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Jacques d’Amboise, exuberant dancer, choreographer, and educator, dies at 86

Mr. d'Amboise demonstrated a jump amid his young students backstage at New York's Lincoln Center in 1965.
Mr. d'Amboise demonstrated a jump amid his young students backstage at New York's Lincoln Center in 1965.Associated Press

Though Jacques d’Amboise helped popularize ballet in America and became one of the most distinguished male stars at New York City Ballet, he loved and admired all forms of dancing.

“Dance is universal, and it’s everywhere, especially American dance,” he told the Globe in 1987. “Every major dance since the waltz has come from the Americas: disco, the twist, the cha cha, the jitterbug, and so on.”

A favorite of the New York City Ballet’s legendarily exacting choreographer George Balanchine, and later a champion of arts education, Mr. d’Amboise was 86 when he died Sunday in his home in Manhattan. His daughter, the actress Charlotte d’Amboise, said he had died of complications of a stroke.

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Embodying the ideal of an all-American style that combined the nonchalant elegance of Fred Astaire with the classicism of the danseur noble, Mr. d’Amboise was the first male star to emerge from City Ballet’s affiliated School of American Ballet.

He joined the company’s corps at the age of 15 in 1949, and his expansive presence and versatility were central to the company’s identity in its first decades.

Balanchine was famously fixated on women dancers, turning to them as artistic muses and making them the centerpieces of his ballets. Mr. d’Amboise, a principal dancer with the company from 1953 to 1984, was an exception. Balanchine created more than a dozen leading roles for him, the most for any male dancer in the company’s history.

Mr. d’Amboise became the foremost interpreter of the title role in Balanchine’s seminal “Apollo” before retiring from the company in 1984, a few months shy of his 50th birthday. He also choreographed 17 works for City Ballet, as well as many pieces for the students of National Dance Institute, a program he founded and directed in New York City.

Throughout his career, Mr. d’Amboise partnered with some of the leading female dancers of his generation, including Suzanne Farrell, Diana Adams, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Allegra Kent.

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“You felt he was put on earth for the sole purpose of giving himself and his audience pleasure through dancing,” Dance Magazine editor Allan Ulrich wrote in 2007. “He could execute the most demanding Balanchine combination with a debonair freedom that banished all thought of exhibitionism.”

Mr. d’Amboise also helped bring ballet to broader audiences, dancing on Ed Sullivan’s show (then called “Toast of the Town”), playing important roles in several 1950s movie musicals, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and performing in appealing “Americana” ballets, including Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station” and Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” In addition, he directed, choreographed, and wrote a number of dance films in the early 1980s.

In his autobiography, 2011′s “I Was a Dancer,” Mr. d’Amboise recalled being astonished when Balanchine invited him to join City Ballet in 1949, a year after the company began its first season. He was only 15.

“I can’t do it,” he thought. “I have to finish school.”

His father advised him to become a stagehand, but his mother was delighted by the idea, and Mr. d’Amboise left school to dance professionally, as did his sister Madeleine, known professionally as Ninette d’Amboise.

In a 2018 interview, the City Ballet dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring described the qualities that Mr. d’Amboise had embodied as a dancer: “There’s this machismo that is sometimes required onstage — that bravura, that swagger, that confidence, and we all have to learn to cultivate that, and yet it’s such a huge canon of work. Within that, there are poets and dreamers and animals. Jacques is a reminder that all of that can be contained in one body.”

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Jacques D’Amboise was born Joseph Jacques Ahearn on July 28, 1934, in Dedham, to Andrew Ahearn and Georgiana d’Amboise. His father’s parents were immigrants from Galway, Ireland; his mother was French Canadian.

In search of work, his parents moved the family to New York City, where Andrew found a job as a hospital elevator operator. The family settled in upper Manhattan. To keep Jacques, as he was known, off the streets, his mother enrolled him, at age 7, and his sister Madeleine in ballet classes.

After six months, the siblings moved to the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. Energetic and athletic, Jacques took to the physical challenges of ballet immediately, and after less than a year was chosen by Balanchine for the role of Puck in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

He wrote in his autobiography of how his mother’s decision had changed his life: “What an extraordinary thing for a street boy with friends in gangs. Half grew up to become policemen and the other half gangsters — and I became a ballet dancer!”

In 1946, his mother persuaded his father to change the family name from Ahearn to d’Amboise. Her explanation, he wrote, was that the name was aristocratic and French and “sounds better for the ballet.”

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After joining City Ballet, Mr. d’Amboise was soon dancing solo roles, and within the company’s ranks he met dancer Carolyn George. They married in 1956.

“I fell in love immediately the first minute she appeared in ballet class,” he told the Associated Press in 2009, the year she died.

In addition to his daughter Charlotte, Mr. d’Amboise leaves another daughter, Catherine (she and Charlotte are twins); two sons, George and Christopher, a choreographer and former City Ballet principal dancer; and six grandchildren.

Mr. d’Amboise appeared in featured roles in two films in 1956 — “Carousel,” appearing alongside Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, and Michael Curtiz’s “The Best Things in Life are Free.” But he remained committed to ballet and to Balanchine.

“People said, ‘You could be the next Gene Kelly,’ " Mr. d’Amboise said in a 2011 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t know if I could act, but I knew I could be a great ballet dancer, and Balanchine put out the carpet for me.”

After Mr. D’Amboise retired from performance, he founded the National Dance Institute, which takes dance into public schools, in 1976.

The institute grew out of the Saturday morning ballet lessons for boys that Mr. d’Amboise began to teach in 1964, motivated by wanting his two sons to learn to dance without being the only boys in the class. The classes expanded to include girls and moved into numerous schools.

For his contribution to arts education, Mr. d’Amboise received a 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, a 1995 Kennedy Honors Award, and a New York Governor’s Award, among many other honors.

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A tireless champion for his institute and its mission, Mr. d’Amboise embarked on one of his most attention-grabbing fund-raising ideas in 1999: hiking all 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail while stopping along the way at schools, community centers, and even a prison to teach dance and collect donations — raising about $600,000 for the institute.

Mr. D'Amboise led a dance group at Radcliffe as part of his fund-raising along the Appalachian Trail.
Mr. D'Amboise led a dance group at Radcliffe as part of his fund-raising along the Appalachian Trail. RATHE, Joanne GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe

He was 65 at the time, suffered from arthritis, and had endured three knee surgeries and a foot operation.


“Do Americans value arts education as we should? Definitely not,” he told the Globe during his journey. “We don’t value it as a nation. The only thing we seem to value is, ‘Will it make money?’ At the same time, there are fabulous people in every community we’ve passed through doing arts education.”

Material from The New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.