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Jacques d’Amboise, 86, dies;  The city’s first charismatic ballet star

Jacques d’Amboise, who shattered stereotypes about male dancers by helping popularize ballet in America and becoming one of the New York City Ballet’s most distinguished male stars, died at his Manhattan home on Sunday. He was 86 years old.

Her daughter, actress and dancer Charlotte d’Amboise, said the cause was complications from a stroke.

M. d’Amboise embodied the ideal of an all-American style which combined the nonchalant elegance of Fred Astaire with the classicism of the noble dancer. He was the first male star to emerge from the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, joining the corporate body at the age of 15 in 1949, and his presence and versatility have been central to the identity of the company during its first decades.

He had 24 choreographed roles for him and became the lead performer in the title role in George Balanchine’s seminal “Apollo” before retiring from the company in 1984, just months away from his 50th birthday. He has also choreographed 17 works for City Ballet, as well as numerous pieces for students of the National Dance Institute, a program he founded and directed.

The energy, athleticism, contagious smile of Mr. d’Amboise (whom critic Arlene Croce once likened to the Cheshire Cat) and the allure of the boy next door drew him in on the audience and have increased the appeal of ballet to boys in a world of tutus and pink-toed shoes. .

He also helped bring ballet to a wider audience, dancing on Ed Sullivan’s show (then called “Toast of the Town”), playing prominent roles in several 1950s musicals, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ”and“ Carousel ”, and performing in appealing“ Americana ”ballets, such as“ Filling Station ”by Lew Christensen and“ Who Cares? ” de Balanchine He also directed, choreographed and wrote a number of dance films in the early 1980s.

Although M. d’Amboise was never considered a virtuoso dancer, his repertoire was demanding and exceptionally broad, ranging from the princely “Apollo” to the head cowboy swagger of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony”. He was one of the company’s best partners, ballerina rider Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell, among others.

M. d’Amboise, wrote Clive Barnes in The New York Times in 1976, “is not just a dancer, he is an institution”.

M. d’Amboise was astonished when Balanchine invited him to join the City Ballet in 1949, a year after the start of the company’s first season. He was 15 years old. “I can’t do it, I have to finish my studies,” he recalls, thinking, in his autobiography, “I was a dancer” (2011). His father advised him to become a machinist, but his mother was delighted with the idea, and M. d’Amboise left school to dance professionally, as did his sister Madeleine, known professionally as Ninette d’Amboise. .

Although Balanchine is generally more interested in creating roles for his dancers than for his male performers, M. d’Amboise identifies with many of the key roles created by Balanchine in ballets such as “Western Symphony” (1954), ” Stars and Stripes ”(1958),“ Jewels ”(1967),“ Who Cares ”(1970) and“ Robert Schumann’s 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 irritated” about the Cranko commission, he writes in his autobiography.)

In an interview in 2018, City Ballet dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring described the qualities that Mr. d’Amboise had embodied as a dancer: “There is this machismo that sometimes takes place on stage – this bravery, this boast, that confidence, and all of us have to learn how to cultivate that, and yet it’s a huge canon of work. Within it there are poets, dreamers and animals. Jacques reminds us that all of this can be contained in one body.

Mr. d’Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn on July 28, 1934, in Dedham, Massachusetts, 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 was called, off the streets, his mother enrolled him, at age 7, and his sister Madeleine in Madame Seda’s ballet classes at 181st Street.

After six months, the siblings joined 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 he 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 changed his life: “What an amazing thing for a boy on the streets 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 surname from Ahearn to d’Amboise. His explanation, writes M. d’Amboise in “I was a dancer”, was that the name was aristocratic and French and “sounds better for ballet.”

After joining the City Ballet, M. d’Amboise quickly danced solo roles, including the lead role in Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station”, which led to an invitation from director Stanley Donen to join the cast of ” Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ”(1954).

In 1956, he married City Ballet soloist Carolyn George, who died in 2009. Besides his daughter Charlotte, he is survived by their two sons, George and Christopher, choreographer and former principal dancer of the City Ballet; another daughter, Catherine d’Amboise (she and Charlotte are twins); and six grandchildren. Two brothers and his sister died before him.

Mr. d’Amboise appeared in lead roles in two films in 1956 – “Carousel”, alongside Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, and “The Best Things in Life are Free” by Michael Curtiz. But he remained attached to ballet and Balanchine.

“People said, ‘You could be the next Gene Kelly,’” Mr. d’Amboise said in a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t know if I could perform, but I knew I could be a great ballet dancer, and Balanchine handed me the mat.

His faith was rewarded when, in 1957, Balanchine relaunched his “Apollo”, the ballet which had marked his first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, in 1928, and cast M. d’Amboise in the title role. For this production, Balanchine stripped the original elaborate costumes, dressing M. d’Amboise in tights and a simple fabric draped over one shoulder.

It was a turning point in his career; dance, wrote M. d’Amboise, “has become so much more interesting, an odyssey towards excellence. The role, according to him, was also his history, as Balanchine had explained to him: “A wild and untamed youth learns nobility through art.”

Over the next 27 years, M. d’Amboise continued to be a staunch member of the City Ballet, creating roles and appearing in some of Balanchine’s most important ballets including “Concerto Barocco”, “Méditation”, “Concerto for violin ”and“ Movements for piano and violin. “

Encouraged by Balanchine, he also choreographed regularly for the company, although reviews of his work were mostly lukewarm. He wrote in his autobiography that Balanchine and Kirstein assured him that he would one day conduct the City Ballet, but Peter Martins and Jerome Robbins took over the company after Balanchine’s death in 1983.

M. d’Amboise seems to have resigned himself to this result: he retired from the show the following year and turned to the National Institute of Dance, which introduced dance into public schools and which he founded. in 1976.

The institute was born out of the Saturday morning ballet classes for boys that M. d’Amboise began teaching in 1964, motivated by the desire that his two sons would learn to dance without being the only boys in the class. Classes have expanded to include girls and have moved to many public schools.

The goal now is to offer free lessons to everyone, regardless of the child’s background or ability. Today, the institute teaches thousands of New York City children between the ages of 9 and 14 and is affiliated with 13 dance institutes around the world. The institute, which is headquartered in Harlem, where Mr. d’Amboise lived, was featured in the 1983 Oscar-winning Emile Ardolino documentary, “It Makes Me Feel Like Dancing”.

“This second chapter has brought something more fulfilling than my career as an individual performer,” writes M. d’Amboise in his autobiography. Telling the story of a little boy who succeeded, after many attempts, at mastering a dance sequence, he wrote: “He was about to find out that he could take control of his body, and go. from there he can learn to take control of his body. life.”

For his contributions to arts education, Mr. d’Amboise received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990, a Kennedy Honors Award in 1995, and a New York Governor’s Award, among many other honors.

He continued to see himself as a dancer all his life, but he was also an avid New Yorker. Asked in a 2018 Times article where he would like his ashes to be scattered, he replied, “Spread me in Times Square or the Belasco Theater.”

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