I WAS 10. It was 1954 or ’55. I wore a white dress printed with pink raindrops, white socks, and red mary janes (my color sense was either very advanced or way undeveloped). My cousin was taking me to see a matinee performance of New York City Ballet and then backstage to meet one of its stars, whom he knew: the danseur Jacques d’Amboise.
D’Amboise must have been in his early twenties, tall and handsome and princely. We went to a coffee shop for orange juice; his future wife, Carolyn George, also a dancer and later a photographer (she died two years ago), came too. They had a post-performance sheen and glamour that left me awestruck. They were kind to my chubby, adoring younger self.
I’m reading a recent memoir by the now 77-year-old d’Amboise, I Was a Dancer (Knopf). It rambles, but interestingly, on the whole, just the way d’Amboise does when I have heard him speak in public about Balanchine or ballet. He is an engaging raconteur with a strong New York accent (he grew up in Washington Heights), and the book captures both his long-windedness and his charm.
It is a sort of fairy tale: the boy from the mean streets becoming a cavalier in white tights. D’Amboise seems never to have lost his down-to-earthness—he is anything but effete—yet his curiosity and zeal helped him to learn about literature, art, music, manners, the whole civilized world of culture and privilege from which ballet originally emerged.
There are problems with the book—it’s loosely written and organized and badly copy-edited, and d’Amboise’s political naïveté grates (see sections on Haiti, Germany, and the USSR, and his bland recall of anti-Semitic comments), as do his relentlessly boyish assertions of masculinity. At one point, he is recounting a flirtatious dinner in Hamburg with a ballerina in the touring company; his wife is home dealing with their six-year-old son George, recently recovered from cancer, and two-year-old Christopher. When Jacques fails to keep his eyes to himself, he gets hit by a streetcar. Poetic justice?
At the same time, I’m captured by d’Amboise’s energy and good-natured appetite for life, food, work. At their worst, dance academies and master choreographers train kids to starve themselves, obey orders, and sacrifice life to technique. At their best, they teach not only ballet but integrity, dignity, self-respect—all of which d’Amboise continued in his National Dance Institute project, which since the mid-1970s has been teaching dance to kids from all over the U.S. and the world, producing spectacular yearly shows. “I believe that pursuing and perfecting, as well as performing, foster a kind of morality,” d’Amboise writes. “There is no place in the strict discipline and mathematics of the art forms that are music and dance for anything false.”