When Jacques d’Amboise wanted to encourage a student to launch into a dance movement, he would say: “Either you live or you die, and if you live, live with life.”
The longtime New York ballet dancer and choreographer – who in 1976 was considered “an institution” by New York Times Dance and theater critic Clive Barnes – died at his Manhattan home on Sunday from a stroke. He was 86 years old.
Always exuberant and enthusiastic in her performances and in life, d’Amboise left her dance footprints in New Mexico by co-founding NDI New Mexico, headquartered in Santa Fe, in 1994.
“He was the dance flute player in New Mexico,” said longtime Santa Fean and former real estate agent Pat French, who first introduced Amboise to the former director of the Acequia Madre Elementary School, Leslie Carpenter, circa 1990.
This meeting led d’Amboise to create a branch of his National Dance Institute, long anchored in New York, in Santa Fe. He launched his first student dance show in Santa Fe, an adaptation of his own production of Fat city, at this school in 1990.
French says she realized that Amboise, who was considering buying a house in Santa Fe, wasn’t really looking for a house.
“He was looking for a community,” she says.
Catherine Oppenheimer, who worked with d’Amboise at the New York City Ballet and later became founding artistic director of NDI New Mexico, said she wanted to “bring the best of the arts to children.” He believed that every child deserved to have access to the highest standards of art. “
Russell Baker, executive director of NDI New Mexico, said Amboise “has had a huge impact on so many people around the world, including New Mexico. And in some ways it was one by one. He was one of those people who, when you had a conversation with him, you felt you were in the most important place in the world at that time.
Jessie Martinez, a Santa Fean who now works for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was among the thousands of children affected by Amboise’s commitment. A former student of NDI, he remembers Amboise who came to class to work with students on a piece called “Tamara’s Dance”.
“He knew how to reach you to get the most out of you,” Martinez said. “He always demanded excellence. He knew that every child had excellence inside.
While the instructor and dancer can be intimidating and strict in their teachings, he was also cheerful and shouted for joy when a child with issues with a particular step suddenly overpowered him, Martinez said.
Born in Massachusetts in 1934, d’Amboise moved to New York as a child with his family and trained at a dance school in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. His mother, obsessed with all things French, enrolled him in classes there to prevent him from joining a street gang, he later said.
He liked to joke that all the kids he grew up with on those streets have turned into cops or gangsters.
In contrast, he went on to become one of the world’s best-known male ballet stars, a position reinforced in popular culture when he starred in television shows and played one of seven male siblings at the looking for a bride in the 1954 MGM musical. Seven wives for seven brothers.
He projected a graceful sense of masculinity when he danced, and his high-flying balletic leaps inspired ballerina Maria Tallchief to say, “The only person who can compare to Jacques is Michael Jordan of the [NBA Chicago] Bulls. “
Its rise has been meteoric. At 8 he was studying at the School of American Ballet and a few years later danced with the Ballet Society, predecessor of the New York City Ballet, which he joined in 1949. He was only 15 years old. last almost another 35 years.
Working under the direction of legendary and influential ballet choreographer George Balanchine, d’Amboise went on to become one of the principal leaders of his works, earning praise for his dance in a late 1950s revival of the highly regarded ballet by Balanchine, Apollo.
As d’Amboise liked to say, Balanchine told him Apollo was about “a wild and untamed youth who learn nobility through art”.
It was a theme d’Amboise would return to again and again as he launched a second post-ballet act as an artistic educator at the National Dance Institute, which he founded in New York City in 1975.
Having worked with some of the giants in his field, he wanted to go back to his roots as a street kid and offer dance to children lacking in concentration, expression and creativity.
In a 2011 interview with The Paris review, d’Ambiose said he started going to schools to teach ballet in the 1970s “trying to recreate what I had done myself… I went to schools and gave free lessons, once a week, for boys. Well the girls rebelled, and I had to do both.
“And I just couldn’t do a year, I had to audition or try third, fourth, and fifth year. But because six people got up and left in the middle of regular classes, the teachers didn’t like it. So now the whole class, no matter what, is dancing.
In the 1983 documentary He made me wanna dance – which focuses on Amboise’s work with NDI students in New York City schools – he said he doesn’t just look for talent when he casts students on his school shows.
“What I’m looking for is the willingness to try,” he said. “Never give up.”
For his contributions to arts education, Mr. d’Amboise received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990, a Kennedy Honors Award in 1995 and a New York Governor’s Award. Jacques d’Amboise, who published his autobiography, I was a dancer, in 2011, is survived by four children and six grandchildren. His wife, Carolyn George, died in 2009.
“He made a world here,” French said of his legacy in Santa Fe. “He came to make everyone dance.