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Ruth Page Front Room No. 11 [March 27, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0515
Run Time
0h 18m 49s
Date Produced
March 27 1985
A: I couldn't get the orchestration for The Merry Widow right. The first version I knew wasn't right. So I had worked with Hans May, who was a real Viennese composer, and I spent a week with him someplace going over The Merry Widow every single day. Then his orchestration wasn't right, either. So I had to have it done three different times to get it right. Now, it's a marvelous orchestration, I think. It's exactly right. But it was a lot of trouble. And I got awfully sick of the music. But now it was worth doing, because now it's fine.
Q: Do you wish that you had redone the music, worked on Billy Sunday as much?
A: Well, Billy Sunday was especially written, so it was an entirely different problem from The Merry Widow.
Q: Nonetheless, it was not quite right.
A: No, it wasn't right at all -- the first version. I didn't like the first version at all. And so I had it redone.
Q: Do you think it's right now?
A: Yes. I think it's very good now. It's awfully hard to get music right for ballets. It's a very important problem. It's sort of the backbone of everything, what music you use, unless like some people you don't use music at all. You can do a ballet without any music, but it's less interesting, I think. Once in a while it's interesting.
Q: You had a difficult experience, speaking of music, with The Bells. The music for The Bells was composed by Darius Milhaud, and it was difficult to play.
A: It was stunning music. I loved it. But with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, you didn't get a very good orchestra, and you didn't get very many rehearsals, and it was just too difficult to do. I love the music for The Bells. But we couldn't do it very often because it was too difficult. Darius Milhaud made it so difficult that the orchestra couldn't play it. He was from Europe where they have better orchestras, and you get more rehearsals. Here it was impossible to get rehearsals; it was so expensive.
Q: In France, when you were there doing The Bells, in the 1950 performance of The Bells in France, the French musicians had a terrible time with it because apparently they don't come to rehearsal.
A: That happens once in a while. Of course, that's impossible for us to believe, but it was true at that time.
Q: Apparently there was some long-standing tradition that if a French musician couldn't come to rehearse, he sent somebody for him.
A: Yes, and of course, that was impossible for me.
Q: And then, on opening night, you had an orchestra that had never rehearsed together.
A: Well, not all of them, but a lot of them hadn't, so that -- well, you can imagine.
Q: The dancers rehearse differently in France, too. You've written about the French dancers needing to be taught individually.
A: Oh, I don't know that that's true anymore, but then, you had to stop and do it for each one. You can't just do it for the whole bunch together. They're too individualistic, I guess. I don't know. I found that difficult.
Q: It seems to me, in reading about your work as a choreographer, that you were an extraordinarily patient choreographer.
A: Well, you have to be, I guess. I had no choice.
Q: Well, what do you mean, you had "no choice?" You could have turned it over to someone to supervise . . . .
A: Oh, how can you turn it over to somebody else? They don't know what you want.
Q: Did it ever bother you, Ruth, that it would take so much time very often for you to teach the dancers, and it was enormously time-consuming? It must have been tedious, sometimes.
A: Well, you had to be . . . that was all. I didn't find it tedious, if they did it right when you finished with them. I didn't have a good assistant, but now I have a good assistant, who's Larry Long, who can rehearse all my ballets for me. But at that time, I didn't have an assistant. I had to do it all myself. I don't have to anymore. He can do The Merry Widow, and Freddie Franklin can do Frankie and Johnny and Billy Sunday. Also Fledermaus, I think Larry Long can do. So I don't have that problem so much now.
Q: You were also given very often not enough time to rehearse the ballets before opening night, particularly when you were working with the Ballet Russe.
A: Well, you never get enough time. No matter how much time they give you, it isn't enough. Because you want to make them perfect, and it takes time. And it's very expensive. It's awfully expensive rehearsing ballets. It is for rehearsing operas, too. But they have more money than the ballet companies. So you have to do it awfully fast, and it isn't very thorough, so it drives you crazy.
Q: You once wrote something about the contrast between performing in your own ballets, and being a choreographer who sits in the audience and watches them. You said something about when you dance yourself, you're relieved at the end of it. But when you sit in the audience and watch . . . .
A: Yes . . . because you never get exactly what you want. Sometimes the dancers surprise you and give you more than you expect, but sometimes they disappoint you. It depends on what dancers you have. It's a very chancy thing, you know, and you're in the hands of the dancers. They can make or break you.
Q: What did you do, Ruth, when a dancer disappointed you?
A: I gave them hell, and I said I wanted it this way; tried to give them help to get it, and sometimes they did it. The dancers aren't difficult at all, mostly.
Q: Even the stars?
A: Oh, no. They want to do it the way you want it. At least that has been my experience.
Q: Extra rehearsals, then, weren't hard?
A: If you're working with just one person, no. It's when you have to call the whole group, that it's so expensive and difficult.
Q: It seems as though you were very persistent about working with them to get it right.
A: Well, sure.
Q: Even after the opening performances, you were always insisting that there be more performances so they would have a chance to get it right.
A: Yes, that's right. And then you get dependent on certain dancers. I was very dependent on Freddie Franklin; and Ruthanna Boris always did my ballets very well. Danilova also did my ballets very well. Nikita Talin was very good in certain things. I'm trying to think of who else. There are a lot of good dancers who would just put themselves in your hands and try to do it the very best they could, the way you wanted it.
Q: Do dancers sometimes fight you, disagree, argue with you about what's right?
A: No. I never had anyone do that.
Q: So, the choreographer is the king -- or queen?
A: Oh, yes.
Q: Who danced the Widow the first time?
A: Wasn't it Alicia Markova?
Q: It was Alicia Markova. Tell us about the selection of Alicia Markova for the role of the Widow.
A: Well, she is a very unusual artist. I think she's a wonderful artist, and I thought she'd be original as the Widow. I did the Widow slightly tongue-in-cheek. I didn't want to be too serious. That's why I picked her for the role. And I thought she was marvelous in it, but she never rehearsed it. She didn't like to rehearse it. She drives you crazy. There was one little, very hard dance that I put in just for her, which wasn't a waltz, it was sort of a pizzicato thing, a very difficult, little dance. And I did it in St. Tropez for her. She came down there and was going to work, but she always wanted to stop after an hour and say, "Isn't it time to go to the beach?" And she never once did the dance. I was scared to death. But when she came out on the stage, she was just perfection in it. So I guess she was just talented, that's all, and she saw what I wanted, of course.
Q: Is that an especially difficult role, the role of the Widow?
A: I think it's difficult, yes.
Q: Is it the dancing, or the personality?
A: No. The dancing is hard in it. It's a fool-proof role, though, I think. If you do it not very well, it's still a success. It's a very gratifying role in that sense, and everybody who's done it, even if they haven't been very good, they were successful. Everybody's danced it now. I haven't known one that wasn't a success, really.
Q: Who do you think has been the best Widow so far?
A: I told you, Alicia Markova is the one I liked the best, because she had a tongue-in-cheek quality about it, and she was witty. I liked them all. They all gave it something. And I can't remember who all has done it, but everybody's done it, seems like.
Q: Everybody's danced Danilo, too. A number of famous male dancers have danced Danilo. Who do you think was the best Danilo?
A: Well, I liked the last one who did it very much -- Peter Martins. He came in at the last minute. He's very handsome, and he's a good dancer, too. I liked the way he did it. Oleg Briansky was good in it, too. He was the first one who did it. I can't remember all the one's who've danced it. Skibine danced it and he was good. But I think I liked the last one the most, maybe because he just finished doing it and I remember him the best.
Q: That was the one that was done for television.
A: That's right. He stepped in at the last minute, because I wanted Anthony Dowell and for some reason he couldn't come. He didn't come. I don't know what happened. He didn't come, so I said [to Martins], "Well, you're here. You do it." He said, "Alright." It was as easy as that.
Q: Is that your favorite ballet of all your ballets, The Merry Widow?
A: Oh, I don't know. I haven't got a favorite ballet. I don't like any of them. I'm sick of them all.
Q: Did you ever think about bringing back some of them? You were saying it would be very good to do Revenge again.
A: Yes, except I don't have a film of it [sic], and I don't think I would remember. I would love to do it. I love to revive all the old ones. I would adore to, but we don't have films of them. So they're very difficult to revive. Carmina Burana we have a film of. That would be easy to revive, but I don't have a company. You see, it would be easy if I had a company, my own company, but I don't have a company. So it's difficult to know where to do them.
Q: It happened in the fifties when you came back [from Europe]. There was a period when you did have your own company.
A: I always had my own company until the last ten years, five years. It just changed names, that's all. I always had my own company. It was much easier that way.
Q: But when you began with Lyric Opera, that gave you an opportunity, really, to once again launch a company that would have a substantial season. It was an interesting negotiation, the Lyric Opera negotiation, the way the relationship was set up between you, as ballet master and choreographer, and the Lyric Opera. It seemed important that the ballet be considered an important part of the opera.
A: Well, Carol Fox never cared about ballet, never liked it at all. So, I wasn't allowed to do very many. I got The Merry Widow in. I don't know how I got that in. But that was a big hit, so I never got to do any others. I asked her if they'd go in with me on The Nutcracker, because I thought that might get her interested. But she wasn't interested at all in doing The Nutcracker down at McCormick Place. And that, of course, is a big hit and it's still running, and it will go on forever, I think. Most opera companies aren't interested in ballets. They're interested in opera.
Q: 1954, when the Chicago Lyric Opera was being formed and they asked you to become the ballet director, why did you agree to do it, Ruth?
A: I was delighted to do it. I had to live in Chicago, and there was nothing to do here. I was delighted to do the Lyric Opera. More than delighted.
Q: It liberated you from traveling so much.
A: Yes.
Q: The first year, you did a rather unorthodox thing -- the ballet for the fourth act of Carmen, you inserted El Amor Brujo into it.
A: Oh, did I? I don't remember that. In Carmen? I put in Amor Brujo?
Q: Yes. In the fourth act.
A: Oh, that surprises me, because there's excellent music from Carmen for the fourth act.
Q: Well, apparently you decided it needed a little more and you did it.
A: I'd forgotten that. I've done Carmen so many different ways that I can't remember them all. I've done it with four different designers. In the opera, you do it all the time. Then I've done it as a ballet aside from the opera. I've done it with four different designers. Each one was different. You can do anything with Carmen. It's always a success. It's fool-proof, like The Merry Widow.
Q: There is a ballet we didn't talk about -- Salome.
A: I didn't do that very often. I think it was a very interesting ballet. The music is very, very difficult. The "Dance of the Seven Veils" is so difficult to do in an interesting way. I think my version was very interesting, but I never did it because it was too complicated.
Q: I read of it that it was a dance, a ballet, with no ballet steps in it. It was more of a "dance drama." What does that mean?
A: Well, it's not a classical ballet, that's all it means. It wasn't classical at all. It wasn't in tutus, it wasn't in long skirts. It wasn't in skirts at all.
Q: I thought perhaps it meant something else because we are by now in the fifties, 1953 or so -- modem dance was well-established -- why anyone would write of it that it was so unusual that it had no ballet steps in it.
A: Well, it wasn't modem dance either.
Q: What was it then?
A: It was a real expression of the drama in the story, the idea in back of it; the idea of the, I called it, Daughter of Herodias. I wish I had done it oftener because I think it was a very, very interesting ballet. But I couldn't because it was too complicated.
Q: The music was complicated. At one [point] you called it Retribution, too. It went through [several different] title changes.
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