Jacques d’Amboise, who combined classical elegance with all-American verve and athleticism to become one of New York City Ballet’s top male dancers, then spent more than four decades providing free dance education to countless young people through his National Dance Institute. died aged 86.
His death was confirmed by Ellen Weinstein, director of the New York-based institute. She said the dancer and teacher died on Sunday at his New York home of complications from a stroke. He was surrounded by his family.
Plucked to stardom at NYCB as a teenager by its legendary director, George Balanchine, d’Amboise performed with the company for around 35 years before retiring just before his 50th birthday. His exuberant style and dashing looks caught the interest of Hollywood, where he appeared in films like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Carousel.” But his real love was for the ballet stage, where he was known for iconic roles like Balanchine’s “Apollo” and “Who Cares?” by Gershwin.
In a 2018 interview with The Associated Press, d’Amboise described the moment he decided to end his dancing career in 1984.
“I was almost 50, there were only a few roles left that I could do,” he said. “I was waiting to go on stage, and I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t want to go on. I danced, I went out, I took off my ballerinas and I stopped.
He had already long since determined his next calling, founding the National Institute of Dance in 1976. The joy he had in providing a dance education to children who would otherwise never have tried the art form – in schools, or for some, in institute classes – was on full display in the Oscar-winning 1983 documentary “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin,” a look at his NDI work.
“Jacques was a life force.” said Weinstein, who worked for some 40 years with d’Amboise, meeting him as a student at SUNY Purchase. “Jacques knew firsthand the joy and transformative power the arts can bring to children’s lives and he has dedicated the past 45 years to ensuring that every child has access to a quality arts education.”
The institute, which moved into its Harlem building in 2011, teaches thousands of students each year in schools and claims to have reached more than two million children around the world.
Watching a gathering of some of his most enthusiastic young dancers one weekend in March 2018, d’Amboise couldn’t hide his excitement. “Fantastic!” he called frequently. “Wow!” Upstairs in his office, crammed with career artifacts, including shelves full of lovingly curated faded journals, he described his love for dance. He took his interviewer’s arm to demonstrate how a very slight difference in movement could express a completely different thought or feeling.
“I never thought about it until my late twenties,” he said, “but what is dance? I realized it’s an art form that our species has evolved to express its emotions. And it’s extremely subtle. Want to see an example?”
Born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in Massachusetts in 1934, d’Amboise – the family later adopted his mother’s surname because, according to the story, it was better suited to ballet – moved as a child to New York and trained in a school in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan. At 8, he began his studies at the School of American Ballet. At age 12, he performed with the Ballet Society, the predecessor of New York City Ballet, and in 1949, at age 15, he joined the NYCB.
Balanchine choreographed a multitude of roles specifically for d’Amboise, but the dancer is perhaps best known for his elegant “Apollon”, a role created in 1928 but which d’Amboise made his own. As a choreographer, d’Amboise has produced nearly 20 works for NYCB.
Dance and performing legend Chita Rivera was one of many to pay tribute on Monday to a man she first met when she was 16, at the School of American Ballet.
“I will always remember his infectious smile and his dedication to training more wonderful male dancers,” Rivera, 88, said in a statement. “He shared his love of dance by creating more. Jacques always had a bright light around him.
D’Amboise was honored with the Kennedy Center in 1995 and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990, as well as numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts and the New York City Mayor’s Honor Award for Arts and Culture .
The institute said in a statement on Monday that Amboise’s work in arts education has taken him across the world – “from the extremes of Yakutsk, Siberia, to the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia, from . .. the Dead Sea to the mountains of Nepal, and from the dryness of the Atacama Desert in Chile to the tropical forests of the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian chain.
He is survived by four children – George, Christopher, Catherine and Charlotte, a Tony-nominated actor and dancer – as well as six grandchildren.