Jacques d’Amboise, who shattered stereotypes about male dancers as he helped popularize ballet in America and became one of the most distinguished male stars at New York City Ballet, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
His daughter, the actress and dancer Charlotte d’Amboise, said the cause was complications of a stroke.
Mr. d’Amboise embodied the ideal of an all-American style that combined the nonchalant elegance of Fred Astaire with the classicism of the danseur noble. He was the first male star to emerge from City Ballet’s affiliated School of American Ballet, joining the company’s corps at the age of 15 in 1949, and his expansive presence and versatility were central to the company’s identity in its first decades.
He had 24 roles choreographed for him and became the foremost interpreter of the title role in George Balanchine’s seminal “Apollo” before retiring from the company in 1984, a few months shy of his 50th birthday. He also choreographed 17 works for City Ballet, as well as many pieces for the students of National Dance Institute, a program he founded and directed.
Mr. d’Amboise’s energy, athleticism, infectious smile (which the critic Arlene Croce once likened to the Cheshire Cat’s) and boy-next-door appeal endeared him to audiences and increased ballet’s appeal for boys in a world of tutus and pink toe shoes.
He also helped bring ballet to broader audiences, dancing on Ed Sullivan’s show (then called “Toast of the Town”), playing important roles in several 1950s movie musicals, including “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Carousel,” and performing in appealing “Americana” ballets, like Lew Christensen’s “Filling Station” and Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” He also directed, choreographed and wrote a number of dance films in the early 1980s.
Although Mr. d’Amboise was never considered a virtuoso dancer, his repertoire was demanding and exceptionally broad, ranging from the princely “Apollo” to the swashbuckling Head Cowboy of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony.” He was one of the company’s finest partners, the cavalier to the ballerinas Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent and Suzanne Farrell, among many others.
Mr. d’Amboise, Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times in 1976, “is not just a dancer, he is an institution.”
Mr. d’Amboise was astonished when Balanchine invited him to join City Ballet in 1949, a year after the company began its first season. He was 15 years old. “I can’t do it, I have to finish school,” he recalled thinking, in his autobiography, “I Was a Dancer” (2011). His father advised him to become a stagehand, but his mother was delighted by the idea, and Mr. d’Amboise left school to dance professionally, as did his sister Madeleine, known professionally as Ninette d’Amboise.
Although Balanchine was generally more interested in creating roles for his female dancers than for his male performers, Mr. d’Amboise identified with many key roles that Balanchine created in ballets like “Western Symphony” (1954), “Stars and Stripes” (1958), “Jewels” (1967), “Who Cares” (1970) and “Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze” (1980). Early in his career he also created roles in ballets by John Cranko and Frederick Ashton and won praise for them. (“Balanchine was peeved” about the Cranko commission, he wrote in his autobiography.)
In a 2018 interview, the City Ballet dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring described the qualities that Mr. d’Amboise had embodied as a dancer: “There’s this machismo that is sometimes required onstage — that bravura, that swagger, that confidence, and we all have to learn to cultivate that, and yet it’s such a huge canon of work. Within that, there are poets and dreamers and animals. Jacques is a reminder that all of that can be contained in one body.”
Jacques d’Amboise, 86, Dies; Early, Charismatic Star of City Ballet