Face to Face: Christopher d'Amboise

In the dance world, you can’t get much closer to royalty than Christopher d’Amboise. Yet even with a father like Jacques (the former New York City Ballet superstar) and a sister like Charlotte (most recently, a Tony nominee for A Chorus Line), d’Amboise has had no trouble casting his own shadow as an often category-defying dancer, choreographer and director. Frequently and effortlessly slipping between ballet and musical theater, he has choreographed, by his own count, some 80 works for such companies as NYCB, San Francisco Ballet and the Netherlands’ Het National Ballet, as well as original musicals.

A dancer since childhood, d’Amboise studied at School of American Ballet before entering New York City Ballet, where he shone in works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Despite rising swiftly through the ranks to principal, however, he left NYCB at age 27 to focus on choreography and pursue such wide-ranging projects as running his own contemporary ballet company, Off Center Ballet, directing Pennsylvania Ballet and collaborating with actor (and brother-in-law) Terrence Mann.

D’Amboise is also on faculty at New York City’s Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway.

DT caught up with the busy choreographer this July, as he was workshopping a portion from his latest musical-in-progress with the primarily college-age participants of Broadway Theatre Project, the prestigious musical theater training program held once a year in Tampa, Florida. Here, he outlines the satisfaction in helping dancers and actors find their expressivity—and the new workshops he’s developed for high schools and colleges across the country to do just that.

DanceTeacher: Tell us what you’re working on now with Broadway Theatre Project.

Christopher d’Amboise: We’re working on a number from a new show that I’m writing, and it involves the combination of text, song, dance and visual storytelling in an integrated way. I find when you go to the movies, the structures of storytelling are incredibly complex. Sometimes they’ll tell a story backwards, or they jump—boom, boom, boom, and you understand what happened. But in musical theater, we’re still primarily sticking to an old formula: a text scene, followed by a song, followed by a dance. I’m more interested in mixing these media in a way that allows the most effective one to move to the forefront when needed.

DT: So you’re sort of playing with the form of the musical?

CD: Right. In terms of teaching, there’s a very specific technique that I’ve developed over the years. It’s called “Moving Story,” and basically, it’s a course that’s designed to teach dancers at any level—whether first-rate dancers, dance enthusiasts or even non-dancers, like in theater departments I’ve worked with—how to really speak with dance. I just did a piece with these fantastic, highly trained dancers, and I said, “Okay, you’ve got it; now make the steps your own.” And they looked at me, confused, and said, “Well, how do we do that?” 

That’s why I developed Moving Story workshop. It’s a method that literally uses vocalizing—talking while you’re dancing—to connect to steps. It’s concerned with three things: one, the ability to present dance as clearly as though you were speaking, which is a technique I learned while working with Balanchine; two: analyzing and presenting what the story of the dance is, which is something I learned from Robbins; and then my own fascination with the emotional power in abstract movement.

When I finish one of these workshops, it’s always so moving how dancers suddenly can express themselves in ways they’ve never done before. They were always so hung up on, “Well, I don’t have the perfect feet for ballet,” or they had their blocks— everybody does.

DT: Can you walk me through a workshop?

CD: We have different versions depending on whether I’m teaching them at dance departments at high schools or colleges. The one I like to do most is a 10-course workshop, of about an hour-and-a-half to two hours per class. Initially, I give them a vocabulary to learn. The first step is to make the steps comfortable, so we give the movements names that are everyday things—like, this step is like bowling, and this step is like ping pong. That helps students feel like they really own the steps. And then there’s an analytical process as to what the important steps are. What is the emotional context of each? How do we start and how do we end? And then they can make decisions as to which emotions they want to stress more. Then, how do you punctuate: When do you put a comma, a period, a question mark? What is a question mark in dance? 

By the time the thing is done, they’ve created their own dance. One of the things that’s really unique, too, is the speaking part. They actually have to speak while they do the dances: “I want you to look at this. Nope, don’t look at that! Look over here, I’m falling! I get up, oh my God!” It ends up being this hilarious monologue that, if you took separately would make no sense, but allows them to really communicate exactly what they want.

DT: I bet that’s quite difficult for a lot of dancers.

CD: Ironically, the better trained the ballet dancers, the harder time they have with this because they don’t like talking! They freeze up, but once they get used to it, it changes their dance dramatically. That is the difference between a technician and an artist. In a big way, this class teaches you to be an artist and to use movement to say something personal.

DT: How did you start choreographing?

CD: Well, I was crazy fortunate to have Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine as my teachers! Jerry started working with me when I was 9. He was working on a ballet called Water Mill, which was very experimental at the time, and suddenly I’m called to go to the main rehearsal hall at New York State Theater—just me and Jerry, alone in a room. Of course, nowadays that would never happen! And we basically played. He just wanted me to make up movement: “Imagine you’re on a beach, and you’re just sort of drawing in the sand, and let the movement grow, or imagine . . .”

Jerry was the reason I got into thinking choreographically, because he loved working with me. Even when I got into New York City Ballet, he would call me to rehearse something and work out a solo or pas de deux that ultimately I would teach to Baryshnikov. I was only 17, I wasn’t ready to do them, but he liked working with me because I got the way he worked. So I would start guessing in advance what he would want. He’d say, “Here, try this, 1, 2, 3,” and I would do 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 

DT: Why did you eventually leave City Ballet?

CD: I left City Ballet partially because, after Balanchine died, I was restless. I had so many ideas choreographically and I needed to find them. When I stopped in 1987, I was a principal dancer and had all the opportunities I could have wanted, but I realize now in hindsight that I’d been working toward discovering this process that is more than just doing contemporary ballet, yet is also not a Broadway show. It’s really a combination of these forms, and shifting the use of medium depending on what makes sense. That’s what’s fascinating to me: to be able to use visual and choreographic storytelling as an equal to text in a theatrical context.

DT: Do you see yourself taking on an artistic director role again?

CD: What I miss most about directing is training a group of dancers to be like a SWAT team, to be just extraordinary with the kind of style that I want. And I’m good at that and I love to watch dancers blossom. But I like being able to jump from project to project based on what’s really resonating with me.

DT:What was it like growing up in a dance family? 

CD:I don’t know, it was all very undramatic. It was just what we all did, and there was no pressure to do it or not do it. My brother and one sister stopped dancing; my other sister, Charlotte, of course, is on Broadway at the moment. But it was actually fairly unremarkable that way. It just seemed like that’s what you did. I was also a fierce athlete, which I think dispelled any problems with other kids—I was always winning everything! I’m sure the dance helped. DT

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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