I Was a Dancer

Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Jacques d’Amboise shares perspectives from seven decades of life inside the New York ballet world.

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    I Was a Dancer
    By Jacques d'Amboise
    Knopf Doubleday
    464 pp.
    View Caption

In his memoir I Was a Dancer, Jacques d’Amboise excels at placing the reader in his ballet shoes, allowing us to share not only in the euphoria of performance but also the author’s gratitude for the “taming” that ballet provided him.

D’Amboise – an acclaimed ballet dancer and choreographer – delayed penning his memoir until well into his 70’s. However, readers will fall in love with his youthful voice. After all these years D'Amboise still comes across as a man filled with awe at the serendipitous career launched when he was referred to the School of American Ballet at the age of 8.

D’Amboise was a principal dancer with the New York City ballet for over three decade. He earned accolades from The American Academy of Arts & Sciences, The Kennedy Center, and the MacArthur foundation. A PBS documentary titled “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' ”about d’Amboise’s work with his National Dance Institute received an Academy Award and six Emmy Awards in 1984.

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D’Amboise is also known for his performance in the role of Ephraim in the Hollywood classic “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

"I Was a Dancer" provides personal insight into the genius (and flaws) of dance emperor George Balanchine, and dubs Lincoln Kirstein a “giant, mad capitalist” who aspired to be “the artistic tsar of the New World.” Through d’Amboise’s writing we learn how Kirstein’s directed vision and Balanchine’s talent as a choreographer sustained the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet Company.

“If someone of quality mentors you, you are lucky," writes d'Amboise. "If that someone is Balanchine, you are blessed.”

D'Amboise successfully creates a vicarious experience for the reader, relying on outside accounts for the facts of dance history, but drawing upon his own memories to impart the spirit of the past.

His words and phrases invite the non-dancer into the world of dance, instilling an infectious, invigorating joy. We see John Taras perform his “soft, smooth” variation like “a marshmallow dancing.” We observe Merrill Ashley “gamboling and cavorting on the meadow of the stage, inhaling sunlight as well as air, as if she couldn’t get enough.”

In recreating the sensations of performance d’Amboise does not shy away from ekphrasis; rather, he uses every possible opportunity to describe ballet in both visual and musical terms.

Visualists will delight at d’Amboise’s description of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s “Summerspace.” He writes of dancers “attired in dotted leotards” fluttering amid a “pointillist landscape.”

Unsure of the energy required for a pas de deux comprised of glissades and sarabandes? Imagining Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music as accompaniment should give us some idea.

In this way, d’ Amboise uses the ear and the eye as an entry point to understand the dynamics of ballet.

D’Amboise, who once frolicked in the streets of Washington Heights, would later recruit young performers for his non-profit National Dance Institute, which he founded in 1976.

The chapters that focus on d’Amboise’s work with the NDI – bringing dance to the lives of urban youth – impart his sense that dance is an inclusive art form. He writes, “That’s what our universe is about… every time you shake hands in greeting or raise a glass in a toast, you’re participating in a dance.”

Daisy Alioto is a Monitor contributor.

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