A Dance Master for the Inner City

Jacques d'Amboise's dynamic classes give school children discipline, joy, and a night on stage

FIFTEEN years ago, New York City Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise tried an experiment. He picked 30 gangly boys from the gritty warrens of the inner city and gave them something artistic to sweat about: dance lessons. He didn't ask to be paid. He wasn't scouting for a pint-sized Nureyev. He just wanted to teach boys to dance.

Today, Mr. d'Amboise's "experiment" annually serves 1,000 school children (boys and girls) from 26 New York City schools and manages spin-off programs in New Mexico and California. It includes deaf and blind students and imports kids from China, the Soviet Union, and India for cultural exchanges.

Nothing keeps Jacques d'Amboise down. At a time when many nonprofit arts organizations and inner-city schools themselves face iffy futures because of low funding and low morale, his National Dance Institute has shown impressive staying - and growing - power over the course of its 15-year history.

Parents and administrative staff members point to D'Amboise's dynamism as a chief force in the institute's momentum.

"He's not sitting in some office somewhere making things happen - he's right here," says parent Julie Morgenstern, attending a rehearsal last week of the institute's annual "Event of the Year," in which her daughter, Jessi, was participating.

D'Amboise indeed is the perpetually moving, yelling, shouting, hugging, and laughing "hub" of the rehearsal, around whom swarm masses of jabbering adolescents, stage hands, and choreographic assistants. The "Event" brings together three casts of 350 kids each for 10 performances at the Majestic Theater here in Brooklyn.

With costumes, scenery, and live music that rival Broadway fare, the children perform the dance routines they began to learn last fall when D'Amboise and his teaching staff went into the schools and held classes. The mega-productions have been the subject of television documentaries and are a fitting testimony to D'Amboise's teaching talents, which garnered him a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant last year.

Cultural exchange

This year's "Event" is titled "Chakra - A Celebration of India." Conceived and directed by D'Amboise, it tells the Indian folk tale of two twins, Nandan and Nandini, who journey from birth to enlightenment, encountering strange adventures along the way.

Wearing traditional Hindu dhotis, tie-dyed green, 50 kids from Brooklyn's P.S. 241 and St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf twist and flutter en masse, portraying "The Forest," which the twins must travel through.

As "The Desert," a hoard of fifth graders in sand-colored dhotis stomps across the stage doing a jazzy line dance.

"Stop! Stop! You're not center stage, Desert!" shouts D'Amboise, bounding down one aisle of the auditorium toward the stage.

"Can't you see the group of center seats out here in the audience? Line yourselves up across from them! And get rid of THIS!" he yells, bending over to rip up a line of masking tape on the floor that marked the middle of the stage.

D'Amboise marshals the children like a general, but heaps praise on them when they do their best.

Sixth-grader Ryan McCormack, who plays the lead role of Nandan, says, "he yells at me a lot and tells me what to do, like 'Keep your spirits up, you can do it!' And he jokes around a lot, which I like."

Dance equals life

More than 30 years of tutelage under ballet master George Balanchine impressed upon D'Amboise what it means to be precise, exact - and in control.

"Dance is an expression of time and space," he explained in an interview during the rehearsal.

"If you can control how you move in space and in time, you can take control of the way you move your life in this world."

Inner-city children, he continues, "are so in fear of no control in their lives, because of their parents, or no parents, or the street - it's terrible."

But when they learn to dance, "suddenly they have control! They are responsible! They can jump and land in a certain spot, their head is up, people applaud them because they did it exactly right, and they can re-create it."

D'Amboise himself grew up in the rough environs of Manhattan's Washington Heights, hanging out with street gangs. But his mother insisted on taking her children to the ballet and opera. He began dance lessons at age 7 and joined the New York City Ballet at 15.

The purpose of the National Dance Institute, however, which he founded in 1976, "is not to make professional dancers," D'Amboise says with a laugh. "Did you take math in school? Yes? Then why didn't you go on to become a scientist or a physicist, using all those numbers?"

Like math, dance is a "tool" for developing discipline, self- esteem, and self-expression, he says.

Energy needed

In the fall, children aged 8 to 14 audition in their schools and are admitted into the program more for their attitude and willingness to learn, rather than talent. D'Amboise says he teaches them not to hold back.

"For example, I say, 'Reach up!' Now this is reaching up:" D'Amboise thrusts his arms into the sky with a jerk, throwing his head back and spreading his fingers wide.

"But that's one of the hardest things to get children to do," he says. "They do this:" He lifts his limp arms and looks deadpan. "Then I say, but you're not looking up! Look up! So they do this:" D'Amboise tilts his eyeballs upward.

"It's so hard to get them to do it, and I don't know why. But what a thing it is to reach up! It is such a powerful gesture," he says, waving his arms over his head. "Reach up to the sky, to the heavens! Take your arms and your gaze off the ground and the ordinary into the extraordinary. That's what dance is!"

D'Amboise's energy never seems to shut off. It is his fascination with "the preciousness of life and the 'individualness' of it" that keeps him going, he says.

"A thousand instruments can play a high C at the same time, and it's all the same, but a thousand people pointing - directly the same way - is a thousand different gestures. A different length of arm. A different personality. There are as many different ways of dancing as there are people."

D'Amboise says he develops strong friendships with the children, "but I try not to learn their names until they impress me by doing something special. There's the 'Jebel' that never gave up, no matter how hard I'd be on him, he never gave up. I meet a hundred Jebels, but I'll never forget that Jebel! Castiluchi - who did everything with such heart and belief, and now he's a big scientist up in Canada somewhere."

Then there is Ryan McCormack, the short, brawny fireball with a Brooklyn accent who plays the character Nandan.

"He's a little Baryshnikov! He's a little tiger!" says D'Amboise. "Keeps everything inside, tries to be cool, but he's not. He's passionate. He's going to be wonderful in anything he does in life."

D'Amboise is hopeful about the future of the dance institute, despite a projected first-time deficit this year of $100,000 due to "staff changes and a recession," he says.

He also knows his role as ringmaster can't go on forever. Next year, "I will not run the show," D'Amboise admits. "The reason for that is to train other people as directors, because we have national residencies now, and we need qualified people to do them."

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