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Arts

Elegant Dancer, Passionate Educator Jacques D’Amboise Dies

Jacques d'Amboise, who combined classical elegance with all-American verve and athleticism to become one of the top male dancers at New York City Ballet, then spent more than four decades providing free dance education to countless youngsters through his National Dance Institute, has died at 86.

His death was confirmed by Ellen Weinstein, director of the New York-based institute. She said the dancer and teacher had died on Sunday at his New York City home from complications of a stroke. He was surrounded by his family.

Plucked for stardom at NYCB as a teenager by its legendary director, George Balanchine, d'Amboise performed with the company for about 35 years before retiring just before he turned 50. His exuberant style and dashing looks drew interest in Hollywood, where he appeared in films like "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Carousel." But his real love was for the ballet stage, where he was known for iconic roles like Balanchine's "Apollo" and the Gershwin-scored "Who Cares?"

In an interview with The Associated Press  in 2018, d'Amboise described the moment he decided to end his dance career in 1984.

"I was almost 50, there were only a few roles left that I could do," he said. "I was waiting to go onstage, and I suddenly thought, 'I don't want to go on. I danced, came off, took off my ballet shoes and quit."

He had already long determined his next calling, founding the National Dance Institute in 1976. The joy he took in providing a dance education to kids who might otherwise never have tried the art form — in schools, or for some, in classes at the institute — was on full display in the Oscar-winning 1983 documentary "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin,'" a look at his NDI work.

"Jacques was a life force." said Weinstein, who worked for some 40 years with d'Amboise, meeting him as a student at SUNY Purchase. "Jacques knew first-hand the joy and transformative power that the arts can bring to the lives of children and he dedicated the last 45 years to ensuring that every child has access to quality arts education."

The institute, which moved into its Harlem building in 2011, teaches thousands of students every year in schools, and says it has reached over two million children across the globe.

Watching a reunion performance by some of his most enthusiastic young dancers one weekend day in March 2018, d'Amboise could not hide his excitement. "Fantastic!" he called out frequently. "Wow!" Upstairs in his office, stuffed with career artifacts including shelves full of fading journals lovingly preserved, he described his love for dance. He took his interviewer's arm to demonstrate how a very slight difference in movement could express a completely different thought or feeling.

"I never asked myself this until my late 20s," he said, "but what IS dance? I realized that it's an art form our species has developed to express emotion. And it's extremely subtle. Wanna see an example?"

Born Joseph Jacques Ahearn in Massachusetts in 1934, d'Amboise — the family later switched to his mother's surname because, the story goes, it better suited ballet — moved as a child to New York and trained at a school in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. At age 8, he began his studies at the School of American Ballet. At 12, he performed with Ballet Society, the predecessor to New York City Ballet, and in 1949, at age 15, he joined NYCB.

Balanchine choreographed a slew of roles specifically for d'Amboise, but the dancer is perhaps best known for his elegant "Apollo," a role created in 1928 but which d'Amboise made his own. As a choreographer, d'Amboise made close to 20 works for NYCB.

Dance and stage legend Chita Rivera was one of many paying tribute on Monday to a man she first met when she was all of 16, at the School of American Ballet.

"I shall always remember his infectious smile and dedication to building more wonderful male dancers," Rivera, 88, said in a statement. "He shared his love of dance by creating more. Jacques always had a brilliant light surrounding him."

D'Amboise was a 1995 Kennedy Center honoree and a recipient of a 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, along with numerous awards including the National Medal of Arts and the NYC Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts & Culture.

The institute said Monday in a statement that d'Amboise's work in arts education took him across the globe — "from the extremes of Yakutsk, Siberia, to the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia, from … the Dead Sea to the mountains of Nepal, and from the dryness of the Atacama Desert in Chile to rainforests on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian chain."

He is survived by four children — George, Christopher, Catherine, and Charlotte, a Tony-nominated actor and dancer – as well as six grandchildren.

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