I was a dancer, p.1

I Was a Dancer, page 1


I Was a Dancer

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I Was a Dancer

  This Is a Borzoi Book

  Published by Alfred A. Knopf

  Copyright © 2011 by Jacques d’Amboise

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.


  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

  Judy Collins: Lyrics from “The Other Side of My World” and “Rosebud’s Song,” music and lyrics by Judy Collins. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  Nicholas Jenkins: Excerpt from the poem “Patton” and the entire poem “Vaudeville” by Lincoln Kirstein, copyright © 2011 by the New York Public Library (Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations). Reprinted by permission of Nicholas Jenkins, Literary Executor of the Copyrights and Papers of Lincoln Kirstein.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  D’Amboise, Jacques, [date]

  I was a dancer / by Jacques d’Amboise.

  p. cm.

  Includes index.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-59523-2

  1. D’Amboise, Jacques, [date] 2. Dancers—United States—Biography. 3. New York City Ballet. I. Title.

  GV1785.D23A3 2011


  [B] 2010045356

  Front-of-jacket photograph © John Dominis/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

  Jacket Design by Jason Booher








  Title Page






  The Boss

  Washington Heights


  Maria Tallchief, Balanchine, and Marc Chagall

  Balanchine and Cranko

  Lincoln and Lew

  Boss Leaves Pop

  Carolyn George

  A Honeymoon in Haiti


  “Miracle” George

  Quentin Keynes

  Balanchine’s Muses


  The Years Leading to Balanchine’s Death

  A Close Call with Death

  The Years Leading to Balanchine’s Death, Continued

  Balanchine’s Burial

  National Dance Institute

  Death of Lincoln

  Death of Milly

  NDI Goes On




  Other Books by This Author


  All images without a photo credit are courtesy of the author.

  1.1 My mother, ca. 1918

  1.2 Family farm in Île Verte, Quebec

  1.3 Boss in the White Mountains, New Hampshire, 1917

  1.4 My father, Staten Island, 1939

  1.5 French-Canadian Spread recipe

  1.6 Palm Beach, February 1935

  1.7 Drawing of car accident

  1.8 Drawing of furnace and cots

  2.1 Jimmy Comiskey, ca. 1951 (Courtesy James Comiskey)

  2.2 With Abie, early 1950s (Raimondo Borea)

  2.3 Smiling at Seda’s flattery

  3.1 Kyra Blank teaching at SAB, 1957

  3.2 Dancing a hoedown, 1943

  3.3 Drawing, David Levine, 1985

  3.4 John, 1945

  3.5 The candy store, 1941 (Courtesy Irene Rosner Davis)

  3.6 Dave, 1941 (Courtesy Irene Rosner Davis)

  3.7 Todd Bolender in The Four Temperaments, 1946 (Copyright Estate of George Platt Lynes and Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  3.8 In an alley in Chicago, 1949

  3.9 Anatole Oboukhoff, SAB Broadway studios, ca. 1951 (Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  3.10 Adagio class, ca. 1955 (Courtesy of NYCB Archive and Martha Swope)

  3.11 In class with Pierre Vladimiroff (Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  3.12 Muriel Stuart, 1959 (Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  3.13 Felia Doubrovska, 1980 (Courtesy of NYCB Archive and Carolyn George)

  4.1 My sister and I arriving in London, 1950

  5.1 Tanny and I in Afternoon of a Faun, 1953

  5.2 Ninette, 1948 (Walter E. Owen)

  6.1 Willam Christensen and Lew Christensen, late 1920s (Roxanne Christensen Lazzara)

  6.2 Lew Christensen, 1937 (Courtesy NYCB Archive and George Platt Lynes)

  8.1 Drawing of Carrie in Times Square, 1946

  8.2 Carrie, Seattle, 1962 (John Dominus / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)

  8.3 Carrie in a café (Cris Alexander)

  8.4 In Montreux, Switzerland

  8.5 Paul Cadmus’s drawing for Filling Station

  8.6 Me in 1953 (George Platt Lynes)

  8.7 Janie in LA, 1953

  8.8 On tour with Allegra Kent, 1953

  8.9 On tour with a pigeon, 1953 (Cris Alexander)

  8.10 NYCB in Monaco, 1955

  8.11 Ballet garter

  8.12 Wedding Day, 1956

  9.1 Dr. Mel Kiddon, Patricia Wilde, Diana Adams, and Melissa Hayden, 1956 (Courtesy of Ninette d’Amboise)

  10.1 Apollo blesses Terpsichore, 1957 (Fritz Peyer)

  10.2 Igor Stravinsky, Kolya, and Balanchine, 1957

  10.3 Balanchine demonstrating, 1962 (John Dominus / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)

  10.4 Apollo décor

  10.5 Apollo décor evolution

  10.6 With Patricia McBride, Allegra Kent, and Patricia Neary, 1957 (John Dominus / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)

  10.7 Clearing the stage, 1962 (John Dominus / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)

  10.8 Jumping over my son George, Australia, 1958

  10.9 Episodes, 1962 (John Dominus / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)

  11.1 Photo snapped by Heidi Preuss, 1999

  11.2 Diane Smarr, 1964

  11.3 Diane Smarr with the twins, 1965

  11.4 Carrie’s self-portrait

  11.5 Pop, 1989

  12.1 Quentin Keynes in Mauritius, 1952 (Estate of Quentin Keynes)

  12.2 Cris Alexander and Shaun O’Brien, London, early 1980s

  12.3 Drawing of a potted plant, Hotel Astoria, Leningrad, 1962

  12.4 Drawing of a policewoman, Leningrad

  12.5 Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, 1962

  12.6 Chris d’Amboise, 1962

  12.7 “Goodbye to Baku!” 1962 (Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  13.1 Diana Adams in The Nutcracker, 1954 (Fred Fehl)

  13.2 Dancing with Diana Adams, 1952

  13.3 Drawing of Noah and the Flood

  13.4 Movements for Piano and Orchestra, with Gloria Govrin and Pat Neary, 1963 (Fred Fehl)

  13.5 With Suzanne Farrell and Karin von Aroldingen, 1963 (Martha Swope)

  13.6 With Suzannne Farrell, 1964 (Carolyn George)

  13.7 Christopher d’Amboise, 1964 (Martha Swope)

  13.8 George d’Amboise, 1965 (Martha Swope)

  13.9 Suzanne Farrell in Don Q, 1965 (Carolyn George)

  13.10 With Suzanne Farrell in Don Q, 1965 (Carolyn George)

  13.11 With Karin von Aroldingen, 1970 (Carolyn George)

  13.12 Balanchine, Robert Weiss, and Merrill Ashley, 1978 (Martha Swope)

  13.13 Ballo della Regina, 1978 (Martha Swope)

  13.14 With Darci and Chris, early 1980s (Carolyn George)

  14.1 Lincoln Kirstein by Jamie Wyeth, 1965

  15.1 With Jerome Robbins, John Taras, and Balanchine, May 1975 (Martha Swope)

  15.2 With David Richardson

  15.3 Lincoln Kirstein (Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  16.1 Brad Jr.’s photo of me, Pasadena, late 1950s

  17.1 Lincoln Kirstein with Suzanne Farrell (Carolyn George)

  17.2 Lincoln Kirstein (Carolyn George)

  18.1 Karin von Aroldingen at Balanchine’s grave, 2003

  19.1 Emile Ardolino, 1984 (Copyright © Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences)

  19.2 The last of the wine, 1984 (Carolyn George)

  19.3 We added girls, 1978 (Carolyn George)

  19.4 The Shooting of Dan McGrew, P.S.29, 1985 (Carolyn George)

  19.5 George Kennan, in the center of a doughnut of children, 1990 (Carolyn George)

  19.6 Divas, 1992 (Carolyn George)

  19.7 Tsering, 1992 (Carolyn George)

  19.8 Tamara Annau and Ilana Frank, 1993 (Carolyn George)

  19.9 Sandra, August 1993 (Carolyn George)

  19.10 Raul and Daniella, November 1993 (Carolyn George)

  19.11 Yuli Markov and Lisa Roandall, May 1993 (Carolyn George)

  19.12 Drawing of an Afar warrior’s knife

  19.13 Zahra, Hussan, and Osis, January 1994 (Carolyn George)

  19.14 The entire cast, 1994 (Carolyn George)

  20.1 With Kyra Blank (Fidelma Kirstein)

  20.2 Cris Alexander and Shaun O’Brien (Cris Alexander)

  21.1 Milly at the Saratoga Racetrack, 1973 (Courtesy of NYCB Archive)

  23.1 Monthly calendar

  23.2 Balanchine with father and son d’Amboise (Carolyn George)

  23.3 At Karinska’s costume shop, late 1960s (Carolyn George)

  23.4 With Merrill Ashley, 1970 (Martha Swope)

  23.5 A wild, untamed youth learns nobility through art, 1962 (John Dominus / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)


  This book exists because of:

  1. Vicky Wilson—at a dinner table she said, “Hey! I’m with Knopf … We would be interested in publishing a book by you on your life.”

  2. Kay Gayner—fingers at a computer, ears to listen, voice to ask questions, patience to make it through my garrulousness, shared her brilliance to aid me in everything.

  3. The skills given so generously by Kyle Goodman, Malcolm St. Clair, and Tamara Tweedy.

  4. Carmen Johnson—whose beauty is matched by her intellect.

  5. Vicky—again, who is to be thanked or blamed depending on the reader’s judgment.


  In my early twenties, I was approached to write a book about my life as a dancer. I thought, “Ridiculous! I haven’t lived yet.” However, over the next fifty years, I kept diaries, collected materials, and occasionally dabbled, writing little essays of an autobiographical nature. Ingredients were being stored for future use.

  In 1999, I took close to seven months off to backpack the length of the Appalachian Trail with my son George. It was an exhilarating adventure. The first six weeks (Maine and New Hampshire) were brutal, but soon we became walking machines, easily knocking off twenty miles a day, while lugging a backpack up and down the rocky terrain. From north to south, through the fourteen states we traversed, and staged forty dance events. I invented an Appalachian hiking dance for those events, teaching more than fifteen thousand people. During the more than five million steps it takes to hike the Appalachian Trail, I spent a lot of time listening to voices in my head. A recurring one urged, “Jacques, stop delaying! Finish your hike and finish your book! It’s ready to be baked!” Well, it took over a decade to prepare and serve these pages.

  Anecdotal and episodic, this book is a buffet of stories about the experiences and relationships that shaped me as a person, dancer, and teacher. Seasoned with tales of friendships and collaborations with great artists, celebrities, and individuals, these stories weave a tapestry. I trust you will read them and as a result come to believe, as I do, in the importance of the arts and their value to the development of our humanity and culture. Who am I? I’m a man, an American, a father, a teacher, but most of all, I am a person who knows how the arts can change lives, because they transformed mine. I was a dancer.

  I Was a Dancer

  The Boss

  My father would tell us, “She thinks she’s Sarah Bernhardt, the queen of the theater, putting on airs.” My mother relished the comparison, ignoring the slur Pop intended. She did resemble photographs of the great actress, and acted the part as well. “She’s so bossy, we should call her the Boss!” The family agreed and adopted the nickname, but soon transformed it into a term of affection. When that happened, my father went back to calling her Georgiana.

  Christened Georgiana d’Amboise, she grew up to be a determined woman—tiny (four foot nine), sturdy, shapely, and volcanic with energy. Her hair was thick, chocolate brown, and her matching eyes danced. “Oh, I had such hair,” she boasted, “hanging down below my knees!” I imagined her as a young girl in Canada with her mother and four sisters singing French Canadian folk songs, lined up in a row as they rhythmically combed one another’s hair—the feminine version of a line of paddling canoers.

  Pop claimed 1900 as the year of his birth. My mother claimed the same year, though when asked, she declared, with her irrefutable logic, “Your father’s a year older than me.”

  Georgiana’s father, David Bergeron d’Amboise, married Marie Pelletier, and I believe that out of the children born to them, nine survived. Their farm was in Île Vert, in the province of Quebec.

  In Canada, winters were brutal. One of my mother’s chores sent her out into the freezing cold with an ice pick to chip frozen herring from the barrels stored outside their farmhouse. “Those fish kept us alive,” she would announce dramatically. After chores were done, the family played board games, and Marie read to them by the light of oil lamps and the fireplace. “We read them all, the French books—Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire—Camille! Oh, how I loved Camille!—and books describing the life of the French court, l’histoire de France, and Château d’Amboise!” They read stories from the Bible and tales from the lives of saints, wallowing in the gory deaths of Christian martyrs, replete with miracles and sacrifices. Nothing subtle about the way my mother retold and embellished her favorites: “Oh, poor Saint Bernadette Soubirous,1 she had tuberculosis of the knees and was in agony, but she crawled on her poor knees every day to wash the feet of the sick and minister to the dying in hospice. She was so good, the Virgin came for her!” I never knew what that meant, “the Virgin came for her,” but it sounded impressive. “When Bernadette died, she went directly to heaven, and her body smelled of perfume. But Henry the Eighth and King Herod of Judea had horrible deaths for their sins! They both died the same way—eaten from the inside out!” Then the punch line, “They say that when Henry the Eighth was dying, he smelled so bad, no one could go near him.”2

  My mother, Georgiana d’Amboise, ca. 1918 (image credit 1.1)

  The high point of drear midwinter was the joy of Réveillon! Before Mass on Christmas Eve, families would bundle into sleighs to visit one another’s homes, bearing gifts of food and drink—a pot of beans, smoked fish, preserves, jellies, baked goodies, and wine (Clos des Mouches was a favorite of the d’Amboises). Then everyone gathered for Midnight Mass and Communion, and since it was the custom to fast before receiving Communion, when the final “Ite, missa est”3 was sung, the congregation, their stomachs growling with anticipation, dashed to various people’s homes for an orgy of eating and drinking. Laughter, joy, and bonhomie resounded into the wee hours.

  Family farm in Île Verte, in the province of Quebec (image credit 1.2)

  A family farm in Île Verte, Province of Quebec, meant short summers, and endless labor. David would work the farm, get Marie pregnant, bring in the harvest, and then disappear into the woods for the winter, to work with a crew of lumberjacks, cutting trees, trimming logs and sliding them down to rest on top of the frozen river. When spring came, the ice would break, the logs would fall into the water, and the lumberjacks
would shepherd them down to the mills. The most dangerous part of the job was breaking up logjams; in those days, the average life span of a lumberjack was forty years. Overwhelming was the relief and joy of the family when David returned in the spring. At home, he would likely soon find a new baby along with the spring buds, and the cycle would start again, declaring, as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda put it, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”

  My mother often recounted to me vivid stories about her parents, Marie and David, and growing up in Canada.


  “Your grandfather, mon père—his name was David—was riding his calèche4—it’s like a small buggy—from our farmhouse to go to town. It was fall, a cold morning, and a long way, maybe ten miles in the forest, before you came to anything. There were a few farms along the rutted dirt track through thickets of trees, a tunnel in the great, dark forest of Canada.

  “He was about halfway there when suddenly his seat jerked back. A big man had leaped from the forest and landed behind him on the calèche. A black man! ‘I’m here to ride with you!’ the man announced. Terrified, mon père struggled with the horse, which was kicking, rearing, and twisting about. Yelling, David ordered, ‘Get off, get off!’ The man threw his arms around David’s neck, choking him, and they began a terrible fight, buffeting each other and finally rolling off the back of the calèche onto the ground. The horse fled down the road, leaving the two of them punching and clutching in the dirt.

  “Now, Jacques, remember, your grandfather worked in the woods with ax and saw. He was not tall, but he was powerful and strong. Soon, he began to get the better of the other and managed to wrest himself away from the terrible embrace. Then, he delivered the black man such a wallop that it knocked him down. My father took this opportunity to turn and run down the road as fast as his feet could carry him, imagining he heard pounding footsteps behind him. Sweating and panting, he prayed to Our Lady for help. Oh, how happy he was when he saw the horse and calèche waiting for him around a bend in the road. He leaped on and galloped off toward town with seconds to spare, never daring to look back.

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