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Remembering NYC Ballet Principal Dancer Jacques D'Amboise

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jacques d'Amboise, a longtime principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, died last week at age 86. A legendarily talented and committed performer, teacher and choreographer, d'Amboise joined the New York City Ballet at age 15, invited personally by its co-founder, George Balanchine. In collaboration with that renowned choreographer, d'Amboise created leading roles in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Jewels," "Stars And Stripes" and many other ballet classics. In 1976, while still a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, d'Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, which teaches dance to children from New York City Public Schools. A 1984 documentary about him called "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'" won an Academy Award. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1989. She asked him about teaching children at the National Dance Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You audition the children to see if they can be in your classes. How do you audition kids who don't have any formal dance training yet?

JACQUES D'AMBOISE: Not who's the best, who tries the hardest. For one hour, you're giving steps to children. And they don't know their right from their left. And you're demanding excellence. And you're demanding silence and no chewing gum and no bad manners and no fighting and no foul language. And stand straight. And lift your head up. And put your right foot front. And do it on the music, and now twice as fast and so on. And you can see the lurkers over in the back and the side that kind of - hands in their pocket. And they're kind of giggling and laughing. Get rid of them right away. Tell them that they're not ready yet, next year, when they're ready - so it's those that try.

GROSS: What kind of line do you like to walk between fun and discipline? And I'm sure you want, you know, your students to be as disciplined as possible and to dance as well as possible. On the other hand, I don't know how much pressure you want to put on them, you know, so that they worry about not living up to expectations.

D'AMBOISE: There is a thing called precision. There's a thing called editing. Being precise and knowing how to edit - and that's the secret of being creative. So I'll start by saying to a class of - an auditorium full of children, I'll say, I want the first three rows to stand up and quietly go to the stage. Spread out on the stage. Stand everywhere. Fill every inch of space, the smallest people in the front, the tallest in the back. Now, here it is. I tell them they have 10 seconds, exactly 10 seconds to do this, to fill those 10 seconds. Three rows of children, 30 children, get up and run yelling and screaming to the stage and end up all in lines in the back, right? And they all get there within three or four seconds.

Then I said, No. 1, I asked you to do it quietly. No. 2, you're supposed to fill every inch of the space. And the stage is 40-by-40. So you have to be all over it. Stack it, the shorter people front. And I said 10 seconds. You were there in three. You must take 10, not nine, not eight, 10. And now go back and do it again. And if I have to call you a third time, I won't teach this class. Now, the second time, they get it. It's absolutely quiet. They get to their place. And they take all 10 seconds. They get there early. They'll walk in little circles until the 10 seconds are up. The countdown's over, they freeze. They get it. And then I say, you just learned what dance is about. It controls time. And it control space. You control time. And you control space with your body, you. And that's the first thing to dance. You just began to dance.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you started dancing. How did you start to dance?

D'AMBOISE: Well, my mother was determined that her children not be bums in the street in trouble. So when my sister went to a ballet class, I was dragged along, made to sit and watch. Madame Seda up 181st and St. Nicholas. And this is 1942. And I try to disrupt the class and make noise, little sounds, little squeaks and play with the rosin. And Madame said I was very smart. She just watched. And then, at the end of class, there's these leaps, jumps that you do consecutively called changement - or changes. And she said, you, with all your energy and fiddling, can you do this? Can you jump as high as the girls? Get up and try this.

So I'd get up and do the jumps. And I loved doing the jumps. Everybody applauded me. And I'd leap and leap and leap. So she says, every day, if you sit there quietly, I'll let you do the jumps. So I'd sit there waiting for the jumps. Then she said, but you make noise when you land. So you have to take the beginning of class where you practice the plies or the - where you begin to get the strength and learn how to come out of the air and land. So I'd do - the beginning of class, I'd run and sit, waiting for the end. Then she said, you look sloppy in the air. You've got to learn how to hold your body and your arms, point your feet. You've got to take the middle of the climb. By then I was ready, right? So she did exactly - she'd challenge you, test you, set up the environment of excellence and congratulated you when you succeeded and made it harder. She had - see - she did everything right.

GROSS: You've run into a lot of your boy students who are a little uncomfortable about being possibly associated with ballet. What about you when you were young? Did your friends give you a hard time about it? Were you embarrassed about it yourself?

D'AMBOISE: No, not one little bit because you see - I would absolutely be down there dancing and seeing great dancers. And I'd come back around the block, and they'd all be waiting. Where you been? We hear you went to a dancing class.

And I said, yes. And it's great. There's this man with all these muscles. And he leaps in the air. And he doesn't make noise. And he does all these turns, Eglevsky - Andre Eglevsky. And he does these double tours. And he does like this.

And on the street corner in front of Dave's Candy Shop (ph) on 163rd and St. Nicholas, I started dancing and getting all my gang to try and do double tours, and they - no problem. And then when I got in New York City Ballet, I was 15. They'd sneak down to City Center - 25 gang members. And I'd go out, and I'd open the fire escape. And they'd come up at half hour. And I'd let them in the balcony, see?

And so I'd come on in the Court of Ballet of Symphony in C. There was eight boys and men in the Court of Ballet and one teenager, me. And all up from the balcony, whistles and screams every time I'd come on stage. And (laughter), you know, they'd all know that my gang was out front, you know?

GROSS: Was there a moment for you when you knew, this is it - I am now going to retire from performing?

D'AMBOISE: Yes.

GROSS: What was that moment?

D'AMBOISE: First, injuries and - serious injuries and in the hospital and a doctor saying, that's it - you're not going to dance again. But Balanchine was saying, no, you have to come back. I need you. You have to come back. So I went back and danced. And sure enough, a year later, I had another operation.

Well, then I said, wait a minute. Balanchine's so extraordinary. And he's fading. And I'm fading. I'm just going to stay and dance as long as I can with him. And meanwhile, I'll start National Dance Institute. So I began to dance and - but roles started, you know, out of 60 ballets, I'd do 50 because the minute I do something badly or didn't like it, I'd drop it. Until finally, in '84 - '83, '84, 19 - it just was no good.

I had two ballets left that I felt I could dance. And I didn't like it anymore. And the effort of getting on stage was too painful, you know? I thought, I don't belong here anymore. So I quit. And I don't even remember who that person was that used to dance. When I look at old films or see people do my roles, I can hardly remember. Who is that person that used to dance?

GROSS: Why not? Why is it so hard to remember?

D'AMBOISE: It's like somebody else. I've become somebody else. It's not - my body can't move that way anymore. I don't even feel like I was a dancer like that. It's somebody else. I look at it and say, it's another person, see?

GROSS: Well, when you do look at somebody dancing one of the ballets that you did, what emotional response do you have? Is it, oh, that's nice, someone carrying it on? Or is it envy that they can still dance, and you can't?

D'AMBOISE: No. I don't like anybody (laughter) doing my roles. No. What happens is I...

GROSS: (Laughter).

D'AMBOISE: ...Look at them dancing. And unless they do something special for it that excites me and thrills me, I don't like ballet. I know it so well. I know everything about it. There are a few dancers, male dancers that I still love to see. But they'd better be good. Otherwise, they're - I've seen the best. I don't want to see anything second rate.

GROSS: Well, Jacques d'Amboise, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about dance.

D'AMBOISE: Terry, a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Jacques d'Amboise speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died May 2 at the age of 86. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Woman In The Window," starring Amy Adams. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE FAHIE JAZZ ORCHESTRA'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6, II. ALLEGRO CON GRAZIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.