Bringing Change Through Changement

Balanchine described the narrative of his ballet “Apollo” as “a wild, untamed youth who gains nobility through art.” Though it has been 50 years and two knee replacements since Jacques d’Amboise played the title role for the New York City Ballet, he pantomimed god’s birth and education by the muses with exuberance and grace for a Harvard audience last week.

The subject of art as a mirror on the world and the transformative power of dance became the focal point of “Extraordinary Minds at Work Featuring Jacques d’Amboise,” held in the Radcliffe Gym on November 24. The second in a series of live-audience tapings for a film series that is the brainchild of Howard E. Gardner ’65, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the event took the form of a conversation between Gardner and d’Amboise, interspersed with performance elements.

Gardner, who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences—the idea that there exist different kinds of human intelligence, including bodily, musical, linguistic, and spatial—said he hopes that the series will provide glimpses of how different creative minds work.

“I’ve had the privilege over the years of exploring and trying to understand some of the most extraordinary minds on the planet,” he said. “I probe those minds and try to figure out how…they carry through projects, doing things which matter for our world.”

Explaining what it means to be a dancer, d’Amboise described the fetus’s experience in the womb, a motif he would return to in his discussion of “Apollo.”

“The blood is pumping and they begin to feel rhythm through movement. Momma’s running for the bus, Momma’s asleep,” d’Amboise said. “So we are born of movement. We are born of rhythm. We are born of the expression of time. And we use that, throughout life, to express emotion.”

For d’Amboise, to become a dancer is to attain refined control of one’s movements, to hone one’s ability to express emotion. “Dancers begin to realize this. They train their bodies so wonderfully to be able to express emotions, to be able to use the movement in time and in a space to cause a reaction, to communicate,” he said.

D’Amboise traced his own transformation from a seven-year-old junior lookout for petty street crime in his childhood neighborhood of Washington Heights into a company member of New York City Ballet by age 15 and principal dancer there for over three decades. He has enjoyed a second career directing the National Dance Institute (NDI), a non-profit arts education organization he founded in 1976.

In an effort to keep her son off the streets, d’Amboise’s mother had him tag along to his sister’s weekly ballet classes with a teacher named Madame Seda, where he caused disruptions by whistling and squelching his foot in the rosin box.

“Madame Seda saw this little boy who…would make awful sounds,” d’Amboise recalled. “She said, ‘Little boy, can you get up and do the jumps at the end of the class?’ Changement in fifth position and so on. So I was challenged,” he said.

D’Amboise said he became enamored with dance’s athleticism and grace and excelled, quickly landing a scholarship to the prestigious School of American Ballet, the training school for Balanchine’s company.

“Challenge, challenge, and the truth, that’s the best teaching,” d’Amboise emphasized.

Challenge is precisely the value d’Amboise has sought to instill in students in his role as the founding director of NDI over the last thirty years.

From its humble origins in a dance class with an enrollment of six boys d’Amboise offered at his sons’ school, NDI has grown into an organization that now brings dance instruction to 3,000 children every day in New York City public schools and that has seeded programs across the country and internationally.

D’Amboise gave the audience a taste of his methods for inspiring children to dance, leading a call and response syncopated clapping exercise. “Wow, did you pass that test beautifully. But I have one much harder!” he exclaimed.

He described how on the first day of class, he would then give students exactly 12 counts to move from their seats to the stage, moving in any way they consciously choose, so long as their movements fit within the parameter of the given counts.

“They begin the geometry of moving in control of the space they walk in,” he said. “That will carry through life.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at