Why Is Jacques d'Amboise's Book Sooo Good?

March 13, 2011

Jacques d’Amboise’s autobiography, I Was a Dancer, is a luscious treat. Save it for a rainy day, a lonely train, or after you’ve had to read an arduous book.

With rollicking spirit rolling off of every page, d’Amboise tells how he morphed from a rough street kid to an Apollo of the stage. He forms a close relationship with Balanchine, possibly the closest of any male dancer. He travels to many countries, first as a fledgling dancer, then as a star (though he never talks like a “star”), and finally as the mastermind (and master nurturer) behind the National Dance Institute. He brings you into each situation with ease and self-effacing modesty. And humor. There are parts where I laughed out loud.

D’Amboise reveals things that most people don’t know, for instance that Lincoln Kirstein’s infatuation with dancer Lew Christensen was a motivating force, that Balanchine was not as Zen as he appeared to be and played out little revenge scenarios, or that Betty Cage kept Balanchine and Kirstein in balance. These keen observations are expressed simply, with no drum roll.

One of d’Amboise’s charms is his generosity. Dancers like Matt Mattox (whom he admired on the set of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Melissa Hayden (his most frequent partner), and the almost forgotten Jack Cole come in for vigorous tributes. But really, Jacques is deeply appreciative of almost everyone he encounters—especially his wife Carolyn George and four children including Christopher and Charlotte.

As an editor, I have to say that one of the secrets to d’Amboise’s riveting writing is short sentences. The staccato rhythm creates momentum. Another is the sheer vividness of his memory. The description of his mother sleeping noisily is spectacular—worthy of Dickens, Salinger, or Allende. And his juicy paragraphs about food are mouth-watering—whether it’s tomatoes provençales in France or a strange pineapple drink in Hawaii.

You don’t have to be a dancer to love this book. It’s a quick and easy read, full of pleasure. It ranks with my three all-time favorite dance autobiographies: Allegra Kent’s Once a Dancer, Paul Taylor’s Private Domain, and Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts. I Was a Dancer is the best new book I’ve read in years.

Photo courtesy Knopf