In 1957, George Balanchine, co-founder and artistic director of New York City Ballet, revived his "Apollo," first created in 1928 for the Ballets Russes with an original score by Igor Stravinsky. The choreographer had summed up the piece as "a wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art."
That description could easily apply to dancer Jacques d'Amboise, who joined City Ballet at 15, was cast as Apollo eight years later and had 24 roles made for him during his three-plus decades with the troupe.
"That role changed my life as a dancer," D'Amboise said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I'd been an uneducated street boy from Washington Heights, and suddenly I had Stravinsky playing music for me, Cecil Beaton putting on my makeup, Balanchine choreographing for me, and I was dancing with greats like Maria Tallchief and Suzanne Farrell."
D'Amboise had been in town promoting his memoir, "I Was a Dancer." Teeming with dish (literally, including a recipe for Balanchine's favorite borscht) and vivid details that provide an inside peek into the coming of age of City Ballet, the hefty tome has been garnering glowing reviews, the New York Times calling it "highly engaging."
Now a spry 76 with two artificial knees, D'Amboise, born Joseph Jacques Ahearn, has lost none of his joie de vivre. His memory is also razor-sharp, with conversation covering the balletic waterfront and beyond.
Indeed, at 17, D'Amboise was in San Francisco dancing Lew Christensen's "Filling Station" when Hollywood came calling. "I hit 13 pirouettes," he said, "which I had done in class, but doing it onstage with a follow spot in your eyes — that was something. Stanley Donen and Jack Cummings accosted me in the wings and said, 'We want you in our movie.'"
The film was the Donen-directed musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." He went on to play one of the brothers, Ephraim. Asking Balanchine to oversee the contract, D'Amboise was allowed to make one movie a year during a six-month period; the other six months were for ballet.
D'Amboise quickly realized he was no thespian. "People said, 'You could be the next Gene Kelly; he's getting old.' I didn't know if I could act, but I knew I could be a great ballet dancer, and Balanchine put out the carpet for me. Ballet became the ocean I swam in for the next 30 years."
And through his virile interpretations of roles, including Balanchine's "Western Symphony" and "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," D'Amboise gave rise to the male ballet dancer in the States.
Speaking by phone, Anna Kisselgoff, former chief dance critic of the New York Times, explained: "Jacques played a very important role in popularizing ballet in America. He wasn't the best classical virtuoso, but we all saw him as a magnificent partner. Mainly his role was as the all-American boy whose masculine presence and exuberance helped make dancing for boys acceptable in America."
Allegra Kent, who danced Terpsichore to his Apollo, called him "swashbuckling," adding, "I got to dance with him in so many roles, but in 'Apollo,' he brought something special. He was like a god, born out of the rocks, sort of raw and strange in his emotions. He was probably the greatest Apollo ever, because it suited him so well."
It's also rare for a dancer to have performed "Apollo" with Stravinsky in the pit conducting. D'Amboise recalled being with the troupe in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962, thinking the ending was too slow: "The next morning I tell Stravinsky, 'Maestro, the coda was so slow, is that what we can expect tonight?'
"Stravinsky says, 'Oh, Jacques, the music is 30 minutes and the coda is near the end. I'm 80 years old and tired — my arm moves slower. Do you mind?' What a putdown," D'Amboise said, "but how gracious."
D'Amboise admitted he was spoiled as a dancer, with Balanchine, especially, letting him do whatever he wanted. Surprisingly, this did not include running City Ballet after the choreographer's death in 1983.
"I never thought it or wanted it, and I heard it all my life," D'Amboise said. "I was on this trek — trying to dance better every performance, seeing how far I could take the art of ballet before injuries and old age curtailed me."
The job would eventually go to Peter Martins, who first danced with the troupe in 1967 and then co-helmed the company with Jerome Robbins from 1983 to 1989 before assuming sole directorship in 1990. Martins, by email, wrote of D'Amboise's contribution to American dance and of his "extraordinary work with young people, which speaks for itself, as does his place in the history of the New York City Ballet, where he created countless roles in some of Balanchine's most iconic works."
Calling it a day
On the cusp of age 50, he decided to hang up his ballet shoes. It was 1984, Balanchine had been dead a year, and D'Amboise was waiting in the wings to perform with Farrell. "I didn't want to go onstage — the first time since I was 8," he recalled. "So I said, 'Mr. B., this is for you.' Afterwards we bowed, I went upstairs and threw my shoes in the wastebasket."
But D'Amboise's life remained full. In 1956 he had married fellow City Ballet dancer-turned-photographer Carolyn George (she died in 2009 after a long illness), and the dance gene proved dominant in two of the couple's four children: Charlotte d'Amboise is a Broadway favorite and two-time Tony nominee; older brother Christopher d'Amboise, also a Tony nominee, not only danced with City Ballet under Balanchine but has choreographed some 50 works for troupes around the world.
D'Amboise has also not had idle feet. In 1976, he founded the National Dance Institute, an initiative that's helped more than 2 million children through partnerships with New York City schools and residencies nationwide and abroad. (California Dance Institute, founded in 2001 by former Joffrey Ballet dancer Carole Valleskey, is also thriving.)
And while NDI moves to its first home in Harlem this summer, and D'Amboise is honored Sunday with the Fred and Adele Astaire Lifetime Achievement award (honoring excellence in dance and choreography on Broadway and in film), d'Amboise has his own third-act coda planned: He's writing a thriller about sex and murder set around a ballerina and the premiere of Balanchine's "Jewels."
"It's going to be true, yet it's fiction," D'Amboise said slyly. "I'm sequestering myself for six weeks and doing it because it's in me — making love, the ballet scenes. I know all this."