When the dancer Jacques d’Amboise was in his early 20s, he was approached to write a book. At the time, he wrote years later, his reaction was, “Ridiculous! I haven’t lived yet.”
But could that really have been true? D’Amboise, who died on Sunday, probably packed more life into one year than most normal people do in 10. I never had the good fortune of watching him dance in person with New York City Ballet, the company he joined in 1949 — at 15 — so I can only imagine what it was like. But I was able to witness, even on a small scale, his complete, unwavering zest for life. The man must have had a twinkle in his eye even when he was sleeping.
Even in his 80s, d’Amboise possessed a body and a mind so alert and alive that it very nearly vibrated. In performance — and this certainly reads on film — he radiated that energy with youthful, fervent heat. He helped to usher in a new kind of male ballet dancer, one that blended the refinement of classicism with the casual American body. But his charisma wasn’t only about everyday athleticism. His dancing was heroic, but he also knew how to convey an interior life. He made dancing, and ballet dancing at that, cool.
He was never a snob about dance. D’Amboise was known for his extraordinary career at City Ballet, yet he also performed in films, including a charmingly clueless turn in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” And in 1976, he formed National Dance Institute, a model in arts education. He started by knocking on principals’ doors and volunteering to teach dance for free as long as it was part of the curriculum.
It’s one thing to have joie de vivre; it’s another to be generous with it. D’Amboise, while still a principal with City Ballet, devoted himself to introducing the arts to children. Not the rare kids, those talented and privileged enough to attend the School of American Ballet, the City Ballet-affiliated academy where he trained, but the children of New York City. If you’ve lived in the city long enough, you’ve probably met an adult or two who recall giving up their free time to learn how to dance — and so much more — with d’Amboise.
Maybe it was something that connected him to his own childhood, which was far removed from the world of Balanchine and ballet. As he delved deeper into dance, he came to realize that he didn’t want to be another kid in Washington Heights hanging around with gangs; but he did take some of his past with him. In a 2004 interview, he told me that while growing up, “I enjoyed being the boss, but I knew how to manipulate and cajole so that everyone would play my games. I’d give up the lead if I had to.”
At City Ballet, leading parts were his for the taking, notably in “Apollo,” which George Balanchine revived for him in 1957. D’Amboise doesn’t just dance the steps, he tells a story through his dancing. A 1960 performance, preserved in a black-and-white film made for broadcast in Canada, showcases the power not just of d’Amboise’s electrified body, which takes off in jumps that seem to whoosh from one side of the stage and end on the other, but also in his glittering eyes.
Here, certainly, is that vibrant interior mind. When he looks high into a corner, you sense that he is actually looking at something. As the dance proceeds, he grows from a boy, raw and wild, into a man who, in finding nobility of purpose, seems to surprise even himself. The effect is startling, spontaneous; it doesn’t look like he’s even seen the ballet before much less danced it.
In 2011, he did finally publish a memoir: “I Was a Dancer.” It is worth a thorough read with Post-it notes; afterward, keep it nearby to dip into when life feels too ordinary. His love for all things dance was enhanced by his profound curiosity for the world around him. And, no surprise, the book is about more than just himself; it’s about the world that he inhabited. In one moment, he watches the ballerina Suzanne Farrell from the wings and wonders: “Who’s in there transforming her? Certain dancers become larger than just a dancer doing a role; they seem to channel a greater force. Suzanne danced possessed, as if inhabited by a goddess of dance who was using her as a vent.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that d’Amboise, an exceptional partner in the company, loved women. When I interviewed him in 2018, he said that he most enjoyed dancing with Farrell, Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden, whom he visited when she was dying. He could see that she was fading; he kissed her on the forehead. In retelling the story, he panted to show how labored her breathing was and quoted her last words to him — which were about the afterlife: “‘ There is one. It’s what’s left after the way you lived. We did a good job. Goodbye.’”
D’Amboise said, “I walked out of there singing with joy that I knew such a woman.”
I still remember his face in that moment: The way his smile stretched all the way up to his dancing eyebrows. I think about the abandon of his “Apollo” — talk about channeling a greater force! — showing us how it should be done. And now the world can follow his lead. We can sing back, too, with joy, that we knew such a man. He did a great job. Goodbye.