By Steven Woodruff
“Hey… thanks for having me.”
That was Jacques d’Amboise kicking off the conversation with a little bit of humor after my short introduction. He was poking some good-natured fun at the breezy, informality of interviews on NPR. We were sitting in his dressing room at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert where he was an honoree as part of the 16th Annual Choreography Competition. He was being recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his unique career as a dancer with New York City Ballet and for his inspiring and joyful academy of dance in Harlem, the National Dance Institute.
D’Amboise is a committed educator and he is very clear about his terminology. He doesn’t teach “kids”. It’s “children”, a question of respect, he says. And when it comes to schools it’s not about education, “learning” is the goal. He wants the idea not to sound or feel like a commodity. His own schooling was slight, finishing only a year of high school before joining New York City Ballet in 1950 at just 15. He now has a satchel full of honorary degrees, stints at major academic institutions, and a MacArthur Fellowship to his credit, but it is reading, he says, that has made him “learned”.
His career at City Ballet was long, and he defined what American dancing could be for an era that had never really seen American men dance. His particular exuberance spilled over into TV, film, and Broadway. His connection to ballet came through Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. He told me about his first job, working with Balanchine on a dance tableau in a summer garden using Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He was 8, his partner, the 12 year old Tanny LeClercq. He said he recalled that time vividly and could even now remember the steps. He got ten dollars for the day’s work which, in 1942, mightily impressed both him and his father.
Some of that early memory of dancing in a garden had new life breathed into it recently when he developed a piece of original choreography for five young teenage dancers. When they took the piece on tour to Jacob’s Pillow and venues in upstate New York, d’Amboise had them experience the work in a different way by having them dance one section moving through a grove of pine trees near his Catskill retreat. The moment is captured in the second episode of the half hour documentary Young Arts Master Class as he builds from scratch a new work with original music. D’Amboise imbues that moment with a sense of magic that is irresistible.
Much of the interview centered on the National Dance Institute and his teaching philosophy. He decided to move in another direction from ballet when he founded his school, crafting a natural, gestural movement to capture young imaginations and provide them with a window onto the transformative world of the arts. NDI had just concluded a concert at Symphony Space in New York. Photographs of the performance captured the joy, color, and thronging nature of the school’s uplifting dance aesthetic.
We concluded with short discussion about a filmed rehearsal for the Balanchine Trust coming up later in November. D’Amboise is going to revisit his roles in Balanchine’s Gershwin suite “Who Cares?” with some of the current City Ballet dancers in roles that he had originally been created for him. Earlier he had done a short session on “Apollo”, another of his signature roles. He spoke of both those pieces and others with a sense of nostalgia but also a sense of loss. Those roles and other Balanchine ballets were losing their essential qualities, he said, and seem almost a shell of what they once were.
For d’Amboise, the return to Palm Desert was something of a homecoming. He had directed and choreographed a musical version of the Robert Service poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” for the McCallum Theatre in 1991 using area school children. He spoke from the stage as part of the evening’s performance. He creates an instant rapport with audiences. His informality but profound interest and dedication to dance are disarming. His remarks leaned toward the philosophical, linking dancing and dancers with a kind of primal spirit of cosmology. For d’Amboise, the dance spirit runs deep. He ended with a moving reenacting of the Hafiz poem ‘The God Who Only Knows Four Words”. He repeated the poem’s closing refrain, “Come Dance with Me”, four times. It was an emotional mantra for an evening that had also included some exceptional dance.
(This interview will be published soon as a podcast in three parts. Look for it on Dance Channel TV along with brief video clips. The interview took place on November 9, 2013)