Lifetime Achievement Award: Always a Dancer

Back before that velvet-lined, aristocratic name, Jacques d’Amboise—born Joseph Jacques Ahearn—was a rough-and-tumble Irish-American kid growing up in Washington Heights. But his mother, a pint-sized French-Canadian force of nature, had loftier visions. She changed the family name to d’Amboise—her maiden name—and bartered her chestnut-stuffed chicken in exchange for her children’s music lessons. Ballet classes were part of her plan, and she brought 7-year-old Jacques to a local ballet mistress. He showed aptitude, and within a year he was hopping on the subway to take his place at the barre of the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the fledgling New York City Ballet.


D’Amboise was a quick study. At 9, he caught Balanchine’s eye and was given the part of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his mother made his costume. He was a company member by 15, and by 17, he had dropped out of high school to become a principal.


For the next 30 years, he held audiences in thrall with his explosive, athletic style. Yet d’Amboise was a gentleman, possessing a courtly, even reverent attitude toward his partners; he gave a little piece of his heart to each of them.


My first exposure to d’Amboise came in the 1970s. I was part of the army of ballet girls, all bony shoulders, tight buns and heavy bags, who paraded along Broadway, Seventh and Eighth Avenues, where so many of the city’s studios were located. My studio was on West 56th Street, and after class, my friends and I would head to City Center or Lincoln Center, where cheap student-rush tickets were available.


A veritable cornucopia of balletic genius spilled out before us. Although I usually reserved my worship for the female dancers, something about d’Amboise stirred me. I found him scintillating in Jewels and buoyant in Stars and Stripes. When I learned he had made movies in the 1950s, I hunted for showings at revival houses and watched him ignite the screen as Ephraim in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and as the Starlight Carnival Barker in Carousel.


But it wasn’t until decades later that I actually met d’Amboise. Although retired from professional dancing, he was in the midst of a spectacular second act, as founder and chief ambassador for the National Dance Institute.


I was nervous about meeting my girlhood idol. But as soon as I walked through the door of his townhouse on 71st Street in Manhattan, I was instantly at ease. Jacques—as he insisted I call him—was all smiles, urging me to sit down, offering to take my coat, fetch me water, wine or a steaming bowl of his homemade soup. I was there to interview him for a magazine, and I discovered that the fire he exuded onstage and on-screen was every bit as bright in person. He introduced me to two of his four children—Charlotte and Christopher, both dancers themselves—and to his wife, Carolyn George. They had been partners on Balanchine’s stage, fallen in love and married. But when the children came—four in all—she retired and became a photographer; it was Carolyn who took the photos to accompany the piece I wrote.


Fast forward to 2010, when I was assigned to interview him on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, I Was a Dancer. To my amazement, he remembered our earlier meeting, and we easily fell to talking if not like old friends, then certainly like very friendly acquaintances. He shared not only details from the book, but also things he had left out, like his wife’s death two years earlier. He spoke movingly about his years with Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein and Jerome Robbins; he waxed poetic, literally; he recited lines of Persian poetry—when discussing his wife, or the ballerinas with whom he had danced.


As the conversation wound down, d’Amboise began telling me about a snippet of ballet history that linked ballet movements to those drawn from fencing, and he grew animated as he described their connection. And then, compelled by his excitement, this 76-year-old man rose from the table, where his café au lait sat cooling, and began to demonstrate—that is, to dance. Although dressed unassumingly in a zip-front sweater, slacks and sneakers, everything about him was elegant, confident and poised.


It struck me then that the title I Was a Dancer was not accurate. What that moment revealed to me, and to the other astonished, delighted witnesses to his impromptu performance, was that this man is a dancer—and as long as he draws breath, he will remain one.


Read more about Jacques d'Amboise in "Lifetime Achievement Award: Jacques d'Amboise" and "Lifetime Achievement Award: Q & A"


Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of three novels, including The Four Temperaments.


Photo by Martha Swope, ©New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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