Monday, April 11, 2011

Mark Griffin interviews Jacques d'Amboise

If your exposure to the world of dance has been limited to Ralph Macchio's killer foxtrot on Dancing With the Stars, it's time to get acquainted with the illustrious Jacques d'Amboise. Widely considered one of America's preeminent classical dancers, d'Amboise was a principal with the New York City Ballet for over thirty years. While under contract, he became a protege and confidante of the legendary choreographer George Balanchine.

After captivating audiences around the world with his performances in Balanchine's ballets, Apollo and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Hollywood beckoned and d'Amboise starred in such celebrated screen musicals as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Carousel (1956). In 1983, d'Amboise became the subject of the acclaimed Oscar-winning documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin', which focused on his work teaching dance to schoolchildren through his non-profit organization, the National Dance Institute.

In his revealing new memoir, I Was a Dancer (Knopf, $35), d'Amboise looks back at a life spent as "a would-be explorer - of ideas, cultures and people." Mark Griffin, the author of A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, recently spoke with d'Amboise regarding his longtime association with Balanchine, his appearances in several four star films and how he manages to get things done -- his way.

NOTE: An excerpted version of this interview ran in the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Mark Griffin: You are a certified living legend. Was it your family ties to scenic and fashionable Lewiston, Maine that launched you on the road to success?

Jacques d'Amboise: Of course. Lewiston is where it all began for us. That's where my [mother's] family settled when they first came here. In those days, there was this whole slew of French-Canadians emigrating from Canada. That's why you have all of these neighbors with beautiful sounding last names like Goudreau, Levasseur, Larochelle and d'Amboise. Our family moved to Lewiston because there was this special feeling of community there.

MG: Your mother was a real pistol, whom your father nicknamed "The Boss." If it hadn't been for her all-consuming interest in the arts, would you have had this extraordinary career?

Jd: My mother was determined that all four of her children were going to be well educated. That was her dream -- that we should be able to recite poetry, play an instrument or dance She was unstoppable. In fact, except for my brother John, who ended up in Okinawa during World War II, the rest of us - my other brother Pat, my sister and I - we all ended up in the precursor of the New York City Ballet. "The Boss" saw to it that we all went in that direction. As I say in the book, my mother could have taken the whole family into the Canadian woods naked in midwinter and seen to it that we all came out by the end of the season fatter and dressed in stylish furs.

MG: How did it feel to be the great Balanchine's muse?

Jd: I knew that when I was dancing on the stage, I was representing him. When I lifted a ballerina and held her in my arms, I was standing in for Balanchine in a way. He used me vicariously to make love to the ballerinas. Sometimes, he'd come back after a performance and say, 'You two were so beautiful together...' I'd be standing there - exhausted, dripping sweat and he still wouldn't let me go. He was on a high and he couldn't calm down because he had sat in the audience and inhabited - in his mind - my arms and legs and body...If you listed all of the great Nobel Prize-winners in the arts - throughout the entire 20th century - Balanchine would be right there leading the list. I have a friend named Francis Sackett, who wrote me a very sweet, wonderful note and at the very end of it, he said, 'How lucky we were to be able to grasp hold of the tail of the comet that was Balanchine...' And I called him up and I said, 'Francis, can I use that quote in my book?...' No one, I think, started on that tail earlier and stayed longer and was closer to the heart of the comet than I was.

MG: As one of Balanchine's charmed proteges, what was the most important thing that you learned from him?

Jd: I would say good manners. He would never say, 'I want you to do this...' He would always say, 'Do you think maybe that you'd like to dance this role for me?' Meanwhile, he knew very well that no one was going to say 'no' to George Balanchine. He had this beautiful courtesy. It was an old world courtesy based on chivalry and romantic ideas that I guess influenced him. His manner was very old world and kind of formal. And that always impressed me. Another thing...oh, my god - when he came in first thing in the morning to teach company class -- he'd walk in and go directly to the piano and greet the pianist and if there was a cup of coffee on the piano or an ashtray, he wouldn't say anything. He'd simply pick it up and he'd walk to the back of the room where there was a wastepaper basket and empty everything into it. All of this without saying a word. And then he'd turn around and snap his fingers and say, "Let's begin!" He would never say, 'Don't put your coffee cups on the piano...' or anything like that. It was always teaching by example. I remember asking him about this once when we were dining together -- he liked to eat Greek olives and feta cheese and drink Beck's beer - and he said, 'Look at the piano. It is beautiful. It is a sculpture. It is an instrument of percussion but it's also a string instrument. It crosses two places of music and it comes to life...this beautiful, wooden sounding board. It's an intricate mechanism -- so that a person with their brain and craft and skill can take their fingers and transport you out of this world...How can you put a cup of coffee on such a work of art?' So, now every time I see a piano and there's something on it like a ballet bag or a newspaper or a cup of coffee or something that someone left behind, I clean the piano. I don't say, 'Who's bag is that on the piano? Get it off!' No, I just take it and quietly put it to the side. That's what I learned from Balanchine...good manners.

MG: During your time in Hollywood, you were cruised by Rock Hudson and nearly killed by Julie Newmar. So when did you find time to appear in one of the greatest musicals ever made?

Jd: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was one hell of a movie and a great learning experience...except, if you look closely, I'm not actually in the last few scenes. The shooting schedule ran over and I didn't want to miss the premiere of The Nutcracker back in New York...So, they slapped a red wig on the assistant choreographer, gave him a duplicate of my costume and he filled in for me in a couple of scenes. Nowadays, they'd just take my photo and digitally morph me into the movie.

MG: What was it like being at MGM - the Rolls Royce of the Hollywood studios - when it was still going strong in the early 50's?

Jd: I never thought that with MGM or 20th Century-Fox or Universal that there was this kind of hierarchy. In those days, I thought of it all as just a bunch of sets out in Culver City that I had to report to. I was lucky, though, that on my first film I got to work with [choreographer] Michael Kidd and [director] Stanley Donen. I turned eighteen on the set of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers but I was emotionally fourteen. Coming from New York and the ballet, I thought that some of the movie people didn't have the same kind of discipline that we had. When they said, 'Alright, at eight o'clock, be ready to go...' I would be there at six-thirty or seven to warm up so that at eight o'clock, I'd already be dripping sweat as though the curtain's going up and you have to get ready to appear on stage. It was very different with movies. I couldn't even get on to the sound stage at seven because it was all locked up and I remember thinking, 'I must be in the wrong place...' I'd wander around for a while and then someone would say, 'What time is your call?' and I'd say, 'Eight o'clock...' And they'd say, 'Oh, well, they probably won't open everything up until about ten minutes before eight.' It was just a very different world from the one I knew.

MG: While you were working on Seven Brides..., did you have the feeling that you were working on a project that was shaping up as something extra special?

Jd: There were interesting things going on in every studio but the buzz was out about Seven Brides...but I have to say that there was even more of a buzz when I did Carousel (1956) and that was for 20th Century-Fox. I'd be in rehearsal and you'd see Dan Dailey or some of the other stars -- when they had a break on their own set, they'd come over to our set to see what was happening. They were all very curious. Same thing with The Best Things In Life Are Free (1956). We always had various stars popping in to watch what we were doing. That was going on all the time. But I was out of it. I was just a kid. I didn't understand all of that.

MG: In reference to Seven Brides..., can you talk a little bit about how the division of duties worked between Stanley Donen and Michael Kidd? Who was in charge of what on that picture?

Jd: I've never doubted that the two of them came together like Siamese twins on that movie but the direct influence on me was Michael Kidd. He was the choreographer, so that was "The Boss" for me. I do think they collaborated terrifically and fabulously. When Michael died several years ago, I called Stanley and asked if he would come in and talk to all of the children that I teach -- there was a group of maybe two hundred of them. So, on a Saturday afternoon, Stanley Donen came over and we projected scenes of Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey and Gene Kelly dancing together in It's Always Fair Weather (1955), which Stanley directed and choreographed [with Kelly]. We showed them that amazing sequence where they dance with garbage can covers attached to their feet. I mean, they were simply fabulous -- all three of them. But in some crazy way, Michael Kidd stole it for me. He really had it, you know? He was a New York street guy. A tough little bantam rooster...After we showed the film, I asked Stanley to talk about Michael a bit and about his own work as a director and choreographer but Stanley was very modest and mostly talked about Michael.

MG: Did Balanchine object whenever you pulled out of the ballet to appear in a Hollywood production?

Jd: I always did exactly what I wanted to do. After Balanchine died, I remember [New York City Ballet's general manager] Betty Cage said to me, 'I once asked George why he let you do anything you wanted and he said, 'Well, when I was seventeen, no one could tell me what to do...So, I'm not going to tell Jacques what to do either.' And Balanchine had been dead several years before I heard that. I was just spoiled rotten. For example, Balanchine would carefully prepare a ballet for me and it would be scheduled to premiere at the beginning of the season. Meanwhile, my agent would have gotten me a television show or an appearance in Miami. So, I'd go to George and say, 'Hey, Mr. B., I can't do the opening of the ballet. I'm going to be away shooting a movie for a few months...Is there any way that we can solve that?' And he actually let me do this kind of thing. And I was on a full, year-round salary with New York City Ballet and I'd say things like, 'Hey, I'm doing a movie, I'll be gone six weeks...' And then I would even take some of the ballerinas with me when I was doing shows all over the country. I'd be doing Balanchine's ballets - his own choreography - and I never even asked his permission. I just did it. And when I'd come back, I'd say, 'Hey, Mr. B., when we were in St. Louis, we danced this ballet of yours and the audience really loved it...' And I was talking about Balanchine's ballets! He just let me do anything I wanted. My wife used to say, 'You are so spoiled...you have no idea.' And I was spoiled. Very spoiled.

MG: The National Dance Institute is, of course, one of Jacques d'Amboise's greatest accomplishments. As the creative nucleus of something as vital and meaningful as NDI, it must be disheartening to you that so many federally funded arts programs are being slashed?

Jd: They are now trying to cut the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts again. When they threaten to do things like that, I always think of Germany after the war. The first thing they did amid the rubble is build their opera house back up again. The first thing. It was the center of the expression of their culture. The emotional center of their community was their opera house. I'm afraid we don't view things in quite the same way in this country. First of all, we don't have a culture that is mono-cultured. Our culture includes a little bit of everything. It's French. It's Italian. It's Chinese. We're this hodge-podge of a global nation in our own laboratory testing out the possibilities of a future...Also, the live performing arts are being - little by little - eradicated by television and technology. Why should someone go to a concert now? They can put a plug in their ear and listen to some gadget twenty-four hours a day and ruin their eardrums...So, the arts - at least in terms of public performance - are changing. But there is still nothing like attending a live performance. I have a friend - a dentist - and she's mad about the opera and she always gets the best seats right in the front row. And she invites me. I like opera but over the years, I rarely went because it does cost a lot of money and I was usually performing at night myself. When I did go, it was just amazing. When you see opera like that, you realize that kind of grandness cannot be realized in a tiny little place. It really needs the opulence of an opera house In other words, you could be this very elegant person but unless you know how to dress elegantly, the public doesn't realize your inner worth. When you sit there with Wagner and Verdi and Donizetti and Puccini and these incredible productions with these fabulous singers, you are instantly transported. It's live performance at its best.

MG: As a frequent visitor to Vacationland, what does Maine offer you that you can't find in midtown Manhattan?

Jd: Everybody needs a foot in the marketplace and a foot in the wilderness...One thing that's been lost today is this idea of embracing silence and making time for contemplation and reflection, which is something you can still achieve in Maine...I was on a plane recently and I was talking to [Eliot Cutler] who had run for governor of Maine and he'd lost by less than 10,000 votes. We were talking about how extraordinary Maine is. We also got on the subject of China, because he had been in Beijing for a few years and I was impressed with the fact that he had a global outlook and I thought, wow...if he runs again, I'm going to tell all of my relatives in Maine to vote for him.

MG: Were there skills that you acquired as a dancer that proved to be helpful to you in terms of getting through everyday life?

Jd: I wish that I could say that the discipline of the dancer and the hours they put in translates to the way I live my life now but it's not so. I'm disordered. I'm mercurial. And I depend on other people...I once had a dalliance with a young woman and I asked her, 'Why are you so interested in me?' because there was almost a twenty year difference in our ages. And she said, 'Oh, aside from the physical stuff, I don't know anybody better at getting people to do what you want...and I want to learn how you manage it so that I can do it, too.' And I realized that I'm spoiled. I've always had assistants helping me. I do what I want -- but I get everybody to help me do it.

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