Balanchine

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.

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The Year of Living Cautiously, Pt. 2

Dance on screen: It's not the same as sitting with an audience for a live performance in a theater, but when theaters are shut down, it's a balm

Before Covid, I watched dancing on screen for several reasons, none of them related to recreating the experience of watching live performance, or as a substitute for it.

One was for reference, or what the French call an aide memoire, something to jog my memory of a performance I’d seen in the flesh, three-dimensionally, on the stage or in the studio or on a specific site, before I wrote about it. An example of that is watching the six-minute video of Linda K. Johnson’s Polka Dot Square piece, a viewing that verified that one of the dancers performing last October on artist Bill Will’s socially distanced giant polka dots in Pioneer Courthouse Square had been wearing red. Yet it in no way reproduced the joy I had derived from seeing birds doing a flyover, or feeling the chill in the air, or being part of an equally elated audience at the actual event. 

My rotten handwriting has also driven me to look at performances I’ve already watched in the dark—I often can’t read it. God forbid I misidentify a dancer in a review, or invent choreography that wasn’t performed.  (I am guilty of doing both of those things, for which I am still apologizing.) When Oregon Ballet Theatre performed Bournonville’s Napoli, I used a DVD of a different production—which had been staged by the same people—to remind myself of specific choreography, and while that recorded performance was extremely good, seeing it on my television screen with only my cat as my audience companion flattened it considerably. 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in the United States full-production premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli,” October 6-13, 2018, at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: James McGrew.

The second reason is connected to research, to see what dances and dancers looked like that I have had no opportunity to see live. A few that come to mind are Janet Reed as Swanhilda in Coppélia (I was only three);  Loie Fuller’s nature-inspired dances (performed well before I was born, though I have seen one reconstruction at the Maryhill Museum of Art, which also has film clips in her archive there); and James Canfield and Mark Goldweber in the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Petrouchka (which was not performed in Portland on tour). 

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Dancing in the Underworld

The movement's uninspired, but Portland Opera's production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" is musically magnificent. By all means go.

With its glorious melodies , menacing harmonies, and inclusion of music for dances that actually drive the plot rather than functioning as interludes giving singers a chance to catch their breath, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Eurydice has inspired some extremely distinguished   20th and 21st century choreographers.   George Balanchine did a radical version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, in a conceptual collaboration with painter Pavel Tchelitchew, that put the singers in the pit and the dancers in the air. Forty years later, having choreographed to Gluck’s music several times in between, Balanchine made the beautiful Chaconne as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed it for Covent Garden. Mark Morris staged it first in 1986 for the Handel and Haydn Society, and in 2007 directed and choreographed a modern-dress production for the Met, with the chorus dressed as characters from history placed on a platform above the stage, commenting, so to speak, on the action taking place below them.

A dance scene in Portland Opera’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Because of this history, and my own longtime affection for Gluck’s score (I’ve been listening to this gorgeous music since I was fifteen), I was delighted to learn that the Portland Opera was performing this version of the Orpheus story for the first time (they did Philip Glass’s in 2009), and at the Newmark Theater at that, vastly preferable to the all too spacious Keller Auditorium. The knowledge that Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Peter Franc and OBT soloist Katherine Monogue, lovely dancers both of them, would perform added to the attraction.

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Backstage at the Big Stage

New York City Journal: From ballet to theater to taxis to an open book of biographers, ArtsWatch's Martha Ullman West takes the city's pulse

NEW YORK – All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing “merely” about its citizens as players. I witnessed the following players make their exits and entrances in a packed visit to my hometown last month, in no particular order:

  • Taxi drivers muttering imprecations against the President for snarling up traffic with a brief visit to midtown Manhattan;
  • Writers and academics performing at a biography conference;
  • An anthropologist and an innovative (very) executive coach holding a public dialogue about using improvisation to cope with change;
  • Actors of varying ages in a production of Dan Cody’s Yacht at the Manhattan Theatre Club;
  • American Ballet Theatre’s dancers giving their all to fine choreography and not-so-fine in an all-Stravinsky program at the Metropolitan Opera House;
  • And New York City Ballet’s dancers, fleet of foot, airborne, and miming like mad in Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia.

I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography. I was headed to four sessions, the first on Writing Multiple Lives, the second on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures, the third on Biography and the Arts, the fourth on What to Leave Out. Each panel bore some relevance, I hoped, to the dual biography I’ve been working on for more years than I wish to admit to, Dancing American Character: Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Flowering of American Ballet.

Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, subject of two biographies by Justin Gifford. Photo: Phase4 Films, for the documentary “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” produced by Ice-T.

And yes, there were performers on each panel, the most interesting of whom was Justin Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was on the one on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures. A lanky figure in full hipster costume, jeans, stubble, and long hair, he was bare-headed for the conference yet unabashedly wearing two hats: writer of a trade book and author of a scholarly one, both about the same subject, Iceberg Slim, who wrote and was the publisher of black pulp fiction. The self-styled Marxist (an ideology not perceptible from the language he used in his presentation) summed up succinctly and well the difference between writing for the academy and the marketplace: for the first you are argumentative, the second narrative. Nobody throughout the conference mentioned the word readable, at least in my presence.

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