Two school kids, one Mexican-American and one Asian-American, were trying out kung fu moves on each other--as 10-year-olds will do with time to kill in a sterile school auditorium, in this case the Hoover Street Elementary School.
The door to the room burst open to admit a tall, pale, brown-haired man dressed like . . . nobody the kids could make out. He was not a bureaucrat, an official in a suit. He was not a street person either. He wore a white sweater with big squares on it, pants of high-tech electric silkiness and running shoes.
He shot out a handshake at one of the boys. "Hi! I'm Jacques d'Amboise. I've just flown in from New York to teach you to dance."
The directness disarmed the kids. They weren't used to an adult approaching them head on. Soon, the room began filling up. A group of youngsters lined up in dance formation for preliminary exercises of the piece they will perform at the Mark Taper Forum on Monday with students from other schools--120 in all.
The piece is called "Sir Vival Sweepstakes: A Winner's Tale." It's the last in a series of performances already given by children in Boston and New York, all put together principally by D'Amboise. (The Los Angeles program is co-sponsored by Performing Tree, the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Unified School District and D'Amboise's own National Dance Institute, and is coordinated by Tony Abatemarco).
The group, numbering about 25, began with slow formal exercises under their stern local instructor.
"If we had a piano here, it would make a lot of difference," D'Amboise whispered to a visitor. "One chorus of 'I'll be down to get you in a taxi' and they'd loosen up in a minute."
Apparently, the dance teacher wanted to impress D'Amboise with his control, and the kids performed their moves with studied, almost grim earnestness. D'Amboise waited tactfully but the moment he took over, the rhythm and spirit of the room picked up.
He built the jazz-dance routine, which the youngsters followed with varying degrees of awkwardness. D'Amboise first encouraged those who didn't concentrate to get with it. If that didn't work out, he threw them out of the group. When he gave them another chance, they always seemed to respond.
Everything he said and did had a humorous air; he was there to teach, but from a young person's point of view: "Ooh, there's the dragon. You have to kick him in the teeth. Kick! Kick!"
Before long, he had the kids performing to relatively difficult, contrapuntal rhythms. Then, the group moved down to the school stage to enact a scene of awakening en masse on a desert island. The scene was shapeless, bland, confusing, sloppy.
"Who you talking to? Don't you know there's an audience out there that wants to hear what you have to say, and needs to figure out what you're doing? Are you making sense? Does that move make sense to you?" In five minutes he had shaped a credible scene.
"OK, I've got to go. You're all going to be fantastic! I've got to fly back to New York now. If you hold me up, it'll cost me $700."
It's safe to say that few of the youngsters at Hoover School recognized D'Amboise, 51, as one of the premier American ballet dancers of his time, a protege of Balanchine whose career spanned 30 years, principally with the New York City Ballet.
Watching him work with the kids, you could see the loss of tension in his legs. But you could locate too the form that seemed to transcend his bulky clothes--the long, strong, graceful, expressive line--the way you can discern the form of a one-time great athlete trying some old moves for the fun of it.
"I feel great!" D'Amboise had said at lunch before the Hoover Street stop. "I like L.A. I always like L.A. I like what I'm doing. The school I went to this morning was fabulous. I'm lucky. Lucky, lucky!"
He talked about the end of his long career with the New York City Ballet. "I knew I had to get out when I saw there was no possibility of getting better. You say, 'I'm gonna work very hard at doing this.' You set a goal. 'I'll get a little better. I'll work my legs. I'll get sharper.'
"Suddenly you don't get better. All you can do is hold on to the level you're at. And that gets harder and harder to hold. Injuries come. You begin to slip.
"I hung around for a couple of years, just for Balanchine. Then he died, and I quit."
D'Amboise had started dancing at 11. "By 15, I quit school and joined the ballet full time. I performed in Covent Garden before I was 16. Suddenly, we got laid off, went to Paris, slept in the woods in Saint-Germain, fished in the Seine. It was great! When I went back to the block and saw the guys smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, eating potato chips, I knew I didn't fit."
Of his work with children over the last decade, he said: "I'm fascinated with what happens when you get children and professional artists together and let them play. Everything comes from play. There are two things that are important, the actual fact of what you're doing--you inside your heart--and the reaction you have when you communicate that.
"The second is to let as many people as possible know about it. I've become a catalyst for the notion that professional artists should be involved with children. Professional artists are concerned with excellence; children are going to be what they're exposed to. If you think junk, you'll grow up being junk."
An excitement went around the auditorium as D'Amboise hugged his students after the workout. He had taken them to that miraculous place where work and play are synonymous.