When your dance career begins at the age of 6 with legendary choreo grapher George Balanchine, great things are expected of you, and dancer/director/choreographer Christopher d’Amboise has fulfilled that early promise and more. Following his career as a principal with the New York City Ballet, d’Amboise was a Tony Award nominee for his role in Song and Dance, and artistic director/CEO of the Pennsylvania Ballet. As a choreographer, he has created more than 80 ballets for international companies. His latest work, Tribute to New York, will be presented by Saint Louis Ballet next weekend at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. In our exclusive conversation with d’Amboise, he shared his insight into the world of dance.
LN: All of those ballets, all over the world. Do you have a favorite country?
d’Amboise: I loved working in Istanbul, because they didn’t get a lot of the kind of work that I do, and they were just so passionate. It was extraordinary and fun!
LN: Do audiences in different countries respond differently to the same production?
d’Amboise: Yes, and a lot of that has to do with cultural norms. In China we performed wildly popular Jerome Robbins works, but we got applause for about 10 seconds. When it stopped we were bowing in silence. At the time it was very odd, but we found out later that they just aren’t used to long bows. So it had nothing to do with their enjoyment or appreciation.
LN: We understand you were dancing at a very early age.
d’Amboise: I started performing at 6, when Balanchine was doing a production of Don Quixote. There were little monsters at the beginning, attacking Quixote. If I remember correctly, I was the 6-year-old lizard.
LN: Do you remember any particular moment when you knew you wanted to be a choreographer?
d’Amboise: I started working on a solo with Jerome Robbins when I was 9, and I began developing my own ideas about what I thought he had in mind. I’d study the music, and then have a point of view about whether a step was good or bad. I began creating my own choreography at 17.
LN: What was special about working with Robbins?
d’Amboise: You know what was so fun about that? It was the first time anyone had worked with me from a theatrical standpoint. I was used to learning the specific dance steps. But Jerry’s production was an experimental kind of piece—all theater. He would say to me, ‘Imagine you’re running on a beach, or flying a kite. Jump for it!’ He would make up stories that I would interpret with dance. It came from the theater side, rather than the technical side. That was really interesting.
LN: What inspired you to create Tribute to New York?
d’Amboise: In 2008 I had been working in theater productions, and I was missing ballet. I went over to the School of American ballet one day and watched the students. At the end, the dancers do something called ‘reverence’ to acknowledge the teacher and the pianist. It’s a traditional gesture of respect—I did it when I was a kid. I was so moved to see these young dancers connect to this respectful tradition. I missed my connection to the traditions of ballet, and particularly George Balanchine’s style of dance. I wanted to do a piece that was a tribute to that heritage.
LN: Film directors often have a particular actor in mind before they begin work on a film. Does it work that way in ballet?
d’Amboise: Oh, certainly! There’s a ballerina named Ashley Bouder, a principal at New York City Ballet, who I really wanted for the lead. She’s just this great combination of a tough girl who looks like she’s going to tear up the stage, and the next moment she does something like an angel. That combination is just magical.
LN: We have to ask. Did you see Black Swan and what did you think of it?
d’Amboise: I did see it and I loved it! But I must say it’s saved by Natalie Portman. The realism she brought to the part grounded the craziness of the film. All of the ballet stuff was very, very accurate. LN