone else, smoked all the time"), but some of the fondest portraits are of classes with demanding teachers — many of them Russian — such as Anatole Oboukhoff, a former star dancer with the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

"Oboukhoff's face looked like a frowning prune, with keen, dark brown eyes burning above the thin line of a determined mouth,'' d'Amboise writes. "Class began precisely on time. Outside the studio door, Oboukhoff would alert us to his entrance by clearing his throat in a series of grunts, as a lion coughs and growls in the jungle. He would then enter and, with a pistol-shot clap of his hands, launch us into the most exacting hour and a half. . . . No air conditioning in those days. On hot, muggy days, I would have to change my place halfway through the barre, because I was standing in a puddle of my own sweat.''

He concludes, "I don't know a dancer today who could make it through an Oboukhoff class.''

The memoir is sprinkled with brisk assessments of d'Amboise's contemporaries. "If I had to reflect on the finest classical male ballet dancers of my time, Vladimir Vasiliev of the Bolshoi and the Danish dancer Eric Bruhn were, I feel, without peer,'' he writes.

Todd Bolender overwhelmed d'Amboise in his performance of The Four Temperaments, Balanchine's dance to music by Paul Hindemith. "To this day, I consider Todd Bolender among the greatest dance artists I've ever seen on stage, not just for The Four Temperaments, but in every role I saw him perform. His genius was in giving full value to every gesture of the dance, as if it were the only movement he would ever make, the beginning and end of the universe.''

D'Amboise was with Balanchine's New York City Ballet for 34 years, and, in his view, the choreographer's greatest masterworks were Apollo, Agon and Violin Concerto.

Balanchine's burial — he died in 1983 — is chronicled in one of the book's most moving chapters. Ballerina Alexandra Danilova, a Balanchine muse, didn't cry. "Makeup and tears don't mix,'' she said.

There's a Tampa Bay angle to the d'Amboise story. His mother retired in Clearwater, where she died in 1984. His daughter, Charlotte, a Broadway star ("I kept count of the number of times I watched her as Roxie Hart in Chicago: one hundred sixty''), is married to actor Terrence Mann, a Largo native.

I Was a Dancer is a handsomely produced volume, with plenty of performance photos, drawings, even a family recipe for French-Canadian spread.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

I Was a Dancer

By Jacques d'Amboise

Knopf, 439 pages, $35

Meet the author

Inkwood Books and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts present Jacques d'Amboise discussing and signing his book at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the TECO Theater, Straz Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. The event is free; the purchase of I Was a Dancer from Inkwood required to enter the signing line.

Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise's memoir a love story to the arts 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 3:30am]

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