BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Jacques d’Amboise’s life reads like a fairytale. As a young boy growing up in the 1940s in Washington Heights, which he compares to “West Side Story” with its teenage gangs, his mother enrolled him in a ballet class.
His talent was quickly realized and at age 15, it brought him to New York City Ballet, then in its infancy. George Balanchine, its founder, looked at d’Amboise as the son he never had, even fashioning the title role in his revival of “Apollo” with him in mind. “Balanchine said, ‘I wrote the ballet describing it as a wild, untamed youth who learns nobility through art. And you know, Jacques, that’s you,’” d’Amboise, now 82, explained about his 23-year-old self. “And it’s true. I was a street guy with gangs in Washington Heights and ended up being Apollo.”
He also made a name for himself in Hollywood, starring in classic films like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” While filming, he had to leave the set early to return to New York to dance in the inaugural production of “The Nutcracker.” Ultimately, d’Amboise chose the ballet, and later, even found love on stage with ballerina Carolyn George, whom he married. The couple had four children, all of them following in their parents’ footsteps as dancers, two pursuing the craft professionally.
After retiring from the ballet at 49, d’Amboise began giving his son and his friends dance lessons. “I was reaching the later part of my career and realized how I had been transformed as a young boy by being involved in the arts and that dance was the doorway,” he said. Out of his first class of 11 boys, five went on to have careers as ballet dancers.
It was because of these fledgling classes that d’Amboise was inspired to take the idea to the city’s public schools. This led to the creation of the National Dance Institute, a nonprofit that brings dance into schools for every student, free of charge. With NDI part of the curriculum in 41 New York City schools, 6,500 local children are dancing because of d’Amboise’s unwavering dedication.
You grew up in Washington Heights and took your first ballet class there. I was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, and came to New York to live in Staten Island at 5. And then at 7, we moved to Washington Heights and that’s where I started ballet. There were gangs; it was like “West Side Story.” You belonged to the Panthers or the Famwoods. But they were not gangs, mostly they’d go wilding on Halloween. It was not serious gang fighting, which came later with something called a zip gun. But I got away from that, because my mother got me in a ballet class with a teacher who taught on 181st Street in Washington Heights, right off Amsterdam and St. Nicholas Avenues. My sister was also studying ballet. After a year, I was just turning 8, the teacher told my mother, “I don’t have room for your children anymore.” She handed her a piece of paper and said, “Take them to the School of American Ballet. George Balanchine. They are better teachers than I am.” And she gave up her only boy in the class.
How many boys were in your class at the School of American Ballet? Did you ever feel that you shouldn’t become a ballet dancer because it was predominantly female? There were two others when I first went. And a year or so later, a third one joined. And that was Eddie Villella, who later became a great ballet dancer. I loved being with the girls in class and the challenge of the dancing. I always thought it was temporary, but almost immediately I was doing children’s roles in the ballet. I have only one year of high school. I quit school and joined the Corps de Ballet of New York City Ballet.
When you joined New York City Ballet, it had just been founded the year before. Do you still go to see performances there? How does it compare? I just went last night and with me were five ballerinas from New York City Ballet that are my peers. I got them tickets. We sat in the front row and watched Balanchine’s ballet, “The Four Temperaments,” one of the great Balanchine ballets. And all these girls had danced in it and I had done several roles in it. Robbie Fairchild was dancing, who, right now, is my favorite. Although there’s another, Daniel Ulbricht, who I also love in New York City Ballet. They’re great. And the orchestra is so terrific. And I thought to myself, “This is not the end of always there.” Because every time you see New York City Ballet, there is Balanchine. In the way the dancers perform, in the high quality of their technique as well as their deportment and good manners on the stage. It’s a national treasure, New York City Ballet, and everybody should go to it.
Describe your relationship with Balanchine. He never had children, but I think he kind of considered me, if he had had a young son. I was like his pseudo son. You know, he did a great ballet to Stravinsky music called “Apollo.” And he revived it for me. It had been done by all great male dancers. And he said, “No more golden curls and sandals. We’re gonna do it in black-and-white and put grease on your hair like an American teenager. This is going to be Apollo of today.” … And that’s the way it is today. It became universal for all-time. He wanted me to have grease in my hair, no wig curls.
Tell us about your experience in Hollywood. What had happened was I was asked to do this movie, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” I turned 18 on the set and Balanchine said, “Don’t sign a 7-year contract. They’ll owe you. Have my agent make your contract.” So he made a contract for one movie a year for seven years. The shooting schedule was no more than three months because most movies were shot very quickly. So “Seven Brides” was to be finished by a certain date and the date came and they were still shooting. And I said, “I gotta leave. The ballet company is starting. Balanchine is doing his first “Nutcracker.” And I’m supposed to be in it.” And they said, “No, you can’t leave.” So I kept postponing and finally I said I was leaving on such-and-such a date, no matter what. My contract had been written so that I could do that. So in the last few scenes of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” there’s a guy in the back in a green shirt; it’s actually the assistant director disguised as me, because I had left. [Laughs] I did several other movies. I’m so glad I did them, but I’m so glad that ballet was my Mount Everest.
You retired on the recommendation of your wife.I was about to be 50 that summer. I had married and had children and only had a few roles that I was still doing. My wife at the time, Carolyn George, who I had met in the Corps de Ballet of New York City Ballet and fell in love with and got married, was the company photographer. And she said to me, very nervous that I’d be offended, “You shouldn’t do that role anymore.” And I said, “What do you mean? Right now, no male dancer in the company can do it better than me.” And my wife said, “Yes, that may be true. But the way you’re dancing it tonight is not as good as the memory of the way you danced it last month. Your plane is about to land. Get out while the memory of how good you were is still in people’s minds.” So the next day I went to Balanchine [Laughs] and said, “Who do you want me to teach this role to?”
Explain how the National Dance Institute came about. I started the National Dance Institute in schools because in New York City public schools when I grew up, there was a jazz orchestra, symphony orchestra, an acting group. ... All that art left the public school system. They kept sports. So I started going to principals of schools and asking them if they’d like to have a free dance class for boys. Then the girls in the schools said, “Why do the boys have it?” So it ended up being boys and girls and that’s how National Dance Institute started.
To learn more, visit www.nationaldance.org