Remembering Jacques d’Amboise

The great American ballet star, who died this week at age 86, was also a great teacher and a great human being: a reminiscence

The news of Jacques d’Amboise’s death came to me in a Facebook message, and it came, this great American dancer/teacher/father/human’s age notwithstanding, as a shock.  His presence was enormous. His absence – he died May 2, at age 86 – is even more so.       

That being said, I can see him, will always see him:

  • As the toddler Apollo, learning to walk, at the beginning of George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s 1929 ballet, Apollon Musagete, the original title of the ballet we now know as Apollo.
  • As an exuberant American teenager, working as a gas jockey, in Lew Christensen and Virgil Thomson’s Filling Station, alleviating his boredom on the night shift by reaching for the sky in his tours jetes over the fuel pumps.
  • As a popular-culture cowboy,  an “aw shucks” expression on his face, as he inserts an American macho swagger between the Russian pyrotechnics Balanchine choreographed for him and Tanaquil Le Clercq in the last movement of Western Symphony.
  • Teaching legions of New York City’s public school children, via the National Dance Institute, the organization he founded thirty-plus years ago to give kids regardless of income the opportunity to express themselves by dancing. There are offshoots of NDI all over the world.
  • And, ten years ago, teaching barre to advanced students at The Portland Ballet: knees and feet gnarled from arthritis, his fire banked, but glowing, still with the same hot passion for dancing we saw on stage and in movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, back in the last century.
Jacques d’Amboise, with advanced students from The Portland Ballet, while in town in 2011 on a book tour for his memoir “I Was a Dancer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I don’t remember when I first encountered d’Amboise offstage—probably in 2004, and very briefly, at the Wall to Wall Balanchine celebration at New York’s New Victory Theater. He came in late, stumbled over my feet on his way to a seat on the other side of Todd Bolender, and paused to give me (and Bolender) a warm and apologetic hug.  But I do remember, very well indeed, the encounters with him from the distance of the upper reaches of the second balcony of New York City Center, where that passion for dancing – and his phenomenal stage presence, elevation, musicality, ballon, and ability to inhabit every role he performed with every fiber of his being – contributed to my own love for this art form and its many permutations. Maria Tallchief, Bolender, Andre Eglevsky, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Janet Reed also had a little something to do with that, not to mention the choreography of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

D’Amboise on the cover of a DVD collection of his great ballet performances.

Two years after the New Victory hug, in October, 2006, Bolender died, and in December I went to Kansas City to attend his memorial, put together by Kansas City Ballet’s ballet master James Jordan, with d’Amboise as Master of Ceremonies.  There was a reception before the memorial, for the participants and other guests, and when Jordan and I entered the room, he saw someone he needed to speak with and pointed me toward a table where d’Amboise was sitting with KCB’s artistic director at the time and another man.  “See if one of those guys will get you a drink,” he said. I walked over and the AD looked up at me and said something like, “Oh, are you here again, Martha?” whereupon d’Amboise leapt to his feet, reached over, gave me an embrace that was warm to say the least, instructed me to take his chair, and asked me what he could fetch me from the bar. 

Did he recognize me from two years before, where we chatted briefly after the performance?  Maybe, but it’s more likely the Washington Heights street kid who became the courtly partner of some of this country’s most important ballerinas simply could not let rudeness toward a female guest, much like a badly executed tendu, go uncorrected. Whatever his motivation, I distinctly remember thinking, “I love this man as much as I loved his dancing,” and I asked him to get me a scotch on the rocks.

Bolender loved him, too, told me lots of stories about him in our interviews and conversations, and that’s the reason d’Amboise had been asked to officiate, so to speak, at Bolender’s memorial – performed, and I mean performed, before a packed house at the Lyric Theater where KCB was in the middle of a run of the Nutcracker. D’Amboise’s tribute to Bolender was spoken, and danced, as he moved around the stage, rapping in every sense of the word about his friend.

At a lunch the next day he again did both. He had set his ballet Meditation on the company at Bolender’s request, and he got up from his seat to show us some of the steps. And then it was time, past time, to get him to the airport, where I have little doubt he did a grand jeté over security and made his flight with possibly five minutes to spare.

National Dance Institute contribution acknowledgment from Jacques d’Amboise to Martha Ullman West, with drawing of Janet Reed dancing in “Cakewalk,” so delighted with her role, d”Amboise said, you could almost hear her saying “whee!!”

While I spoke with d’Amboise on the phone a couple of times—he had recollections of Janet Reed and the joy she took at being on stage that were very helpful to me while researching my book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet—I did not see him again until he came to Portland almost exactly a decade ago on a book tour for his extraordinary memoir, I Was a Dancer. I don’t know whose idea it was to ask me to introduce him, but I was delighted to do it, albeit extremely nervous. I wrote my remarks, and then, forgot them at home. D’Amboise was in the lobby at The Portland Ballet building, about to go in to teach the barre described above, and yes, gave me a quick hug.  “I’m talking about Todd,” he said as we went into the studio together.

So I talked about him performing Bolender’s The Still Point, originally set on a dancer with no ballet training, an understated, tender role in which the character is called upon to reassure a girl in adolescent turmoil that she is loved. Then I turned the podium over to him. His presentation included a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show, some bits from his book about his own childhood, his tough-as-hell French Canadian mother (referred to by him as the boss), and little about his Irish American father, who certainly gave him the gift of the gab.

Book signing over, we said our farewells, but not before D’Amboise muttered, “Can I get a decent margarita in this town?” I assured him he could, and those may have been the last words we spoke, though there may have been some additional phone conversations.

Now, as I write this, I see him again, in the last moments of Apollo, ascending the staircase to Mt. Olympus, taking his place in the pantheon of great dancers, moving still, and likely talking as well.

About the author

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

One Response.

  1. Lovely piece, Martha. Wish i’d Had one of those hugs— and seen him move too…
    Judith xxx

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