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Jacques D'Amboise: Memoirs"I Was a Dancer"


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#46 Bonnette

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Posted 25 March 2011 - 09:45 AM

If only Amazon had furnished D'Amboise's book with a Search Inside feature! I have a particular interest in Tanaquil LeClercq and wonder - for those of you have the book - how much space is devoted to her. That aside, at some point I will order the book because it sounds like such a wonderful record of this dancer's life and devotion to his art.

#47 Jack Reed

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Posted 25 March 2011 - 11:55 AM

I haven't read the book through yet, Bonette, having only dipped into those several pages dealing with his sojourn in Hollywood for the making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, on the occasion of its being shown last night, free!, by Turner Classic Movies in the atmospheric Music Box theater here. (Even Jane Powell was there. At 81, she's quicker in conversation - with Robert Osborne of TCM, not me - than I've ever been at any age. She didn't look her age, either.) But perusing the index, I see LeClercq's name mentioned on a range of about 40-odd pages, scattered some through the book.

Others on the thread have suggested that this is just a bunch of good stories, and the author - there's no formal co-author identified, although half a dozen people are acknowledged for help of different kinds - the author himself says

Anecdotal and episodic, this book is a buffet of stories about the experiences and relationships that shaped me as a person, dancer, and teacher...

but even in the few pages I've read there's an example of more than that:

Dancing in movies was an experience worlds from the ballet. From morning to night in a ballet company, it is dance, dance, perform, perform. In movies... it may use most of the day to do eight takes for one little dance sequence. I found it difficult to sustain enthusiasm when you stop and start, stop and start, and by the end of the day, you've only done a few dance steps. Performing with a ballet company, you're in conversation with the audience, not a camera; it's immediate, and there's no going back to redo, repair, or camouflage... [But] the editor can restructure everything. I felt somehow truth was missing...

As to the absence from the book of his relationship with Balanchine some have commented on, I don't think there was much of one. I think there was one with Kirstein, and I think it's there.

#48 Bonnette

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Posted 25 March 2011 - 12:19 PM

Thank you so much for that information, Jack. It sounds like a wonderfully entertaining book, full of balletic anecdotes. 40 pages of LeClercq references in one place, albeit scattered, sound good to me! We need a biography - if I were younger and able to do the research, I'd take on the task myself. Thanks again.

#49 Jack Reed

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Posted 25 March 2011 - 01:01 PM

Maybe I should add that there are often other names besides LeClercq's on many of those pages, as well.

#50 Bonnette

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Posted 25 March 2011 - 01:18 PM

Maybe I should add that there are often other names besides LeClercq's on many of those pages, as well.

Thank you for that. It doesn't surprise me...though I was hoping for a chapter! :beg:

#51 bart

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Posted 28 March 2011 - 01:29 PM

My copy arrived. I'm tied up with another project so will have to put it off, but I did skim the index, look -- with pleasure -- at the photos, and read d'Amboise account of his first Apollo, a life-changing experience for him.

I'm less worried about the paper edges than about the quality of the photos. The cost-cutting trend in publishing is to print photos on pages with text -- i.e., on non-glossy paper.


It's not always a cost-cutting measure. Sometimes it's chosen deliberately so that photographs of people and places are seen in context as they're being discussed, not cordoned off into a stand alone section. It can work well.

Knopf did a good job with this method of presenting the photos. The paper is higher quality than many books nowadays. This gives the photos (all b-and-w) a depth of saturation that makes them clear and striking.

Positioning them "in context" works well, too. For example, in the section relating to that first Apollo:

-- d'Amboise with his Terpsichore, Allegra Kent, 1957;
-- Stravinsky and Balanchine listening to NIcholas Kopeikine playing the completed score to Agon on the piano, 1957. d'Amboise rushed over from his Apollo rehearsal to watch and listen.

Things seem dark before d'Amboise's first Apollo.

I kept waiting for Balanchine to come round and see how I was doing, coach me, more -- but he was obsessed with Agon and rarely showed up and, when he did, had nothing to say. I couldn't believe it. I'd finish the variation and knew it wasn't good, but he wouldn't say anything. At orchestra and, later, the dress rehearsal, Balanchine offered me no feedback.

After the preview night, a confused and depressed d'Amboise dresses and goes down to the

bulletin board where the rehearsal schedules are posted, and scrawled, "FOR JACQUES -- tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday -- Apollo rehearsal 3 hours a.m., 3 hours p.m. ALONE .." and underlined it.

I got what I asked. Alone in a studio, I took each step, analyzed it, and practiced, repeating it over and over again at different tempi -- slow motion, then fast, faster -- even danced with my eyes shut, to explore the possibilities of movement.

There's a happy ending to all this. d'Amboise had a triumph in the role. d'Amboise also came to feel that Balanchine had more to do with his success than he saw at first.:

If someone of quality mentors you, you are lucky. If that somehow is Balanchine, you are blessed. His was more than teaching, it was a philosophy of manners. The best mentor sets up an environment for discovery, suggests and demonstrates, and leaves the artist alone to explore.

This happy ending is illustrated by a photo of a beautiful, light-as-air Balanchine demonstrating an aspect of partnering, dancing hand in hand with a radiant Jacques d'Amboise as his cavalier. (1962)

Good stuff for those of us who love that time, that place, these people and (especially) these ballets.

#52 Helene

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Posted 28 March 2011 - 04:28 PM

As to the absence from the book of his relationship with Balanchine some have commented on, I don't think there was much of one. I think there was one with Kirstein, and I think it's there.

I find this confusing, because as of the 70% mark on the Kindle version, I thought there was a lot of his relationship with Balanchine in the book. It is telling enough that he was one of the people Balanchine would confide in over breakfast and post performance snacks. He writes about Balanchine's human side in a direct way -- although the Duberman bio of Lincoln Kirstein covered some of the same ground -- and he writes about his feelings about seeing that side of Balanchine that few on the outside ever saw. He also writes about the effect of Balanchine's illness on the company before his death and "The Succession" was established, and about his visits to Balanchine during his months-long hospital stay.

He writes about Le Clercq throughout, but mostly in snippets. Like in his descriptions of his relationship with Balanchine, what he does say is often short and to the point. He doesn't give a long description of Le Clerq's illness; instead the caption to the photograph in the middle of the description the trip to Copenhagen is: "Dr Mel Kiddon giving Patricia Wilde her polio shot, with Diana Adams and Melissa Hayden waiting for theirs, 1956. Tanny LeClercq protested, 'I hate shots! They make me sick. I'll get mine when I come back.'"

He emphasizes Balanchine's escape hatch of Geneva Ballet much more than I've ever seen, and that also explains how he could have Kirstein terrorized by the idea that he really could walk from City Ballet at the drop of a hat.

What I love about this book is what I love about Julia Child's "My Life in France": the author has had a full life, and despite the hardships and human messiness, has appreciated what s/he had, and that robust love and appreciation for people and experiences and his/her spouse seeps off of every page.

#53 Jack Reed

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Posted 28 March 2011 - 05:50 PM

Hmm. My remark about the absence from the book of evidence of a relationship with Balanchine depended on Eileen's complaint, above, in Post #11, because I still haven't read much of the book, but it's beginning to look to me like Helene may have found some of what Eileen did not. Maybe the difference is that while there's a lot of Balanchine's presence as observed by d'Amboise in the book, there was not so much a full-fledged personal relationship - Balanchine perhaps being distant, even while confiding in d'Amboise? (Sound odd? Don't get me wrong when I say I consider these people un-usual, extra-ordinary. Indeed, I consider myself fortunate to have been here at the same time... )

And although I haven't got very far with d'Amboise's book, I'm already getting interested in my cooking-teacher's book! (Via the media she used, of course, never having had the pleasure of meeting Child.) Thanks Helene! (I guess. Another book for my "to read" stack?)

bart's comments remind me of another example of concise expression, the caption to the last picture in the book, d'Amboise performing Apollo: "A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art, 1962"

#54 Jayne

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Posted 13 April 2011 - 05:07 PM

I saw Mr. d'Amboise speak last night at Town Hall in Seattle. Unfortunately work and traffic made me miss the first 45 minutes, so I think I missed a lot of discussion about Mr. B. However, Mr. d'Amboise is a fantastic speaker - a true raconteur as has been mentioned. He quotes Shakespeare and other poets and weaves them effortlessly into his stories. His passion for all forms of art is evident, and his love of the humanities. All with a strong brooklyn accent, except when he's quoting Mr. B - then he affects a credible Russian accent.

His stories of Lincoln Kirstein's foul mouthed tyrades "Good taste is My taste, you bastards!" is a great example. He also rambles off on tangents about WWII, training small dogs to crawl into japanese fox holes with dynamite strapped to their little backs, or the daily practical jokes and flirting within NYCB and the adolescent division of SAB - all so much fun to listen to. Many New York transplants were in the audience and spoke in the Q&A at the end to tell him how much pleasure he gave them in his performances. Peter Boal hardly had to ask any questions - Mr. D'amboise could have talked another 2 hours straight, on whatever came to mind.

He would make a fantastic TED Talks speaker! How do we nominate him?

I bought the book afterwards but did not stay to have it signed (the queue was over 100 people long). Reading in snippets last night and tonight, it seems to be a lot of fun gossip, probably embellished over the years, coupled with extraordinary stories of what choreographing with Balanchine was really like (improvitisation).

I did read his chapter on the Balanchine muses first - he was very critical of Suzanne Farrell's prima donna behavior. But I think he was fair to show that Balanchine was at fault, because he encouraged it to win her love, and she thought it was the norm. However, I felt this was ironic, because he was something of a primo don as well - he would take off mid season to choreograph a broadway show, or film a movie, or guest star with a regional company. Balanchine clearly loved him as well, and I think he received more leeway than other male dancers.

He was extremely generous when describing Allegra Kent and Karin van Arolingen. Both were real troupers in his eyes, in the old fashioned broadway idea of the term.

#55 SandyMcKean

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Posted 13 April 2011 - 05:20 PM

He was extremely generous when describing Allegra Kent and Karin van Arolingen.

Perhaps you missed it (since you were late), but Jacques reserved his highest praise for Melissa Hayden.

Peter Boal asked him to say something about his favorite dancer(s) and listed off about 20 names of the most incredible NYC based dancers we all know and love. I thought Jacques might beg off such a loaded question, but after thinking a while he strongly said: "Melissa Hayden". He then preceded to tell story after story about her including an extremely poignant one about how he went to visit her at her death bed (I doubt there was a dry eye in the place).

P.S. I've never heard/seen Jacques d'Amboise live before (DVDs yes, but never live). He is of course a hero of mine, but in person, I found him to be one of the most inspiring people I've ever seen. He is quite simply: a great human being.

#56 Quiggin

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Posted 13 April 2011 - 11:52 PM

I just read this quickly - a library copy - and tend to agree with some of Eileen’s assessments above.

In much of the book d'Amboise presents Balanchine and Kirstein as two alternate cast King Lears trying to come to terms with the loss of their kingdoms. He's better on Balanchine than on Kirstein, who was in ways (like Charlus in Proust) could often see the truth of what was going on despite his own self destructiveness. Duberman's Kirstein biography is a good corrective to d’Amboise’s views, for an overall map and for significance of some of the episodes.

About Balanchine there’s lots of interesting stuff, but what d’Amboise presents and interprets as pettiness - in order to bring Balanchine down to earth and make him more human and “less perfect” - is not pure pettiness. Yes, Balanchine is upset that "Minkus Pas de Trois" becomes a star vehicle for Eglevsky (Balanchine doesn’t even put his own name on the programs except as ballet master) but he’s right that Minkus’ music is not especially first class. And the primary reason Balanchine ignored “The Cage” may not have been so much that he was jealous of Jerome Robbins, but because the theme of the man-devouring woman was already a cliche in the fifties – it was the sort of myth that appealed to painters and writers like Wilhelm deKooning and Jackson Pollock and Norman Mailer. (Stravinsky himself did not approve of “The Cage” according to Robert Garis, citing its "plastic incompatibility" with the music.)

What was particularly interesting to me was the narrative of “Apollo” that Balanchine gave d’Amboise. Of Calliope he says, “‘She has nothing new to show you. You’re a god, already you know everything.’” Polyhymnia “speaks when she should not, and Apollo admonishes her.”

'Terpsichore pleases you, and you bless her and dance together. Sometimes you play with her as in a dodge game. Then you take her on your back for nice flying. The coda begins and you dance like a thunderstorm, and the muses try to hold you back. They want you to practice, ride a chariot of the sun across the sky and bring sunlight, prophecy, music and dance to the world. Now your life as a boy is over. Papa says, you are grown up, come to Olympus to be with your family. The muses try to hold you back, but you make them bow to you, and leave them to ascend to your home.'


When d’Amboise asks Balanchine why he has cut “Apollo” so much, he catches Balanchine in an angry mood – Martins is then dancing it – and Balanchine says that if the audience wants to see only magazine poses, not the steps, he’ll give them just that. Then he says, “Like van Gogh – cut off his own ear.”

There is a hint of d'Amboise always being in the very inner circle - in his being a surrogate in the relationship between Balanchine and Farrell (until she picks her own) and in his comment about Stanley Williams, Villella's teacher: "Stanley was low-key, unaggressive, and gave a simple, easy, and slow class without too much repetition and no pressure. A cult of NYCB dancers formed around him ..."

#57 SandyMcKean

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 08:38 AM

I would have thought that a person has the right to write about their own life just as it occurred in their own experience (as long as they do so without knowingly making stuff up). The obligation to be scholarly and "unbiased" seems to apply more to a biographer than a autobiographer.

#58 lovemydancers

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 10:01 AM

He was extremely generous when describing Allegra Kent and Karin van Arolingen.

Perhaps you missed it (since you were late), but Jacques reserved his highest praise for Melissa Hayden.

Peter Boal asked him to say something about his favorite dancer(s) and listed off about 20 names of the most incredible NYC based dancers we all know and love. I thought Jacques might beg off such a loaded question, but after thinking a while he strongly said: "Melissa Hayden". He then preceded to tell story after story about her including an extremely poignant one about how he went to visit her at her death bed (I doubt there was a dry eye in the place).


He spoke of Melissa Hayden in the same way at her memorial service/tribute performance several years ago. Animated storytelling at its best, all while sobbing uncontrollably. There was not a dry eye in the house then either, but it was an equal split between tears of compassion for D'Amboise, and tears of laughter over his wonderful stories. He clearly loved her very much.

#59 Quiggin

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 11:30 AM

Sandy McKean

I would have thought that a person has the right to write about their own life just as it occurred in their own experience (as long as they do so without knowingly making stuff up). The obligation to be scholarly and "unbiased" seems to apply more to a biographer than a autobiographer.


There's a "deckled" quality to the whole book that a different editor might have cleaned up. One whole chapter named after an incidental person is really about the trips to Germany and Russia, and five chapters have the word death in the title. Toning down some of the colorful dialect - restoring simple words like full for plethora, many for bevy, seated for sequested - would have distracted less from the content of the stories.

The Villella, Kent, Tallchief and Farrell memoirs seemed stronger and more focused around particular themes or structures. Part of the project seemed to be about making an earthy character of Balanchine and at some point you wonder just how important were the ballets. There is also some ambivalence about what d'Amboise really wanted in his career, regarding making movies for example, and whether he really wanted to be head of City Ballet after Balanchine.

#60 SandyMcKean

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 11:40 AM

He spoke of Melissa Hayden in the same way at her memorial service/tribute performance several years ago.

Very interesting. Jacques kicked off the "acting" part of his Hayden story by referring to his part in the memorial service. He even repeated the poem on death (with fully animated movement) he had customized to incorporate aspects of Hayden's life. So he basically recreated the moment you mention above (as a sort of performance of that memorial event, but in a very authentic way). Then he started with his memories of her at her death bed. In that part he seemed to be re-living those moments -- it too was very authentic. It was during this 2nd part (creation in the moment) that everyone in the hall became especially moved.

P.S. I note that I used the word "authentic" twice above, and it strikes me that word is exactly how I would describe this remarkable man: authentic. Very impressive.


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