Jacques d’Amboise, who grew up on the streets of upper Manhattan to become one of the world’s premier classical dancers at New York City Ballet, then spent more than four decades providing free dance classes to city youth at his National Dance Institute, has died at 86.
His death was confirmed by Ellen Weinstein, director of the New York-based institute. She said the dancer and teacher had died on Sunday at his home from complications of a stroke. He was surrounded by his family.
Plucked for stardom at NYCB as a teenager by its legendary director, George Balanchine, d’Amboise performed with the company for about 35 years before retiring, just before turning 50, in the early ’80s.
In 1995, he was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors, where Chicago ballerina Maria Tallchief noted his high-flying leaps and said, “The only person who can compare to Jacques is Michael Jordan of the Bulls.”
D’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute in 1976. The joy he took in providing a dance education to kids who might otherwise never have tried the art form — in schools, or for some, in classes at the institute — was on full display in the Oscar-winning 1983 documentary “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, ” a look at his NDI work.
“Jacques was a life force.” said Weinstein, who worked for some 40 years with d’Amboise, meeting him as a student at SUNY Purchase. “Jacques knew first-hand the joy and transformative power that the arts can bring to the lives of children and he dedicated the last 45 years to ensuring that every child has access to quality arts education. His impact is immeasurable and everlasting.”
The institute, which moved into its Harlem building in 2011, teaches thousands of students every year in schools, and says it has reached over 2 million children across the globe.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 2018, d’Amboise described the moment he decided to end his dance career.
“I was almost 50, there were only a few roles left that I could do,” he said. “I was waiting to go onstage, and I suddenly thought, ’I don’t want to go on.’ I danced, came off, took off my ballet shoes and quit.”
Watching a reunion of some of his most enthusiastic young dancers one weekend day in April 2018, d’Amboise could not hide his excitement. “Fantastic!” he called out frequently. “Wow!” Upstairs in his office, stuffed with career artifacts including shelves full of fading journals lovingly preserved, he described his love for dance. He took his interviewer’s arm to demonstrate how a very slight difference in movement could express a completely different thought or feeling.
“I never asked myself this until my late 20s,” he said, “but what IS dance? I realized that it’s an art form our species has developed to express emotion. And it’s extremely subtle. Wanna see an example?”
Born in Massachusetts in 1934, d’Amboise soon moved to New York with his family and trained as a child at dance school in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. At age 8, he began his studies at the School of American Ballet. At 12, he performed with Ballet Society, the predecessor to New York City Ballet, and in 1949, at age 15, he joined NYCB.
Balanchine choreographed a slew of roles specifically for d’Amboise, who had a confident and dashing style, but the dancer is perhaps best known for his elegant “Apollo,” a role created in 1928 but which d’Amboise made his own. As a choreographer, d’Amboise made some 20 works for NYCB.
The institute said Monday in a statement that d’Amboise’s work in arts education took him across the globe — “from the extremes of Yakutsk, Siberia, to the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia, from ... the Dead Sea to the mountains of Nepal, and from the dryness of the Atacama Desert in Chile to rainforests on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian chain.”
One of his children, Charlotte d’Amboise, is a musical theater actress who has performed in Chicago on a national tour of “Chicago” and in Lyric Opera’s 2015 production of “Carousel.” He also is survived by three other children — George, Christopher and Catherine – and six grandchildren.
The institute noted that in lieu of flowers, “it was Jacques’s wish that all gifts in his honor be made to support his beloved National Dance Institute.”