From scrappy youth to Balanchine prodigy to founder of the National Dance Institute
Jacques d'Amboise hugging Ellen Weinstein and surrounded by NDI teachers
In the dance world, Jacques d’Amboise is a living legend. He was a tough street kid who rose to the rank of New York City Ballet principal as George Balanchine’s protégé, choreographed several ballets for the company and wrote and directed for film and television. He has authored several books on dance and remains a leader in dance outreach and education.
During his performance career, d’Amboise originated more Balanchine roles than any other dancer. Among them are some of Mr. B’s most iconic and classically American ballets: Who Cares?, Jewels, Stars and Stripes and Raymonda Variations. D’Amboise was perhaps most celebrated for the title role of Apollo (though he did not help create the part), captivating audiences with his energy, handsome features and unmistakably cool and commanding presence. Ironically, Balanchine summarized the theme of this ballet as: “A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art.”
D’Amboise’s foray into teaching began in the late ’60s, while he was still dancing professionally. His first class gathered on Saturdays at the School of American Ballet and was made up of a group of young boys, including d’Amboise’s two sons.
At age 50, nearly 35 years after joining NYCB, d’Amboise left the company to fully invest himself in dance education. In 1976, he established the National Dance Institute with the goal of providing children, regardless of financial status or background, the opportunity to experience the arts. Today, NDI’s free programming annually reaches over 40,000 New York City public school students and provides additional after-school programming, teacher training (with a codified method of pedagogy) and national residencies. NDI currently operates 12 schools and will open another in Shanghai in September.
“What keeps him going is his incredible thirst to continue learning,” says NDI artistic director Ellen Weinstein, who first met d’Amboise while studying at SUNY Purchase, where he was dean of the dance department. “It’s genuine and real. And you feel it. You’re inspired. And that’s the lesson for the kids––to believe in something 100 percent and share that with others.”
D’Amboise’s sense of humanity and agelessness has allowed many to find inspiration through his work. “He believes that every moment is the most important moment,” says Weinstein. “And he sees the possibilities of excellence in everyone he meets.”
His latest endeavor, the memoir I Was a Dancer, recounts his incredible life in a manner every bit as lively as the man himself.
With a Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Arts, a MacArthur fellowship and multiple honorary degrees and doctorates to his name already, DT honors the contributions of d’Amboise with another accolade—the 2011 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award.
Photo by Matthew Murphy