Jacques d’Amboise, who shattered stereotypes about male dancers as he helped popularize ballet in America and became one of the most prominent male stars at the New York City Ballet, died Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
His daughter, actress and dancer Charlotte d’Amboise, said the cause was complications of a stroke.
Mr. d’Amboise embodied the ideal of an American style that combined the astonishing elegance of Fred Astaire with the classicism of the noble dancer. He was the first male star to come from City Ballet’s affiliated School of American Ballet, joining the company̵
He had 24 roles choreographed for himself and became the lead interpreter of the title role in George Balanchine’s usual “Apollo” before retiring from the company in 1984, a few months afraid of his 50th birthday. He also choreographed 17 works for City Ballet as well as many pieces for students at the National Dance Institute, a program he founded and directed.
Mr. d’Amboise’s energy, athleticism, infectious smile (which critic Arlene Croce once compared to Cheshire Cat’s) and the boy next door appealed to the audience, increasing the ballet’s appeal to boys in a world of tutu and pink toe shoes.
He also helped bring ballet to a wider audience, danced on Ed Sullivan’s show (then called “Toast of the Town”), played important roles in several 1950s film musicals, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Carousel” and appeared in appeals to “Americana” ballets, such as Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station” and Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” He directed, choreographed and wrote a number of dance films in the early 1980s.
Although Mr. D’Amboise was never considered a virtuoso dancer, his repertoire was demanding and unusually wide, ranging from the princely “Apollo” to the eerie Head Cowboy of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony.” He was one of the company’s best partners, cavalier to ballerinas Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell, among many others.
Mr. d’Amboise, Clive Barnes, wrote in The New York Times in 1976, “is not just a dancer, he is an institution.”
Mr. d’Amboise was amazed when Balanchine invited him to join the City Ballet in 1949, a year after the company began its first season. He was 15 years old. “I can not do it, I have to finish school,” he reminded to think in his autobiography, “I was a dancer” (2011). His father advised him to become a stage actor, but his mother was very pleased with the idea, and Mr. D’Amboise left school to dance professionally, as did his sister Madeleine, known professionally as Ninette d’Amboise.
Although Balanchine was generally more interested in creating roles for his female dancers than for his male artists, Mr. d’Amboise himself with many key roles that Balanchine created in ballets such as “Western Symphony” (1954), “Stars and Stripes” (1958)), “Jewels” (1967), “Who Cares” (1970) and “Robert Schumanns Davidsbundlertanze “(1980). Early in his career, he also created roles in ballets by John Cranko and Frederick Ashton and won praise for them. (“Balanchine was looked at” about the Cranko Commission, he wrote in his autobiography.)
In a 2018 interview, City Ballet dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring described the qualities that Mr. D’Amboise had embodied as a dancer: “There is this machismo that is sometimes required on stage – the bravura, the buzzing, the confidence, and we all have to learn to cultivate it, and yet it is such a huge canon of work. Within this there are poets and dreamers and animals. Jacques is a reminder that all this can be contained in a body. ”
Mr. d’Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn on July 28, 1934 in Dedham, Mass., a suburb of Boston, to Andrew and Georgiana (d’Amboise) Ahearn. His father’s parents were immigrants from Galway, Ireland; his mother was French Canadian. In search of work, his parents moved the family to New York City, where his father found a job as an elevator operator at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The family settled in Washington Heights, Upper Manhattan. To keep Jacques, as he became known, out of the street, his mother enrolled him at the age of 7 and his sister Madeleine in Madam Seda’s ballet classes at 181st Street.
After six months, the siblings moved to the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Energetic and athletic, Jacques immediately took on the physical challenges of ballet and, after less than a year, was chosen by Balanchine for the role of Puck in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
He wrote in his autobiography about how his mother’s decision had changed his life: “What an extraordinary thing for a street boy with friends in gangs. Half grew up to be cops and the other half gangsters – and I became a ballet dancer! ”
In 1946, his mother persuaded his father to change the family name from Ahearn to d’Amboise. Her explanation, Mr. D’Amboise, wrote in “I Was a Dancer,” was that the name was aristocratic and French and “sounds better for ballet.”
After coming to the City Ballet, Mr. d’Amboise soon landed solo roles, including the lead role in Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station,” which led to an invitation from film director Stanley Donen to star in the role of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954).
In 1956, he married City Ballet soloist Carolyn George, who died in 2009. In addition to his daughter Charlotte, he survived their two sons, George and Christopher, a choreographer and former City Ballet lead dancer; another daughter, Catherine d’Amboise (she and Charlotte are twins); and six grandchildren. Two brothers and his sister died before him.
Mr. d’Amboise starred in two 1956 films – “Carousel,” starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, and Michael Curtiz’s “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” But he remained committed to ballet and Balanchine.
“People said, ‘You can be the next Gene Kelly,'” d’Amboise said in a 2011 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I did not know if I could act, but I knew I could be a great ballet dancer, and Balanchine laid the rug out for me.”
His faith was rewarded when in 1957 Balanchine revived his “Apollo”, the ballet that had marked his first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, in 1928 and cast Mr. D’Amboise in the title role. For this production, Balanchine removed the original sealed costume, dressed Mr. d’Amboise in tights and a simple cloth draped over one shoulder.
It was a turning point in his career; dance, wrote Mr. d’Amboise, “became so much more interesting, an odyssey against excellence.” The role, he felt, was too his story, as Balanchine had explained it to him: “A wild, untamed youth teaches nobility through art.”
Over the next 27 years, Mr. D’Amboise continued to be a regular member of the City Ballet, creating roles and performing in some of Balanchine’s most important ballets, including “Concerto Barocco”, “Meditation”, “Violin Concerto” and ” Movements for piano and violin. ”
Encouraged by Balanchine, he also choreographed regularly for the company, though reviews of his work were mostly lukewarm. He wrote in his autobiography that both Balanchine and Kirstein had assured him that he would lead the City Ballet one day, but Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins took over the company after Balanchine’s death in 1983.
Mr. d’Amboise seemed to have retired to this result: He withdrew from performance the following year and turned his attention to the National Dance Institute, which takes dance into public schools and which he founded in 1976.
The institute grew out of Saturday morning ballet lessons for boys, which Mr. D’Amboise began teaching in 1964, motivated by the fact that his two sons were to learn to dance without being the only boys in the class. The classes were expanded to include girls and moved into several public schools.
Now the goal is to offer free classes to everyone, regardless of the child’s background or abilities. Today, the institute teaches thousands of New York children ages 9 to 14 and is affiliated with 13 dance institutes around the world. The institute, which is headquartered in Harlem, where Mr. d’Amboise lived, was profiled in Emile Ardolino’s 1983 Oscar-winning documentary, “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin ‘.”
“This second chapter brought something more satisfying than my career as an individual artist,” wrote Mr. D’Amboise in his autobiography. He tells the story of a little boy who, after many attempts, managed to master a dance sequence, and wrote: “He was about to discover that he could take control of his body, and from that he can learn to take control of his life. “
For his contribution to art education, Mr. d’Amboise a 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, a 1995 Kennedy Honors Award and a New York Governor’s Award among many other honors.
He continued to think of himself as a dancer all his life, but he was also an avid New Yorker. When asked in an article in The Times in 2018 where he would like his ashes scattered, he replied, “Spread me in Times Square or the Belasco Theater.”