An award-winning classical ballet dancer wove together a magical presentation for the audience at Bedford Middle School Wednesday that included humorous stories, emotionally evocative poetry and some dance steps from his storied career.
At several points in his presentation -- the 11th annual Malloy Lecture in the Arts sponsored by the Westport Public Library -- Jacques d'Amboise demonstrated the grace and agility he began perfecting as a young boy.
"I did my first plie when I was seven," said d'Amboise, who was paid $10 for his portrayal of Puck in the ballet "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at a time when his father earned a weekly salary of $85 working 10-hour days.
By age 15, d'Amboise, a native of Dedham, Mass., was asked to join the corps de ballet of George Balanchine's famed New York City Ballet, where he danced with ballerinas who became household names: Melissa Hayden and Allegra Kent. D'Amboise said he lost touch with Hayden after she retired and moved to North Carolina but when he learned she was ill and near death he flew to her hospital bedside.
"Oh, Jacques, you came for my last dance," he recalled Hayden saying to him. "I left with my heart fluttering on Mount Everest that I should know such a dancer, such a woman," said d'Amboise, the founder of the National Dance Institute, a New York-based program that exposes youth to the discipline of dance, often combining music and art with studies of other cultures, histories and literature.
"The arts open your heart and mind to possibilities that are limitless. They are pathways that touch upon our brains and emotions and bring sustenance to imagination," d'Amboise said in his autobiography "I Was a Dancer." Copies of his book were available for purchase at the event in Bedford Middle School, and after his presentation d'Amboise signed the books.
D'Amboise said he only finished one year of high school, but ballet saved him, transforming him from a "street boy in Washington Heights in New York" to a decorated dancer.
He said his son George, one of his four children, gave him a crash course that allowed him to earn his high school equivalency, and through his dance career d'Amboise earned 11 honorary college degrees. He has also received the 1990 MacArthur Fellowship, a Kennedy Center Honors Award, and a National Medal of the Arts.
Balanchine choreographed several ballets for d'Amboise, who missed the premieres of some of them because of his broader appeal beyond the ballet world. D'Amboise appeared in the movies "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," in which he played the part of Ephraim, and "Carousel," for which he danced the role of the Starlight Carnival barker in the Louise's Ballet scene.
Many in the audience were familiar with d'Amboise's talent, recognized as one of the finest dancers of his time, but they were surprised by his sense of humor and they found his stories as entertaining as his dancing.
"He's extraordinarily funny," one woman said.
D'Amboise talked about his career, which included multiple performances on television's "Ed Sullivan Show," until he did something "naughty" and was never invited back. After a performance with Kent, who ended up in his arms at the end of the paux de deux, d'Amboise walked up to Sullivan for their post-performance interview and dropped Kent into the arms of Sullivan, who d'Amboise referred to as "an Easter Island statue in a shirt and tie."
Some in the audience were surprised to learn that while dance is his first love, hiking and camping are close seconds. He said after dance performances in New York he would throw a sleeping bag in his Studebaker and drive out of the city, camp out for the night and be back in the City on time for his morning dance classes. He also hiked the Appalachian Trail with his son George, traveling from north to south, leaving the trail 40 times throughout the seven-month trip to perform at various dance events to raise funding for his dance institution, but still completing all 2,160 miles.
"I'm dying to do it again, but I have two artificial knees," he said.
To one mother who asked what advice he would give to a young male dancer d'Amboise said, "If it's your dream do it, and do it with the best. Find out who the best teacher is," adding that he would give the same advice to those who want to play piano, become a physicist or teacher or banker.
D'Amboise concluded his program with a poem that ended with four simple but powerful words: "Come dance with me."
"It really motivated me, especially the last four words: `Come dance with me,' " said Miranda Schlate, 12, of Fairfield, a student at Connecticut Dance School in Fairfield. Miranda's mother Alla Schlate said she was impressed that d'Amboise encouraged young people to follow their dreams but also to have well-rounded lives that include other interests.
Maureen Cummings, who attended the event with her daughter Isabelle, 13, also a student at the same school, said d'Amboise's passion for dance and for life was evident.
Bennett Leeds, 16, of Stamford, was thrilled to meet such a "legendary dancer." Leeds said he is talking his first-ever ballet class on Saturday in preparation for plans to study musical theater in college.
"We appreciated his sharing of his humanity," said Darrell Stewart of Norwalk, who is not a dancer. He identified himself as "a good audience" who would have traveled the state to see someone as legendary as d'Amboise.