dancers, Jacques, Princess Grace and Balanchine...

A couple of days ago I heard Jacques d’Amboise interviewed on public radio. There was so much joy and magnetism in his voice that I sat in the car outside the store, unwilling to leave the delicious stories that poured out of this seventy-six year old. With his new book, I was a Dancer, just out from Knopf, he has become a word dancer. This man is a force. I ordered the book on kindle, and have been reading it and looking at the tiny photos of the Balanchine era.

The Balanchine era.  In 1963, I was taken by my good friend and dancer, Bessie, to a rehearsal of the New York City Ballet Company. It wasn’t a dance class, but a run-through in a theater with 10 or so people watching for about an hour.

Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell

Balanchine was there, demonstrating, stepping in with comments and corrections. I hardly noticed the dancers. I was stunned by this man. I left the building that day with a new understanding of art, of magnetism, of command. I was in the presence of the master.

Back to the book. It was affirming to hear d’Amboise say, of Balanchine coaching: “He wrung tears from your heart.” Bernard Taper, dancer and choreographer writes in his book Balanchine, p. 10, “Balanchine turned to d’Amboise… going over various sequences together – facing each other, like one man looking in a mirror, while both of them danced. Occasionally they would stop for a few words of comment… then they would spring into action again face to face about three feet apart.” This was backstage at intermission and the stage manager had finally taken each of them by an arm and led them off as the next performance began.

And Jacques’ book takes us deeper into what it was like to dance at that level:

It’s an extraordinary thing to be a ballet dancer. You cannot divorce yourself from the music. You get up in the morning, you warm up, you stretch, you do a little floor mat. And now ballet class starts and for the next hour or hour and a half, music is your floor, and you are interpreting that music by the way you move. No sooner do you finish, and then you have five minutes before you’re in rehearsal. You rehearse for three hours. You may be in one room with Jerome Robbins, you may have three hours with Balanchine, you have an hour’s break to eat lunch but you don’t eat lunch, because you’re going to be rehearsing all afternoon. So except for a one-hour break, you have been going nine hours with music. Now, it’s six o’clock. You’ve got two hours before the curtain goes up. During those two hours, you eat something, but not much because you’ve got to perform. So you shower, you wash, you put on your makeup, you go on stage, and you practice what you’re going to do when the curtain goes up. Or work with your partner. Or if somebody’s injured, you learn what you’re going to have to do to replace them. Now it’s a half hour, right? You’re in your costume. Fifteen minutes, curtain goes up, you’re out there with the symphony orchestra. Stravinsky’s conducting, or Robert Irving. And you’re dancing to Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn or Chopin or whatever. Incredible music. Now it’s eight. If there was a pas de deux and I wasn’t a principal dancer yet, I’d always be in my dressing-room costume and get down to catch the last act. It’s now eleven o’clock. You’re ravenous, exhilarated, on a high. And you go pig out on food and you go to bed at twelve thirty or one o’clock, and then get up and do it all again.  

Jacques experienced dancing the role of Apollo in 1957 at age 23. It was a rare piece that he did without the intricate guidance of Balanchine, copying his every move. He had recently returned from 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, (a hit film he stared in), and back in the ballet world, he “breezed through” Apollo. He writes: “ knew it wasn’t good.” He had a “dark night” of his ballet career. Instead of relying on the master,  “I took each step, analyzed it and practiced, repeating it over and over, again at different tempi ––slow motion, then fast, faster –– even danced with my eyes shut, to explore the possibilities in the movement… It took two hours to get through a two-and-a half-to-three-minute variation. I even practiced breathing, where and how I would breathe… I’d stumbled upon an interesting paradox: through detailed practice and countless repetitions, there is freedom. Apollo launched me on a new trajectory.”

Jacques today

Again this book touches deeper. For fourteen years I relied on a gifted poet and editor to be my second pair of eyes, to look at every poem or piece of prose I wrote. She has an eagle eye and an ear that hears the inside music of words as they go by. Every step I wrote was critiqued by her. Then, after my book was accepted and I became an author, this part of the relationship was over. I felt I could no longer ask her to do this, She didn’t volunteer.  I was deeply sad. So what Jacques did with movement, I am beginning to do with words.

I am attending a formalist poetry conference as a student of the craft, and in preparation, I’ve opened Marilyn  Hacker’s book, Winter Numbers, and I am counting syllables of her sonnets, looking at her rhymed words. I am counting in iambic pentameter. I have returned to the essence of language because I don’t know what else to do, creatively. I feel as though I’m a bottom feeder, working my way toward the surface of the art of poetry one word at a time. Jacques d’Amboise wrote, Through detailed practice and countless repetitions, there is freedom. May it be so! <>