Jacques d’Amboise, who broke stereotypes about male dancers when he helped popularize ballet in America and became one of the most respected male stars in New York Ballet, died Sunday at his Manhattan home. He was 86 years old.
His daughter, actress and dancer Charlotte d’Amboise, said the cause was complications from a stroke.
Mr. d’Amboise embodied the ideal of a purely American style that combined the nonchalant elegance of Fred Astaire with the classicism of the Danseur nobleman. He was the first male star to emerge from the City Ballet’s School of American Ballet, joining the company’s corps in 1949 at the age of 15. Its extensive presence and versatility were central to the company’s identity in the first few decades.
He had choreographed 24 roles and became the lead interpreter of the title role in George Balanchine’s seminal “Apollo” before leaving the company in 1984, a few months before his 50th birthday. He has also choreographed 17 works for the city ballet, as well as many pieces for the students of the National Dance Institute, a program he founded and directed.
The energy, athleticism, infectious smile of Mr. d’Amboise (which critic Arlene Croce once likened to that of the Cheshire Cat), and the appeal of a boy next door made him popular with audiences and made ballet more attractive to boys in a world of tutus and pink toe shoes.
He also helped bring the ballet to a wider audience, danced on Ed Sullivan’s show (then called “Toast of the Town”), played important roles in several film musicals from the 1950s, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and ” Carousel “, and has appeared in appealing” Americana “ballets such as Lew Christensen’s” Gas Station “and Balanchine’s” Who Cares? ” In the early 1980s he directed, choreographed and wrote a number of dance films.
Although Mr. d’Amboise was never seen as a virtuoso dancer, his repertoire was demanding and extraordinarily broad, ranging from the princely “Apollo” to the daring head cowboy of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony”. He was one of the company’s best partners, including the cavalier of ballerinas Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell.
Mr. d’Amboise, Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times in 1976, “is not just a dancer, he is an institution.”
Mr. d’Amboise was astonished when Balanchine invited him to the City Ballet in 1949, one year after the start of the first season. He was 15 years old. “I can’t do it, I have to finish school,” he recalled in his autobiography of “I was a dancer” (2011). His father advised him to become a stage worker, but his mother loved the idea and Mr d’Amboise left school to dance professionally, as did his sister Madeleine, who was known professionally as Ninette d’Amboise.
Although Balanchine was generally more interested in creating roles for his dancers than his male performers, Mr. d’Amboise identified with many of the key roles Balanchine played in ballets such as “Western Symphony” (1954), “Stars and Stripes” ( 1958), “Jewels” (1967), “Who Cares” (1970) and “Robert Schumanns Davidsbundlertanze” (1980). Early in his career, he also created roles in ballets by John Cranko and Frederick Ashton, and received praise for this. (“Balanchine was upset” with the Cranko Commission, he wrote in his autobiography.)
In a 2018 interview, urban ballet dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring described the qualities that Mr. d’Amboise embodied as a dancer: “There is this machismo that is sometimes needed on stage – this bravery, this boasting, this self-confidence and us all I have to learn to cultivate this and yet it is a huge canon of work. There are poets and dreamers and animals in it. Jacques reminds us that all of this can be contained in one body. “
Mr. d’Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn on July 28, 1934 in Dedham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, to Andrew and Georgiana (d’Amboise) Ahearn. His father’s parents were immigrants from Galway, Ireland; his mother was French-Canadian. In search of work, his parents moved the family to New York City, where his father found a job as an elevator operator at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The family settled in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. To keep Jacques, as he was called, off the streets, when he was 7 years old, his mother and sister Madeleine enrolled him in Madam Seda’s ballet class on 181st Street.
After six months, the siblings moved to the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Energetic and athletic, Jacques immediately faced the physical challenges of ballet. After less than a year he was selected by Balanchine for the role of Puck in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
In his autobiography, he wrote of how his mother’s decision had changed his life: “What an extraordinary thing for a street boy with gang friends. Half grew up cops and half grew up gangsters – and I became a ballet dancer! “
In 1946 his mother persuaded his father to change the family name from Ahearn to d’Amboise. Her explanation, wrote Mr. d’Amboise in “I was a dancer”, was that the name was aristocratic and French and “sounds better for ballet”.
After joining City Ballet, Mr. d’Amboise soon danced solo roles, including starring in Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station,” which led to an invitation from film director Stanley Donen to join the cast of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” (1954).
In 1956 he married the soloist of the city ballet Carolyn George, who died in 2009. In addition to his daughter Charlotte, his two sons George and Christopher, a choreographer and former main dancer of the city ballet, survive. another daughter, Catherine d’Amboise (she and Charlotte are twins); and six grandchildren. Two brothers and his sister died before him.
Mr. d’Amboise starred in two films in 1956 – “Carousel” alongside Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and Michael Curtiz’s “The Best Things In Life Are Free”. But he remained committed to ballet and balanchine.
“People said, ‘You could be the next Gene Kelly,” said Mr. d’Amboise in a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t know if I could act, but I knew I was a great ballet dancer could be, and Balanchine laid the carpet for me. “
His faith was rewarded when Balanchine revived his “Apollo” in 1957, the ballet that marked his first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky in 1928, and cast Mr. d’Amboise in the title role. For this production, Balanchine took off the original, elaborate costumes and dressed Mr. d’Amboise in tights and a simple scarf over one shoulder.
It was a turning point in his career; Dancing, wrote Mr d’Amboise, “became so much more interesting, an odyssey towards your Excellency.” The role, he felt, was also his story, as Balanchine had explained to him: “A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art.”
For the next 27 years, Mr. d’Amboise continued to be a strong member of the city ballet, creating roles and appearing in some of Balanchine’s major ballets, including Concerto Barocco, Meditation, Violin Concerto and Movements for piano and violin . “
Encouraged by Balanchine, he also choreographed regularly for the company, although the reviews of his work have mostly been lukewarm. In his autobiography, he wrote that both Balanchine and Kirstein had assured him that one day he would lead the city ballet, but Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins took over the company after Balanchine’s death in 1983.
Mr d’Amboise appeared to have resigned himself to this result: he withdrew from the performance the next year and turned to the National Dance Institute, which brings dance to public schools, which he founded in 1976.
The institute grew out of the Saturday morning ballet class for boys that Mr d’Amboise began to teach in 1964, motivated by the desire that his two sons learn to dance without being the only boys in the class. The classes were expanded to include girls and moved to numerous public schools.
Now the goal is to offer free courses to everyone, regardless of the child’s background or ability. Today the institute teaches thousands of New York City children ages 9-14 and is affiliated with 13 dance institutes around the world. The Harlem-based institute where Mr d’Amboise lived was featured in Emile Ardolino’s 1983 Oscar winning documentary “He Makes Me Feel Like a Dancer”.
“That second chapter brought something more fulfilling than my career as an individual artist,” wrote Mr d’Amboise in his autobiography. He told the story of a little boy who, after many attempts, had succeeded in mastering a dance sequence: “He was on the way to discovering that he could take control of his body and learn from it to take control of his life . “
For his contribution to arts education, Mr. d’Amboise has received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990, a Kennedy Honors Award in 1995, and a New York Governor’s Award, among others.
He saw himself as a dancer all his life, but was also a passionate New Yorker. When asked in a 2018 article in The Times that he wanted his ashes scattered, he replied, “Spread me out in Times Square or the Belasco Theater.”