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Jacques d'Amboise: Ballet Master Extraordinaire
- V.P. Dhananjayan
Photos courtesy: Bharata Kalanjali

May 15, 2021

Jacques d'Amboise, esteemed New York Ballet choreographer, passed away on May 2, 2021.

Jacques d'Amboise was an iconic Ballet dancer, acclaimed choreographer par excellence, a Ballet master with relentless energy who at the ripe age of 85-86 left a legacy by saying adieu to the world of classical dance. Jacques's life was an open book for the male dancers of the entire world starting with obscure beginnings and reaching Himalayan heights. Jacques reaching the top position in the Ballet world is providential. He was one of the sons of a lift operator residing in the Harlem area of New York (then considered as the slums of NY). His father, while attending to his duties, admitted his sons in a nearby Ballet class to while away their time, like a play school. His father would not have dreamt that one of his sons would become a celebrity in the performing art field, and that too in New York City - the cultural capital of the world. Destiny has its own course!!

The New York Times has paid the highest tribute to this celebrity Ballet artist in an obituary article which highlights his chronological steps to his career top position. In collaborating with such an acclaimed celebrity Ballet master, I have learnt and imbibed a lot to improve my own understanding of the idiom of choreography in a larger perspective and handling large groups of children from various underprivileged communities. Therefore, I am proud and privileged to narrate the story of the creation of 'Chakra' envisaged and created by Jacques d'Amboise whom we cannot forget and kept our contact till the last. This may be an inspiring story for our dance fraternity and connoisseurs alike.

Chakra, on the philosophy of life staged in NY was a mammoth production with 1000 school children of various nationalities participating in it. A production of the National Dance Institute, New York, it was directed by famous choreographer Jacques d'Amboise and performed at the Radio City Music Hall on May 20, 1991. After that, ten consecutive days of presentation in the famed hall of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in NY. What a rich experience it was working with the symphony orchestra of the musicians of the Brooklyn Academy of Music!

Jacques d'Amboise with VP Dhananjayan

On retiring, Jacques d'Amboise embarked on social work to bring world cultures together and educate the underprivileged children about the outside world by giving lec/dems and training them in dance. Every year, he chose one nation and brought that culture to mainstream NY audiences. He visited the country of his choice, selected some children and brought them to NY to mingle with the local underprivileged children. In 1990, he chose India. After visiting various schools including Kalakshetra, he came to Bharata Kalanjali. At that time, I did not know anything about d'Amboise, except that he was a choreographer.

On the first day, he observed the classes. The next day, he expressed his wish to work with the children and taught them some ballet movements much to their delight. On the third day, he wanted to work with 5 girls he had chosen from different classes in the age group of 10 - 12. In a national interview shot by Anita Ratnam in the US, he said that he had chosen these students because of their adaptability and receptivity. A couple of months later, the invitation letter came from the National Dance Institute that these 5 girls were chosen to participate in the project Chakra. Senior disciple Anita Murthy was the local instructor in Bharatanatyam. D'Amboise's assistant came from the US to teach the children what was to be done there in the group choreography apart from their Bharatanatyam items.

As the name suggests, Chakra symbolised the wheel of time, the philosophy of life - an egg breaks, a male and female emerge, how they separate and then unite, the hurdles they overcome in the form of deserts and oceans symbolizing difficulties in life and how they finally go to heaven. The 5 little girls who represented India were Deepa Narayanan, Monika Choudhuri, Divya Ramachandran, Suchitra Rajan and Divya Devaguptapu. We were given a 10-minute slot to do a piece in Bharatanatyam without lyrics about a child who comes into this world, how he overcomes his problems before entering the spiritual world. They provided the musicians, so we had to choose a score easy for them to play. We took a portion of the lilting Kedaragowla thillana and wove a story around it.

We went to the US and were put up in a posh hotel in NY. We found to our amazement that 5 students were chosen from each school and trained by his assistants and finally nearly 1000 children came together to perform Chakra. We had 2 weeks of intense rehearsals. He was a hard taskmaster, used to yell sometimes, but my students are used to my yelling, so...!! Immediately the rehearsals were over, he would return to his normal, sweet nature. What a possessed, dedicated artist.

The NY Times gave a beautiful review about how Indian dance was so narrative compared to other dances and almost a para was about the Indian group, stating that the whole Chakra show was carried on the shoulders of the 5 Indian girls.

Tributes from the dancers
Jacques d'Amboise... "What a towering personality!" was my first impression of this creative genius when I met him at Bharata Kalanjali. I had the honor of observing his work when my gurus, the Dhananjayans, entrusted five young students under my care to liaise with Jacques for the production 'Chakra'. As anyone who has been privileged to meet and work with Jacques d'Amboise knows, he had a child like curiosity and a lively energy about him. As a choreographer, he was exacting, clear in his vision, and uncompromising in his creative integrity.
As the dance world grieves his loss, I offer my deepest condolences to his loved ones. May he rest in everlasting bliss.
- Dr. Anita Vallabh (then Anita Murthy who worked with Jacques in the Chakra production)

On a nippy January morning, in 1991 at Bharata Kalanjali, a bunch of 10-12 year olds were summoned by our guru V.P. Dhananjayan. We saw this vision of white, with a toothy smile and a child like energy that immediately put us at ease! He was disarmingly exuberant, and that instantly formed a connection with all of us. That is Jacques d'Amboise for you. We were then asked to demonstrate some adavus and present a few items that we knew. Out of the 20 odd students, the five of us were chosen. Oh the thrill, and the honor - to be selected and then go to the US to perform for his Magnum Opus 'Chakra' (1991)! Words cannot describe the experience of a lifetime, with one of the finest choreographers, dancers and teachers.

And just like that, it's the end of an era. I'm deep saddened by the demise of Jacques d' Amboise - who was an extraordinary teacher and a performer par excellence. I mostly remember his exuberance and his ability to be playful, yet strict, with us children. It made him the most loved teacher and yet, his childlike joy, made him our friend! One of the most interesting experiences that stayed in my mind was his dedication in learning the basic Bharatanatyam movements - along with us - and then, re-choreograph it to his music and visuals. Hours of dancing passed together and Jacques, then at 56, would keep pace with us throughout, without any flagging of energy!

Today, the world has lost a soul, who was larger than life and gave more than he took. He created a magical universe for children to experience the spirit of joy through dance. He was the pied piper of dance and his playground was the world. Jacques left deep imprints in anyone's soul and we will miss this remarkable storyteller who personified joie de vivre, in dance.
Keep dancing, Jacques!
- Divya Ram

Deeply saddened to know that Jacque D'Amboise is no more. As a kid I did not realise with whom I was working along with my Bharata Kalanjali inmates. I was excited to go to New York, that is all. Only after reaching there and interacting with almost 1000 children of international casting for Chakra and rehearsing in the presence of Mr. Jacques in a huge and beautiful theatre I realized this man is not an ordinary person. Thanks to Dhananjayan master, an equally tall figure who gave this wonderful opportunity to me at the tender of 11.

The world has lost a good human being and a passionate dancer. I will always cherish the wonderful experience I had with him. Jacques d'Amboise was an excellent teacher who loved to share the knowledge that he had with everyone around him. His passion for the art form could be seen in the various productions done by him and CHAKRA was no less. I feel very proud and fortunate to have been a part of this successful production. He was very famous among the kids as he gelled with us very well and came down to our level of understanding. He was always experimental and encouraged us also to be so. A joyous person who was very active in his times.
- Monita (Choudhuri) Suresh

VP Dhananjayan with the dancers

Jacques d'Amboise with the dancers

Chakra, the event of 1991 was an unforgettable experience. The rehearsals, the introduction and the orientation were indeed unforgettable. I vividly remember the time when Jacques was trying to teach us a particular sequence; he would explain it to us and teach us moves that were very new to us. Occasionally he would bury his head into his black duffle bag and vent his anger! Madras's summer didn't help that situation. He would turn red and that was enough to intimidate me! Once the rehearsals were over, he was a transformed man... ever so gentle and funny! He made the whole thing look so simple... thanks to Master and Akka, I was part of this beautiful and prestigious event.
- Deepa (Narayanan) Narendra

Naatyacharya V.P.Dhananjayan is the Founder/President of Bharata Kalanjali, Chennai.

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