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Jacques d’Amboise continues to be a force of nature

May 14, 2011 |  7:00 am

Nicknamed “Daisy,” because of his sunny temperament, dancer Jacques d’Amboise was 15 when he joined New York City Ballet, the esteemed troupe co-founded by George Balanchine in 1948.  The year was 1949 and d’Amboise, who once fought off a knife-wielding attacker with jetés and kicks, would go on to be one of City Ballet’s brightest stars. As Balanchine’s dancing alter ego, d’Amboise had 24 new roles made for him during his more than three decades with the company. While partnering ballerinas including Diana Adams, Melissa Hayden and Suzanne Farrell, d’Amboise also helped popularize ballet in America.

“I kept thinking I’d do something else,” d’Amboise said on a recent visit to Los Angeles, “be a priest, an archaeologist, a forest ranger, and then I realized I didn’t want to do anything else but dance.”

And dance he did. In 1957, Balanchine cast d’Amboise in the title role of “Apollo,” the ballet he originally choreographed in 1928 for the Ballets Russes.  With a string score by Stravinsky, the work, about transformation, would also come to define d’Amboise.

“The role is better, I think, than any dancer,” said d’Amboise, now 76, “because you have to have youth and strength and body stature.  You can’t be a skinny, three-foot high midget doing it.  It changed my life as a dancer, and I believe what Balanchine said Apollo is –- ‘a youth, a wild untamed youth who learns nobility through the arts’ -- I was that boy, an uneducated street boy from Washington Heights.”

Indeed, the young Apollo also grew up to be quite the writer.  D’Amboise’s recently released memoir, “I Was a Dancer,” has been garnering impressive reviews.  Teeming with balletic dish and vibrant details, the autobiography provides an inside look at the coming of age of City Ballet.  Also impressive is d’Amboise’s latest accolade: On Sunday he receives the Fred and Adele Astaire Lifetime Achievement Award in New York. 

To read more about Jacques d’Amboise, click here for the Sunday's Arts & Books story.

--Victoria Looseleaf 

Photo: Jacques d’Amboise at the L.A. Ballet Center. Credit: Christina House / For The Times