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Friday, April 1, 2011

Jacques D'Amboise: I Was a Dancer

In the ballet world, there now exists a real cottage industry of what I call "Me and Mr. B" memoirs. Many former dancers/lovers/wives of Mr. B have written memoirs where the strong focus of the entire book is "I brushed elbows with a genius. Literally. And this is what it was like." The picture that has emerged from these books is remarkably consistent -- a man who was polite, calm, industrious, and distant, but also capable of surprising passion and even pettiness, especially for his various female "muses." Among these books, Gelsey Kirkland's is the most notorious (and mean-spirited), Allegra Kent's the most well-written and unique, Suzanne Farrell's the most opaque, and Edward Villella's perhaps the most emotionally honest. To this heap of books Jacques d'Amboise has added his own memoirs, entitled I Was a Dancer, and since many of Balanchine's dancers have passed away or are aging, another "me and Mr. B" memoir is always a great Event for balletomanes. What does this dancer have to add?

The difference between d'Amboise and, say, Suzanne Farrell, was d'Amboise's relationship with Balanchine was notably drama-free. In fact, d'Amboise's life (at least in the way he presents it) had little of the melodrama that is part and parcel of dance memoirs. While other "muses" were fighting/sleeping/refusing to sleep/falling in love/falling out of love with Mr. B, Jacques just showed up to work every day for 35 years and watched the drama from the sidelines. The result is a memoir that is sharp, pointed, detached, and perceptive. The negative to this lack of involvement in any of the drama is that the memoir at some points feels a bit impersonal, and at several times d'Amboise seems to have a slight but active contempt for the people he is writing about. Like "look at these crazy kids. So silly."

Jacques d'Amboise was born Joseph Ahearn in 1934, and grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. What anchored d'Amboise's life is the fact that he grew up with a strong mother figure, like so many dancers. His mother was an iron-willed French Canadian that Jacques affectionately refers to as "Boss." It was of course "Boss's" idea to get Jacques and his sister enrolled in ballet lessons. The confidence his mother instilled in him seems to be present even as he writes the book as an elderly man. Jacques's father as described in the book was a weak-willed man whose wife eventually left him, but only after years of brow-beating him into doing whatever she wanted, including changing the family name from Ahearn do d'Amboise, her maiden name. Her explanation: "It's aristocratic, it's French, it has the 'd' apostrophe. It sounds better for the ballet, and it's a better name." Thus, Joseph Ahearn became Jacques d'Amboise. The gift Jacques got from his father was the gift of story-telling. d'Amboise is a great story-teller, and this propels the book along. The other great characteristic, as I've said, is Jacques's overwhelming self-confidence. Whereas many memoirs tend to be almost coy in their minute descriptions of self-doubts and fears, Jacques's confident zip through life makes the book a fun read. There's none of the cloying modesty that affects so many of these memoirs -- d'Amboise clearly is an artist who knew his own worth.

Jacques has some good stories to tell from his childhood, including a time he had to escort an elderly and sick neighbor to the hospital and was panicked because that meant going into the "black" neighborhood of Washington Heights. To his surprise he was not robbed or assaulted by the "blacks," simply asked questions from concerned on-lookers about the health of Mrs. Sullivan. One might have expected a little more reflection on his part that perhaps he should not have held these prejudices to begin with, but as I said, d'Amboise consistently prefers to hold the mirror to others, and not to himself. Another time, he takes on a local gang-member named Farel and of course emerges victorious. It's somehow fitting that one of the stories d'Amboise tells of his childhood was his attempt to fly. Literally.

The book really takes off when d'Amboise joins the School of American Ballet and later, the New York City Ballet. d'Amboise's descriptions of his Russian emigre teachers at the SAB, including Pierre Vladimiroff and Anatole Oboukhoff is full of affection, and for once, lacks the slight condescension d'Amboise projects throughout the book for various other people. It is quite touching, to read that so many years later, he still has such respect and affection for his teachers. Of course, his experiences working with Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, and most of the legendary "first generation" of New York City Ballet stars form the heart of the book, and what I like is that the book is candid and unsentimental. He's observant and his characterizations are sharp, and have the ring of truth about them. Very often, d'Amboise quotes liberally from his diaries. Yet the book is not just gossip (although there is plenty of that). Some of the best parts of the book are about the joys of creating ballets, dancing in ballets, touring (his description of the Italian and Soviet Union tours are priceless), basically the day-in-day-out life of a ballet dancer. And how wonderfully touching are his descriptions of Mr. B teaching him great roles like Apollo (pictured below). d'Amboise's love for the art form shines through every page. Read this tribute to Balanchine's coaching:
As I tried to demonstrate, I would say, "I'm sorry. This is not what it should look like, you have to see Balanchine." In many dances, particularly Prodigal Son, any time he demonstrated his choreography, my mouth would open at the beauty of his movement. Coaching a slew of marvelous male dancers who danced the role over the years -- Jerome Robbins, Francisco Moncion, Hugh Laing, Edward Villella, Misha Baryshnikov -- Balanchine would demonstrate and all paled in comparison. He wrung tears from your heart.

If d'Amboise always treats the art-form with the utmost respect, he is considerably less gentle on the people behind the ballets. Because d'Amboise was not entangled in any personal drama, he can tell it like it is, without much whitewashing. The story of Balanchine's obsession with Suzanne Farrell is well-known, but never has Farrell been represented in such a negative light in print. d'Amboise nicknamed Farrell "The Princess" and it doesn't seem to have been a term of endearment. Here is his description of the Farrell/Balanchine relationship:
Mr. B got his new muse. The ultimate in unattainability, she quietly received everything. He gave her more and more, and she accepted it as if it were her due. I never heard her thank him; she gave him her dancing as his reward .... He offered Suzanne an ultimate gift, the power to choose which ballets would be on the program and who would dance them .... In personal relations with Balanchine, Suzanne was the perfect hot and cold faucet -- warm, caring, and attentive; then cold, distant, and rejecting, juggling him masterfully between the two. 
About the infamous events that led to Suzanne leaving the company for five years, d'Amboise tells it this way:
What a shock to Balanchine! Eventually, he did accept the marriage, but tried to ignore Paul's presence in the company. Suzanne expected to wield the same power as before, selecting the programs and casting. She felt so assured of Balanchine's worship that she pushed further and further, testing to see how far he would bend.
On May 8, 1969, there was to be a gala night. Apparently, all day long, Suzanne and Balanchine had been negotiating, with Eddie Bigelow in the role of a tennis ball, carrying messages from one side to the other. Earlier, Eddie Villella had been cast in the third movement of Symphony in C, but opted out. Balanchine replaced him with Dnei Lamount instead of Paul Mejia. Both had danced the role. Suzanne demanded that her husband perform at the gala. Balanchine circumvented the problem by replacing Symphony in C with Night Shadow, a ballet starring Suzanne. Suzanne demanded that Symphony in C be restored, or she would refuse to dance at all. They were like two children arguing in a playground. Balanchine wanted to see her dance, so he parried. Symphony in C was bakc, but without the third movement. Bigelow delivered Suzanne's response: "Unless the third movement is in, with Paul dancing, I'm not dancing."
No one is shown off in particularly flattering light in d'Amboise's version -- Farrell seems manipulative and demanding, Balanchine infatuated and irrational. What is refreshing though is the detached, outsider perspective, as well as the unsaid but implied opinion on d'Amboise's part that Farrell and Balanchine allowed their personal drama to interfere with the health of the company, and the ballets. Farrell created a lot of jealousy and resentment among other female ballerinas in the company, but until now most of the males of the company have been reticent in offering their view of the whole drama. Later, d'Amboise comments that Farrell overreached when she worked at the NYCB following her retirement from the stage, and that even on Balanchine's deathbed she was demanding and entitled.


The lack of sentimentality is a notable feature of d'Amboise's book. He saw a lot, and he remembered, and the memories aren't always kind. He seems to have the memory of an elephant -- amazing how he remembers with great detail and fondness people who helped him out decades ago. Even his sharpest observations never feel spiteful, just the candid reflections of an old man who no longer has anything to hide. About working with Jerome Robbins, he has this to say:
We soon learned that the first steps that Jerry worked out on you were the ones you would most likely end up with -- but not until he had done a thousand variations and played endless journies of psychological games and manipulations on his cast. Rehearsals were miserable. He was constantly stressing his dancers, picking on them, embarrassing them, setting up conflicts among them, anything and everything his inventive mind could conjure up to get more energy and passion out of them. Jerry could be charming and complimentary, and then five minutes later, attack, insult, and crush your spirit -- all to see how it would affect your mood and influence the dance movements. A few lucky dancers were spared.
In fact, d'Amboise's observations about Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Tanny LeClercq, Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, and other famous names are so compelling that one starts to forget that d'Amboise doesn't really shine the light on himself in such an unsparing, insightful manner. He talks about his wife, his children, his work with the National Dance Institute, but behind the jolly, chatty tone of the memoirs, one senses a deep reserve that is typical of people who on the surface are all sunshine and charm. d'Amboise is willing to share his stories and one can admire how colorfully he tells familiar events and how he has the novelist's gift for telling the reader everything a person is about in one or two sentences. An example: "Chabukiani was short, about fifty-four years old, slim, sinewy, and sort of ugly." About Lincoln Kirstein, d'Amboise attributes this memorable quote: "You're a dancer today, Buster, because I wanted to f__ Lew Christensen." But d'Amboise's not willing to really tell us about himself. Maybe there isn't much to tell -- maybe he really was just a guy who showed up to work for 35 years and happened to be a dance superstar,  and was a devoted husband and father. He quotes his wife Carrie liberally throughout the book, so obviously he valued her opinion throughout his life. But his descriptions of other people show a man who had a deep understanding of human nature, warts and all. One wonders if more happened in d'Amboise than he lets on, that his book focuses so much on other people because he's profoundly uncomfortable scratching beneath his own surface. I had to remember Edward Villella's extremely unflattering picture of d'Amboise in Villella's own memoir, in which he described d'Amboise as pleasant on the surface, but two-faced.

Still, if you want a picture of what it was actually like to work with such legends as Balanchine, Robbins, and the legendary NYCB stars, d'Amboise's book is as good of a book as any, and his portraits of the people are, as I said, as sharply drawn as a Jane Austen novel. I like that d'Amboise respects the reader enough to give a short history and introduction to many situations, even if they are well-known, and to provide fascinating footnotes. He's taken care to write an interesting book, and not just to hear himself talk, or to flatter his own memory.

4 comments:

  1. from phoenix:
    Here I go again, commenting to you on a different site under a different article.
    Enjoyed your posts re: Anna Bolena today. Also enjoyed reading the other posts from other authors, some of which were highly critical. But what I miss from many of them is perspective. We are not living in an age of great sopranos nowadays, let's face it; most of what we have is a compromise. The Golden Age is long gone. Having heard a lot of singers over the last 50 years I think the tenors, baritones & bassos nowadays are generally of good quality compared to earlier times. However, the soprano contingency needs more stock than we presently have in the arsenals. Within that perspective, the miracle we were able to hear as excellent a performance of Anna Bolena as we heard today is quite a boon in these meagre times. I read on other blogs (the best being "Unfaithful Zerbinetta" Wien blog) re: Strauss operas with singers who are adequate but not sensational. Well, how would they like to put up with the voiceless old matrons playing romantic leads at the Met that we have to put up with? At least 40 years ago at the Met we had some great house singers in excellent vocal shape for those roles... not so nowadays.
    -- Again, glad you enjoyed Anna Bolena. She is one of my favorite opera & historical characters. Yes, as they say, not much is known about her, but enough has been written to make me admire her very much. She was NOT guilty of the crimes she was accused of; the charges were trumped up against her. Even the royal historians in Great Britain admit it, but they claim it is too late to clear her name since all the witnesses have been long gone for centuries.

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  2. Hi, Ivy,
    Thanks for the perceptive review of the d'Amboise memoir. I've heard him tell many tales at CB Guild events, and he is indeed a witty, fascinating raconteur. He was there, and he knows what he's talking about. Haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but this is one that is definitely on my list.

    Bill

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  3. Bill, it's an excellent book. Very interesting because as I said, d'Amboise wasn't personally involved in the drama. Very surprised at what he has to say about Maria Tallchief and Suzanne Farrell.

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  4. Thanks for this review. It has me wanting to read the book.

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