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DVD Review

Jacques d'Amboise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer

reviewed by Leland Windreich

August 2007

At the age of five, Jacques D’Amboise, his parents and three siblings were rendered homeless when his father lost his job and were obliged to live in the streets around New York’s Washington Square.  Nuns in a nearby convent rescued them and afforded temporary shelter.  Jacques and his sister slept in a cellar where the coal was stored. When his Irish-Bostonian father found temporary work, the family moved to Staten Island, ultimately resettling in Manhattan when he found a more stable position as an elevator operator.  Mother Georgette, a French-Canadian with a passion for culture, was determined that her children have exposure to all of the arts and made available to the two youngest, all the free and inexpensive amenities that New York had to provide. A neighborhood dancing school offered free classes for boys; so Jacques tagged along with his sister and discovered that he loved to perform.  Their teacher recognized the potential of the D’Amboise children and dispatched them to the School of American Ballet for the kind of professional training she was not prepared to offer.

Ten years later, Jacques was coached on the etiquette of tea service by George Balanchine in preparation for an audience with the Queen of England when New York City Ballet made its London debut. The story of his progress and the glorious career he enjoyed as an internationally acclaimed ballet dancer is recalled in a 38-minute interview filmed in 2006 to accompany the anthology of films collected for this delightful and inspirational DVD.

At 72 D’Amboise-the-speaker is as gracious, facile and articulate as he was as a ballet performer.  He tells how he dropped out of public school to pursue an education in which his mentors were George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins and Igor Stravinsky, and his associates were celebrated dancers such as Andre Eglevsky, Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil Leclercq. His performances all over the world have enabled him to say “hello” and “goodbye” in twelve languages.  At age 15, he had a major role created on him by Frederick Ashton in a ballet called “Picnic at Tintagel”, and at the premiere,  designer Cecil Beaton helped him apply his makeup.  Before he was 20 he was partnering some of the finest ballerinas in America and assuming major roles in new creations of George Balanchine.  Dancing assignments in two major Hollywood films and frequent appearances in the popular TV variety shows of the era introduced him to new media.  When he retired from dancing, he was determined to repay his community for all the bounties it had given him.  A modest program to teach dancing to boys in a New York public school where his own children had studied, ultimately grew into a city-wide project that became the foundation called the National Dance Institute, with chapters all over the United States and seminal projects in several foreign lands.  For his remarkable career as the first premiere danseur produced at the New York City Ballet and all the accomplishments of his projects to make dancing an essential issue in the lives of youth, D’Amboise was honored at the Kennedy Center Awards and has received ten honorary doctoral degrees.

The seven episodes of this DVD were drawn from television broadcasts, filmed live between l955 and 1965 for Radio Canada, the Bell Telephone Hour and  Max Lieberman Presents.  There are three complete ballets and four pas de deux from longer works.  A performance of Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station” which aired in 1954, shows D’Amboise in his first major role at City Ballet, one which opened the path to his Hollywood dancing in Michael Kidd’s ballets for ‘”Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and a year later in “Carousel.”  Balanchine, he tells us in the interview, immediately insisted on writing his contract with the ballet, stipulating that he would be free to work in films for only six months each year.

This piquant American ballet with music by Virgil Thomson is presented in a grainy black and white videotape, and the imaginative set by Paul Cadmus has been replaced by a barren, infinite landscape.  Cavorting with D’Amboise as Mac, the gas station attendant, are ballet colleagues Janet Reed, Todd Bolender and seven soloists from early NYCB days.  D’Amboise remembers the handicaps of having to dance on cement floors in this and other TV assignments, and the lack of any provision in the cramped studios for a proper ballet warm-up.  Dancers would pay dearly in early career curtailment in years to come for these circumstances.

D’Amboise dances with one of his most constant partners, Melissa Hayden, in three color fragments:  A touchingly poignant “Love Duet” from Todd Bolender’s “The Still Point” serves to contradict the attitude prevalent in the early NYCB era that Balanchine dancers were driven to conceal the emotional content of their dancing.  The robust pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” presents the couple at the height of their technical capabilities, while a sentimental Christmas trifle choreographed by D’Amboise to the “Snow Pas de Deux” from ‘The Nutcracker” for the Bell Telephone Hour in 1965 demonstrates the deep affinity enjoyed in a career-long partnership.

Most remarkable are three ballets that offer glimpses of his collaborations with iconic ballerinas.   In Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun,” D’Amboise is coupled with the legendary Tanaquil LeClercq in a precious performance filmed by Radio Canada in 1955.  Very little footage exists to demonstrate the sophistication and sensitivity of her unique style, one which the young D’Amboise complemented with innate skill.  In George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” three revered ballerinas join D’Amboise in a 1960 video recording of the master’s first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. Viewers can now observe the special gifts of Jillana, Diana Adams and Francia Russell in their prime and an intensity that these disparately shaped dancers brought to a glorious single-minded dedication.

A brilliant rendition of the Black Swan Pas de Deux from “Swan Lake’ made in color for the Bell Telephone Hour in 1960 offers a statement of D’Amboise’s stylistic and technical gifts in a role far outside his New York City Ballet repertoire.  Performing as the perfect danseur noble of the classical ballet genre, he partners the ebullient Lupe Serrano, who reigned for 20 years as prima ballerina of the rival American Ballet Theatre.  It was Serrano who became the darling of ABT’s 1966 tour of Russia, where local ballerinas pleaded with her to coach them in her execution of pirouettes.  Long retired and, like many great dancers of her era, she is unknown today to current ballet-goers.  This thrilling collection of glimpses into the work of a great American male dancer offers a precious bonus in preserving the art of an extraordinary peer.

Video Artists International DVD 4377.  2006.  $34.95.

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