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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