Jacques d’Amboise Interview

Choreography Fest Honors Jacques d'Amboise

by Dr. Stephanie Slahor, CNADM Life Member

JacquesCombine new choreography, skilled dancers, music, a fine venue and a special honoree and you have the annual Choreography Festival, hosted by the McCallum Theatre of Palm Desert, California. This year celebrated the 16th festival, with 23 works performed. Over the past years of the festival, 561 choreographers have had their works presented in 577 pieces of choreography. The festival has awarded $492,300 to deserving choreographers, and has sponsored 11 paid engagements.

Each year, the festival selects a special honoree for its distinguished “Lifetime Achievement Award.”  In the past, the honorees have included Marc Breaux, Grover Dale, Lula Washington, Joe Tremaine, George Chakiris, Dee Dee Wood, Carmen de Lavallade, Donald McKayle, Rudy Perez, Glen Tetley, Alan Johnson, Nigel Lythgoe, Eugene Loring, Julie McDonald, and Colleen Neary/Thordal Christensen.

This year’s award was presented to Jacques d’Amboise. His excellence as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, his work as a choreographer, and his founding of the National Dance Institute, a program that has reached and influenced over two million children nationally and internationally over the past 30 years, led to the award. It is interesting to note that, in the year 2000, he was honored by CNADM with the association’s Artistic Achievement Award.

Mr. d’Amboise met with CNADM Life Member Dr. Stephenie Slahor in an exclusive interview. He began by saying that it is the arts that “open your heart and mind to possibilities that are limitless.” Their pathways “touch upon our brains and emotions and bring sustenance to imagination.” They are “human beings’ greatest form of communication. They walk in tandem with science and play, and best describe what it is to be human.”

D’Amboise said his career began in Washington Heights, New York, when his mother took him along to his sister’s dance lessons!  He fell under the lure of dance and was soon in the thick of learning to dance. He called his teacher, Madame Seda, “brilliant” and the one who “cajoled” him into mastering dance.

Within just a year, at the age of eight, D’Amboise was accepted at the School of American Ballet, under the tutelage of George Balanchine, Anatola Oboukhoff and Pierre Vladimiroff. His first role was one chosen by Balanchine for him—the role of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  From there, he performed other children’s roles until, at age 15, he officially became a member of the New York City Ballet.

His European debut came just one year later in London at Covent Garden. He has since danced many roles, some of which were created for him by Balanchine in such ballets as “Stars and Stripes,” “Episodes,” “Figures In The Carpet,” “Jewels,” the “Raymonda Variations,” and “Meditation.” He even managed a short leave of absence from the New York City Ballet to take on a role in the film “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.”

Dancing in various venues around the world certainly adds its charm to performing, but D’Amboise admitted that, among his favorite dance venues, were the Paris Opera House, and Philadelphia’s Academy of Music because of their stages and their rake inclination from the horizontal, which gives audiences the best views of the presentation onstage.

D’Amboise continued his career with New York City Ballet until one month before turning age 50, he said.

He has choreographed nearly twenty works commissioned for the New York City Ballet, and is the vital core of the National Dance Institute.

“Ballet is a universal language,” D’Amboise said. “It is a universal art form that can utilize other art forms, but always, it has to do with bettering.” That “bettering” is not only on the part of the dancer striving for more skill and interpretation, but also for those who watch and experience ballet. What he termed as the “art of the aerial” and the “better than ordinary” inspirations of ballet create a feeling not of superiority, but “just elevated” to strive to be better in every way, he said.  “That’s what makes it ballet—the use of dance, art and theatre for betterment,” he said, adding, “The highest expression is classical ballet. It best expresses what ballet is.”

D’Amboise had high praise for dance in musicals and film. He said they “integrate plot with dance and song in an amalgamation of the art forms.” He is particularly a fan of “Chicago,” “West Side Story,” “Oklahoma,” and “Carousel.”

Of Balanchine, d’Amboise said he was a gentleman of “great manners,” considerate and polite to all. Balanchine also had the teacher’s knack of “seeing” what a dancer could accomplish. “He saw me as him on the stage,” D’Amboise said, and instilled a creed to “be true to the glorious work and put yourself in it” when dancing.

For dancers everywhere, D’Amboise said, “Go as far as you can go,” and enjoy “the glory of the repertoire. It’s always changing!  God says, ‘Come dance with Me!’”

Upon receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Choreography Festival, d’Amboise quipped to the audience that a ballerina once told him that he “danced like a Prince, but bowed like a peasant!” Hearing that, he immediately took her advice to heart about the “proper” way to bow—humbly, slowly, and acknowledging the audience to the front, to each side, AND to the balconies. “Don’t forget the ‘Aw, shucks’ look,” he advised, with a glint in his eye and lowering his head to demonstrate, earning the laughter of the audience at the festival.

This year’s festival winners were: Division 1 Grand Prize—Danielle Agami for “Sally Meets Stu,” danced by the Ateg Dance Company; with Second Prize to Jeffrey Duffy for “Open It To Speak,” performed by the Language Company. The Paid Engagement Prize went to Lauren Edson for “I Hit The Ground,” performed by Lauren Edson and dancers. Division 2’s Grand Prize went to Francisco Gella for “Concentric Harmonies,” danced by the Colabo Youth Dance Collective, with Second Prize to Dana Metz for “After The Storm,” performed by Chaz Buzan and Teisha Metz.

Judges included Margo Apostolos, Barbara Arms, Jennifer Backhaus, Larry Billman, Kevin Carlisle, Jodie Gates, Carl Jablonski, Molly Lynch, Donald McKayle, Jamie Nichols, and Michele Roberge.