Dance Magazine Recommends: The Apollo Next Door

Jacques d’Amboise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer. Produced by Allan Altman, Video Arts International DVD. $34.95.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Warner Brothers Two-DVD Special Edition. $21.99.

Carousel (50th Anniversary Edition). 20th Century Fox; two DVDs. $26.98.


To understand Jacques d’Amboise’s enduring appeal, go directly to the 50-minute interview with him appended to the incomparable VAI anthology. The ageless enthusiasm with which the dancer recounts the genesis, zenith, and glorious postlude of his performing history is the same quality that attracted choreographers and thrilled audiences for almost four decades.

 

Those of us with long memories have never forgotten Massachusetts-born d’Amboise in his prime. My first experience was a New York City Ballet evening late in 1958, when Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes was less than a year old. What emerged from that performance wasn’t the standard “Gosh, here’s a red-blooded American guy-next-door type who has defied contemporary social norms by dancing in ballet” impression (although it was all true).

 

What stayed with me was d’Amboise’s matchless delight in moving on a stage. You felt he was put on earth for the sole purpose of giving himself and his audience pleasure through dancing. He could execute the most demanding Balanchine combination with a debonair freedom that banished all thought of exhibitionism. Born in 1934, d’Amboise was the first American male ballet superstar of the post–World War II era, and his career soared in that propitious period when television welcomed ballet dancers as genuine artist-entertainers, worthy of spending time in your living room.



The VAI release captures d’Amboise in the heady prime (1955–65) of his career in seven roles. From the Bell Telephone Hour archives come the Black Swan pas de deux with Lupe Serrano, the love duet from Todd Bolender’s moody Still Point, a Nutcracker pas de deux, and the pas de deux and finale from Stars and Stripes, all with frequent partner Melissa Hayden. From 1954 comes a complete version of Lew Christensen’s rarely seen 1930s classic Filling Station with d’Amboise ideally cast as the gas jockey, and appearances by Bolender, Janet Reed, Edward Bigelow, and Robert Barnett (amazing when you realize that there was an era when NBC would broadcast a 25-minute ballet in comedian Sid Caesar’s time slot).

 

D’Amboise proves a buoyant classicist and a smooth partner in the 19th-century material and something more in the Balanchine. His sheer effervescence seems to exemplify what the choreographer so admired in the American spirit; he’s also one of the few guys who actually looks good in Karinska’s military costume for Stars and Stripes.



Yet, what makes this release a priceless addition to the library are the complete performances of Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun and Balanchine’s Apollo. The best of NYCB in that seminal era has been preserved in these black-and-white kinescopes. Tanaquil Le Clercq, in all her radiant maturity, joins d’Amboise in the Robbins, shot, alas, through what looks like gauze. Still, the performers blaze their way through the murk. Both dancers tread Robbins’ narrow path between artistry and narcissism; the kiss d’Amboise plants on Le Clercq’s cheek sends shivers through the viewer.



The Apollo, in which d’Amboise is complemented by Jillana (Calliope), Francia Russell (Polyhymnia), and Diana Adams (Terpsichore), is essential viewing. The performance, conducted by NYCB music director Robert Irving, offers the ballet before the choreographer eliminated both the birth episode and some of Stravinsky’s most haunting music. D’Amboise’s Apollo varies strikingly from the cool, Nordic impersonators that seem to prevail today. This young god startles with his groping for his balances, his unaffected boyishness, his sheer ebullience. Thus, when the summons to Olympus comes, the change in d’Amboise’s expression and musculature, so dramatic in this performance, underlines the moral scheme of the ballet as do few other interpretations.


As d’Amboise relates, it was after a NYCB revival of Filling Station that the movies came calling. The dancer was only 19 when he traveled to Hollywood to make Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. On the set, d’Amboise joined Marc Platt from the Ballets Russes companies and Jack Cole disciple Matt Mattox. Released in 1954, the film, directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, was allotted a skimpy budget (check the painted flats) and almost thrown away by the studio, but this frontier musical comedy proved an uncommon hit with the public, opening at the holiest of holies, the Radio City Music Hall.



The 50th anniversary reissue offers a fascinating documentary featuring d’Amboise, Kidd, and others. Fresh from Broadway and dubious about the project, the undersung Kidd was determined that his choreography would emerge from character, and so it does in this magnificently transferred release. Highlights include the barn-building scene, where Kidd blurs the distinction between acrobatics and choreography with dazzling results, and the “Lonesome Polecat” number, which provides a splendid vehicle for Mattox before he evolved into one of this country’s most acclaimed jazz dancers and teachers.


When it came time in 1956 to film Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, 20th Century Fox enlisted Rod Alexander to create choreography that was inferior to Agnes de Mille’s original. Her contribution remains only in Louise’s dream ballet, where d’Amboise dances with both compassion and flair. His matinee idol looks and romantic air make one regret that his movie career was so limited.

 

Any complete survey of d’Amboise on film should conclude with Emile Ardolino’s 1983 documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. This stirring account of the artist’s work with the National Dance Institute, which he founded in 1976 to instill in school children the pleasure that dancing affords, is probably the greatest Act III of any dancer’s career. Unfortunately, the Oscar-winning film is not yet available on DVD. One can only hope.

 


Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.

The Conversation
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Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.

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Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.

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Dance Training
Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Dancers Trending
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Cover Story
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"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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Advice for Dancers
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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

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