Remembering NYC Ballet Principal Dancer Jacques D’Amboise : NPR

D’Amboise, who died on May 2, started dancing at age 7 and joined the New York Ballet at age 15. He later founded the National Dance Institute, which teaches children to dance. Originally broadcast in 1989.


This is FRESH AIR. Jacques d’Amboise, a longtime solo dancer with the New York Ballet, died last week at the age of 86. A legendary talented and dedicated performer, teacher and choreographer, d’Amboise joined the New York Ballet at the age of 15, invited by its co-founder, George Balanchine. In collaboration with this renowned choreographer, d’Amboise created leading roles in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Jewels”, “Stars And Stripes” and many other ballet classics. As a solo dancer with the New York Ballet, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute in 1976, which teaches dance classes to children at New York City Public Schools. A 1984 documentary about him called “He Makes Me Feel Like a Dancer” won an Oscar. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1989. She asked him if he wanted to teach children at the National Dance Institute.


TERRY GROSS: You audition the children to see if they can be in your classes. How can you audition children who have not yet had formal dance training?

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: Not who is the best, who tries the hardest. Give steps to children for an hour. And they don’t know their rights from their left. And you demand top performance. And you ask for silence and no chewing gum and no bad manners and no fights and no bad language. And stand up straight. And lift your head up And put your right foot forward. And do it with the music and now twice as fast and so on. And you can see the lurkers on the back and to the side – hands in your pocket. And they giggle and laugh. Get rid of them right away. Tell them they won’t be done next year when they finish – so it’s the ones who try.

GROSS: What kind of line do you like between fun and discipline? And I’m sure you want your students to be as disciplined as possible and to dance the best they can. On the other hand, I don’t know how much pressure you want to put on them to make them worry that they won’t live up to expectations.

D’AMBOISE: There is something called precision. There’s a thing called editing. Being precise and knowing how to edit – and that’s the secret to being creative. So first I say to a class of – an auditorium full of kids. I want the first three rows to stand up and quietly walk on stage. Spread out on the stage. Stand anywhere. Fill in every inch of the room, the smallest people in the front, the largest in the back. Well here it is. I tell them you have 10 seconds, exactly 10 seconds to fill those 10 seconds. Three rows of children, 30 children, get up and run screaming and screaming onto the stage and end up in the back of the rows, right? And they all get there in three or four seconds.

Then I said, No. 1, I asked you to do it quietly. No. 2, you’re supposed to fill in every inch of space. And the stage is 40 by 40. So you have to have everything behind you. Stack it, the shorter people in front. And I said 10 seconds. You were there in three. You have to take 10, not nine, not eight, 10. And now go back and do it all over again. And if I have to call you a third time, I won’t be teaching this class. Now, the second time, they get it. It is absolutely calm. They come to their place. And they take every 10 seconds. You get there early. You run in small circles until the 10 seconds are up. The countdown is over, they’re freezing. You get it. And then I say you just learned what dance is about. It controls the time. And it controls the space. You control the time. And you control the space with your body, you. And that’s the first thing you dance. You just started dancing.

LARGE: Let’s talk about how you started dancing. How did you start dancing

D’AMBOISE: Well, my mother was determined that her kids weren’t bums on the street in trouble. When my sister went to a ballet class, I was dragged along and had to sit and watch. Madame Seda to 181st and St. Nicholas. And that’s 1942. And I try to disturb the class and make noise, little noises, little squeaks and play with the rosin. And Madame said I was very smart. She just watched. And then, at the end of the class, there are these jumps, jumps that you refer to as change or change, one at a time. And she said: can you do that with all your energy and your violin? Can you jump as high as the girls Get up and try this out.

So I would get up and do the jumps. And I loved doing the jumps. Everyone applauded me. And I would jump and jump and jump So she says every day, if you sit there quietly, I’ll let you do the jumps. So I would sit there and wait for the jumps. Then she said but you make noise when you land. So you need to take the beginning of the class where you practice the postures or – where you start getting the strength and learning how to get by air and land. So I would do it – at the beginning of the class I would run and sit and wait for the end. Then she said you look sloppy in the air. You need to learn how to hold your body and arms, and show your feet. You have to take the middle of the climb. I was ready by then, right? So she did just that – she challenged you, tested you, created a great environment, and congratulated you when you succeeded and made it harder. She had – you see – done everything right.

GROSS: You have met many of your young students who are a little uncomfortable about possibly being associated with ballet. What about you when you were young Did your friends make it difficult for you? Were you embarrassed yourself?

D’AMBOISE: No, not a bit, because you see – I would absolutely dance down there and see great dancers. And I’d come back around the block and they’d all wait. Where have you been? We hear that you went to a dance class.

And I said yes. And it’s great. There’s this man with all these muscles. And he jumps in the air. And he doesn’t make any noise. And he makes all these twists, Eglevsky – Andre Eglevsky. And he does these double tours. And he likes that.

And on the street corner in front of Dave’s Candy Shop (ph) on 163rd and St. Nicholas I started dancing and getting my whole gang to do double tours, and they – no problem. And then when I got to the New York Ballet I was 15 years old. They snuck into the city center – 25 gang members. And I would go out and open the fire escape. And they had come by half an hour. And I’d let her on the balcony, see?

And so I came to the court of the ballet of the symphony in C. There were eight boys and men in the court of the ballet and one teenager, me. And everything from the balcony whistles and screams every time I come on stage. And (laughter) you know they’d all know my gang was up front, you know?

GROSS: Was there a moment when you knew this was the case – I’m going to retire from the performance now?


GROSS: What was that moment?

D’AMBOISE: First, injuries and – serious injuries and in the hospital and a doctor who says that’s it – you won’t dance again. But Balanchine said: No, you have to come back. I need you. You have to come back So I went back and danced. And sure, a year later I had another operation.

Well then I said wait a minute. Balanchine is so extraordinary. And it fades. And I’m fading I’ll just stay and dance as long as I can with him. And in the meantime, I’ll start the National Dance Institute. So I started dancing and – but the roles started, you know, out of 60 ballets I would do 50 because I would drop it as soon as I do something badly or don’t like it. Until finally in ’84 – ’83, ’84, 19 – it just wasn’t good.

I had two ballets left that I thought I could dance. And I didn’t like it anymore. And the effort of getting on stage was too painful, you know? I thought I don’t belong here anymore. So I stopped. And I don’t even remember who that person was who danced. When I watch old films or see people play my roles, I can hardly remember. Who is this person who used to dance?

GROSS: Why not? Why is it so hard to remember?

D’AMBOISE: It’s like someone else. I’ve become someone else. It’s not like that – my body can no longer move like that. I don’t even feel like a dancer. It’s someone else. I look at it and say it’s a different person, see?

GROSS: Well, when you see someone dancing one of the ballets that you did, what is your emotional reaction? Is it, oh that’s nice, someone to take it on? Or is it envy that they can still dance and you can’t?

D’AMBOISE: No. I don’t like anyone (laughter) playing my roles. What happened that I …

LARGE: (laughter)

D’AMBOISE: … watch them dance. And if they don’t do anything special that excites and excites me, then I don’t like ballet. I know so well I know all about it. There are a few dancers, male dancers, that I still love to see. But they’d better be good. Otherwise they are – I’ve seen the best. I don’t want to see anything second rate.

GROSS: Well, Jacques d’Amboise, thank you very much for talking to us about dance.

D’AMBOISE: Terry, it’s a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Jacques d’Amboise spoke to Terry Gross in 1989. He died on May 2nd at the age of 86. Justin Chang is reviewing the new film “The Woman in the Window” with Amy Adams. This is FRESH AIR.


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