Jacques D’Ambroise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer

by | Nov 22, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Jacques D’Ambroise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer

Studio: VAI DVD 4377
Video: 1.33:1 full screen, B&W & Color
Audio: PCM Mono
Duration: 85 minutes
Extras: Interview With D’Ambroise (2006)
Length: 50 minutes
Rating: ****

I had the all-too-brief pleasure of meeting dancer Jacques D’Ambroise (b. 1934) in Atlanta some years ago, and I recall asking him what music he liked personally, given his having performed the music of Thomson, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Copland, and Debussy as matters of his association with the New York City Ballet. “I like Mahler,” D’Ambroise quipped in his inimitable New York accent. “I don’t know why; I just relate to those big sounds, the big ideas.”

The VAI video assembles performances from 1954-1965, made for Radio-Canada and for the Bell Telephone Hour; the complete Thomson ballet, Filling Station (1954) derives from a Max Liebman Presents kinescope. “Those Bell Telephone Hour shows are incredible, when you think about the conditions of production,” proffers D’Ambroise. “There were no edits, no retakes. We had to dance on a hard, concrete floor, and you hoped you would hit your mark, or else the camera wouldn’t pick you up. You couldn’t warm up because there was no space, and the studio was cold. Then, the lights came on, and you were overheated. But the quality of the programs was incredible.” D’Ambroise shares his reminiscences of having left high school without a diploma, but having garnered a vast education in the arts. “It’s always been about the transformation of the person through the power of art. I never had to pay for dance lessons, and I want to give young people the same opportunity I had, to be presented beautifully.” His father, a Boston Irishman who had lost his job several times, made a living as an elevator operator making $35 a week. “When I made $10 for dancing Puck in just one night, I knew I wanted to stick with it. I had followed my sister to her dance lessons and wound up with George Balanchine. When Stravinsky’s Apollo became my seminal work, I wanted to study and learn and penetrate this piece. I could never be as good as the role. And yet, while there are today better dancers than I, they don’t have Balanchine to instruct them nor Stravinsky to conduct them like I had.”

The performance part of the video contains seven numbers, ranging from Apollo (1960) from Radio-Canada to Swan Lake (1960) and The Nutcracker (1965) to The Still Point (1962) and Stars and Stripes (1959), with music of Sousa arranged by Hershey Kay. Besides Robert Irving leading Apollo we have a rare performance of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun (1955) led by Desire Defauw, a former conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The black and white sequences are in visually poor condition, bleached out, with D’Ambroise’s chiseled features almost absent in some cases. That sleek form of his, which caught Stanley Donen’s attention for 7 Brides for 7 Brothers (1953), warrants our attention in the rich color sequences, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Still Point, and Stars and Stripes. Jerome Robbins once called D’Ambroise “a lamppost of legs, feet, and teeth.” Those teeth still flash when D’Ambroise remembers Balanchine. “He kowtowed to nobody–except to Stravinsky. Around Stravinsky, Balanchine was like a little boy. For Stravinsky’s 80th birthday, George, Igor, and I were having breakfast in Hamburg, Germany. Performances were led by Robert Craft and Stravinsky. George toasted Stravinsky: “God has kept Igor around for 80 years because God loves his music.” Balanchine had a positive work-ethic. “I was performing Hindemith’s Four Temperaments, and I couldn’t lift the ballerina; I hadn’t the upper-body strength. I wanted to quit, and I said I’m not good enough. But Balanchine said you have to do it; that is how you get to be good enough!”

For me, the main visual interest is Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete (1928), conceived as the first of a Greek trilogy that would later embrace Orpheus and Agon. The performance from 16 March 1960 features a bare set with a scaffold or staircase, under which Apollo waits to be born, swathed in a bandage. Diana Adams dances the major role as Terpsichore, along with Calliope, the Muse of Heroic Poetry and Polyhymnia, the Muse of Epic Poetry. Released from his bonds, Apollo has paroxysms of birth, then he stands erect, voluptuous. Ensue a series of triangulations among the four dancers, purveyors of Art and Beauty. “The whole thing must flow,” offers D’Ambroise. “No jerky movements, no stops, just legato.” Each Muse receives her art from Apollo; each has her variation. Apollo remains poised, even equestrian, a gorgeous thoroughbred groomed to stud. He and Terpsichore could populate the world. The finale is a shimmering march, a pas d’action become paean, in which Apollo sends forth Humanity’s creative energies.

The Swan Lake sequence (25 November 1960) is choreographed by Petipa, and features a rather smug Helen Hayes and mature Farley Grainger, who dramatize letters from Tchaikovsky to his patron Mme. von Meck. Lupe Serrano is the Black Swan. Powerful in her fouettes and flourishes. The Nutcracker sequence is choreographed by D’Ambroise, a period piece equipped with a Model-T truck and a Christmas tree into whose center D’Ambroise and Melissa Hayden plant themselves. Stars and Stripes (1959) is a color piece of Americana, inspired by the same impulse as Virgil Thomson’s Filling Station (1938), when Lincoln Kirstein and Lew Christensen wanted to explore American subjects expressed by American composers. In bleached black and white, Filling Station (1954) gives us a lanky, lean D’Ambroise who might remind aficionados of the angular, gawky dancing style of Buddy Ebsen and Sterling Holloway. We savor an assorted cast of characters who patronize, in vaudevillian fashion, the station, from a couple of rich drunks to a masked gangster. The set design looks like the Burgess Meredith apocalypse episode from The Twilight Zone. D’Ambroise wraps himself around the fuel pump and the telephone pole with lithe energy. The gangster sequence had me thinking of Leslie Howard’s performance in The Petrified Forest.

D’Ambroise concludes his charming interview with an extended discussion on his National Dance Institute, now engaged in reaching out to a small village in Senegal, bringing them the challenges and joys of the dance. “We look mostly to private donors, fund raising, and to avoiding government as much as possible.” The recipient of ten honorary Ph.D.s, an autodidact, a voracious reader who never received a high school diploma, D’Ambroise basks in his memories and a lifetime of achievement, quite aware that he passes a blazing torch to the next generation, a mantle he is proud to share.

— Gary Lemco