April 7, 2011 / 10:06 AM / 8 years ago

Book Talk: D'Amboise leaps over bullies, grabs stars

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It was really about the bullies. Joseph Ahearn began ballet lessons in the 1940s not to better his basketball game or impress girls but to overcome the bullies who tormented him.

The young Ahearn, who became the celebrated dancer Jacques d’Amboise, dreamed of bounding over the heads of his childhood tormentors in the Washington Heights section of New York.

Perhaps studying dance would give him the agility to escape bullies and amaze his friends with feats of strength, he thought.

It worked. The former ‘street boy’ rose rapidly through the classical ballet ranks. He traveled the world with choreographer George Balanchine, appeared in movies such as 1954’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and choreographed for the New York City Ballet.

Along the way, d’Amboise founded the National Dance Institute, giving a new generation the skills to soar over their persecutors.

He spoke to Reuters about his new memoir “I Was a Dancer,” his childhood name change and technology’s impact on classical ballet.

Q: Why did your mother change the family’s name to d’Amboise from Ahearn?

A: “She was 4 foot 9 and stubborn and determined and dreaming, always dreaming, of her children being on the stage as actors, actresses, dancers, singers, whatever.

“She thought the name d’Amboise was aristocratic and we should have that name. So she persuaded my father to change his name as well. He didn’t have to. Why did he go along with it? It was a twisted form of love, a form of masochism ... his masochistic offering to his wife.”

Q: What did you think about “Black Swan”?

A: “It’s not a ballet film. It’s a horror story about obsession and a woman being tormented. It happened that this plot takes place in the incredible world of ballet but you could do the same in a hockey team. It could be anything. It could be the first violinist in an orchestra who is playing a piece that’s being premiered and imagining that the conductor is coming on to her.

“The characters are drawn as if they’re cartoon characters and slashed with a cliché. I can take one look at Natalie Portman’s leg and know it’s not a ballerina’s leg. It’s a psychological thriller and they did it amazingly well. The choreography was wonderful.”

A: Has the apex of classical ballet been reached? Where does it go from here?

A: “Where will classical ballet be in the next 20 years when we all have computers in our brains? I wear two artificial knees. I have toes webbed because they’re all broken. We have pacemakers, we have corneal implants. We are more and more melding with machines. What will classical ballet be when a leap can be 30 feet high because you have a metal implant in your joint?”

Q: Is this a problem for the art?

A: “I believe that part of what makes us human is the desire, the yearning to be better, superior, more enhanced. We want to climb the mountain, to leave the ground. Then we climb it and look at the ionosphere and say, ‘I want to get up there!’ It is part of our humanness to dream of getting out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. The art of ballet epitomizes that.”

Q: How does ballet speak to our modern lives?

A: “Ballet is a world where there aren’t bad smells, bad manners, yelling, screaming and violence. The world of the ideal — of the classical ballet — is good manners, chivalry, romance. It is the human body carried to its most beautiful form, doing what we ordinary people have not achieved.

“I think people are coming to realize what an incredibly form of communication dance is. It stands next to music as a global way of communicating.”

Reporting by Chelsea Emery; editing by Patricia Reaney

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