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Ruth Page Lunch w/ Ann Barzel No. 20 [April 1, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0518
Run Time
0h 19m 39s
Date Produced
April 1 1985
NOTE: This interview was conducted as an informal conversation. Consequently, instead of the usual Q (Interviewer) and A (Interviewee) format, questions and statements are identified by the initials of the participants: AB (Ann Barzel); RP (Ruth Page); TF (Thea Flaum).
AB: The one I was trying to remember was II Ballo . . . .
RP: . . . della Ingrate. Whose music was that? [Monteverdi]
AB: Carol Lawrence was in that. Jane Bockman. It was at the Lyric.
RP: I can't remember the music.
TF: Tell us what you remember about The Triumph of Chastity.
RP: It's a marvelous part for a boy. This girl, only a girl who was a virgin could tempt him. Who did that part first? I never had a boy . . . .
AB: John Landowski did the boy.
RP: He wasn't strong. It should have been Nureyev in there or somebody. I never was satisfied with that ballet, because I didn't have the right people to dance it. But the Leonor Fini part was marvelous, and the music [Ibert] was marvelous, and the idea was interesting. But I couldn't get the right people to dance it.
TF: The idea was the story of the unicorn and the maiden -- and you remember seeing it Ann?
AB: Oh, yes. I remember the set especially, because that was outstanding. And of course the unicorn idea for the Chastity. And the costumes were very good. So it was like "Mountains of the Moon;" the setting wasn't an earthly thing. And you got the feeling . . . . Were they supposed to be Ruth?
RP: Yes, they were.
AB: Well, whether they were or not, that's what I got.
TF: Did you see Camille?
AB: Oh, many times. That's another of Ruth's great ballets. I put Camille up there with the top ones. That was such an improvement on La Traviata. You actually don't realize how good the Verdi music is until you subtract the caterwauling sopranos and let the orchestra play the music, and suddenly it's wonderful. And of course the leading character, being a dancer, looked much more consumptive than any singer could be. Now, among those who danced the role, Marjorie Tallchief was very wonderful. Patricia Klekovic was great. Maria [Tallchief] did it. She wasn't too hot, but she did it in Rockford, [Illinois].
RP: Well she went on because her sister had to be a week late. So she did it for her sister.
AB: Marjorie was wonderful in that. The decor was great.
RP: That was my favorite of all my ballets.
TF: Who did the sets, Ruth?
AB: It was Wakhevitch [sic].
RP: Wakhevitch, I think.
AB: It wasn't Clavé.
TF: No, Clavé did Susannah and the Barber.
RP: I think it was Clavé. I'd have to look it up.
AB: Armand was Kenneth Johnson. I still remember the little girls' costumes were so good in that. You had both Jeannie Beadman, Jeanne Armin and a wonderful bunch of your dancers in that.
RP: Well, they're all gone.
TF: The music for Traviata is wonderfully alive for dancing.
RP: Yes, but you see what you have to do, you don't say, "I'm going to do La Traviata," and use the music as it is. You've got to make it over into a ballet score. Oh, it's a terrible job.
     Yes, he [Van Grove] did them all for me. Almost all of them -- and he knew opera so well that he knew how to make it into a ballet. He knew ballet very well, too. So we did all our work by correspondence. We have all our correspondence; how we did all those various operas. But he was a great big help to me on those. They were lots of fun to do because the music is great, of course.
TF: Why did you choose Camille for one of your operas-into-ballets? What especially about Traviata made it right?
RP: Well, I liked the story, I liked the music, and I liked everything about it.
AB: Ruth was so connected with opera for several decades.
RP: Yes. I was always with an opera company.
AB: The other thing she did, opera ballets. For instance, Samson and Delilah, the big bacchanal, and those things were very much a part of her. Which was the one where you came in walking on the boys like steps? Was that Thais or Lakme? One of the two.
RP: Thais, no? I think it was Thais.
AB: She was the elegant person in the thing, and there were these slave boys. I remember the boys suffered.
RP: I guess they did. Well, we all suffered in our time, and I had to do the various things.
TF: The opera ballets at the Lyric aren't nearly as good now.
RP: There are very few choreographers who want to do it, who will do it, because they have a style of their own, and they want to impose their style on the opera, which is all wrong. You can't do that. It's just not possible. And that's why there are not many good opera ballets. I think it's because the choreographers won't do it. I had to do it.
     I would have preferred doing all great big ballets, of course, but I enjoyed doing the operas because I like opera. I love opera, and I was in every opera company here. I was eighteen years at the Lyric, and before that, I was with every company here. I started at Ravinia. That was a great opera company. Everybody's forgotten that. That was when I first got married and came here, and that was for seven years under Louis Eckstein.
AB: That was fun. Remember the Saturday matinees when you did Cinderella? Marcel Delannoy was the composer. Did you do L'Histoire du Soldat there?
RP: No. I think that was at the Goodman.
AB: They had very interesting guest artists including Draper, for American in Paris. Does that name mean anything to you? Then there was Blake Scott who did some things with you, and Jorg Fasting, a Norwegian dancer who still is teaching now in Ohio.
TF: Do you remember Susannah and the Barber, The Barber of Seville, with the sets by Clavé?
AB: I just saw it at Mandel Hall one time. In fact, I'm the one, remember I took silent pictures. Somewhere you've got those. Those are wonderful costumes. It was a real fun thing also. She got the fun out of that, which you don't often get in the Barber of Seville. There's so much bellowing, you don't know how funny it really is.
RP: Well, I made it a dancing lesson rather than a singing lesson, you see. It's perfectly logical.
TF: It was fun, and it was a very good ballet. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to take on tour because the sets and the costumes . . . .
RP: Were too elaborate.
TF: And I think that's the final reason why you took it out of the repertoire. It was so hard to do it in a scaled-down version, and to look at it just made you sad.
AB: Aren't some of those things in the school now, decorating the staircase? The bull?
RP: That bull's head was from Carmen. That was Remisoff's Carmen. That was the first one I did.
AB: It's interesting, the famous artists who designed things for Ruth. Going way back to Noguchi, but even remembering, now, Remisoff did some wonderful things . . . Delfau.
RP: For the last twenty years, he's done all my ballets.
AB: Who did Hear Ye! Hear Ye!?
RP: Remisoff.
TF: As you say, Ruth's choreography varies from ballet to ballet, but if you had to describe the things, regardless of the mode in which she was doing it, how would you characterize Ruth's style?
AB: It had dramatic structure almost always, whether it was Camille . . . . Now for instance, she did not use exactly the same structure as the opera. Always it was restructured to suit dance. Or she did some wonderful things that were completely her own -- her Ravel Bolero. She did several things of that.
     You don't remember that it was the only thing of yours I was ever in. You were doing it on the chairs somewhere for one performance. You needed the lame, the halt and the blind. And Alice Stigma brought me in. I just had to sit on the chair.
     But the version she did with the company called Ruth Page's International Ballet was wonderful. That's the one I think they didn't want, they were afraid to use, in Boston. Did you ever see that one?
TF: No I didn't. Not that one.
AB: Wonderful concept. It was based in a Spanish brothel, I believe, and they had these high-back Spanish chairs, and there were ten "inmates," you'd call them. They looked nude, but it was body tights, stockings in what we used to call psychedelic colors -- bright blue, bright green, bright yellow. They had black Spanish shawls. Their hair was down. I loved it. One little girl, I remember, Jeannie Coles, would have her hair over one eye and behind one ear -- it's wonderful. And they were knitting. And before the curtain opened, what did they hear?
RP: They [heard] the clicking of the needles.
AB: You thought they were castanets. You opened up, and this was going on. That's what you were hearing. Suddenly the back door -- oh the set was . . . . Why don't you tell, or do you like it my way?
RP: Go ahead, you tell it.
AB: And the set was white walls -- later they became transparent -- and there was just a back door. The girls were all knitting, sounding like castanets, and a young buck appears, the Spanish thing tied here, the fedora hat. He's reading Paris Match, and there's a nude picture on the back. He is very absorbed in what he's reading. The girls see a man, and they put down their knitting. And one girl sidles up. He pays her no mind. She goes back. A couple of others, they all try. And the rest are watching. And then suddenly, at the back door appears a woman. She has on a mask. She has a hat with big feathers. She has a garment, this big cloak. She has gloves.
     He takes his eyes off Paris Match. This is interesting. He throws down the paper, and they begin to dance. She takes off her gloves, and in the same movements as strip dancers have, throws them down. Well, as they're dancing, she divests herself of most of her things, while the other girls are on the chairs. Now, this is much better than -- did you see that thing that ABT did called Field Chairs? They dance on the chair, they go around -- you know, different things. As it gets hotter and hotter, the walls become transparent, not quite transparent, opaque, revealing these warriors with hands and noses plastered against the walls. And as it gets hottest, the ten boys come in the door and partner the girls, and they're dancing while the middle ones going hotter and hotter as the music . . . . Is that right?
RP: Well, I think it's marvelous the way you tell it. I'm dying to do it now. I love that ballet, and I've forgotten all about it completely.
TF: Now, you haven't. But hearing Ann tell it, it's a very witty . . . .
RP: It's amusing.
AB: I think that's the way these critics should write instead of these anatomical analyses which they do -- "Then there was some soft knee bends and the next variation had . . . ."
RP: I'd love to do that ballet again. It's humorous.
AB: It's so good and so funny. It kids the pants off Bolero.
TF: It is very humorous. It's very Ruth Page. Would you say it had the same kind of attitude as Frankie and Johnny?
AB: No, but the dancing of the center pair is very classical. Well, no, it was almost acrobatic. The lifts that they had were terrific. Remember Dolores did them with Orrin, and Patty did it for a while, too. But the thing that the girls did was very good, too. They wore pointe shoes as they sat on the chairs, and then they got up and they . . . .
TF: There would be people who would remember the choreography?
RP: Oh, the dancers don't remember anything, ever.
AB: Some do, some have muscle memory. It depends.
RP: Not very many. Dolores doesn't remember anything.
TF: Larry . . . ?
RP: He might, but he might not remember the girl's part. He might have a film of it. I don't know.
TF: It would be fun . . . .
AB: I never photographed that because it was always in the theatre. Those were the days when we talked about psychedelic lighting. The spotlight went around on that white wall in the different colors. That was real fun. Look what Boston missed!
RP: We weren't allowed to do it in Las Vegas either!
AB: That's because you were too much competition.
TF: That's right. In Las Vegas, I remember. You're right, Ruth.
RP: They wouldn't let us do it, and it was because of the garters here. They wore garters.
AB: That's right.
RP: They thought it was too shocking to do in Las Vegas!
TF: The last place in the world you'd think anything would be banned. Do you think Ruth's ever been afraid to try anything, Ann?
AB: No! When everybody was doing nudes, you didn't have to. Remember they all did nude ballets? When you did Carmina Burana with just a tattered girl. There were no nudes.
RP: They wouldn't go nude. I asked them, and they wouldn't. The dancers refused to go nude. So we got kids from the school, and they said they'd do it, and I paid them very well to do it because I thought I'd better. And the professional dancers said, "Oh, well, if we had known you were going to pay us that much, of course we would have done it!" The power of money!
TF: What do you think has been the personal, the personal qualities of Ruth that make her a success?
AB: She's very adventuresome. She's very open to everything. She does not hold grudges, which is important. In the arts, you can hold a grudge, not against a person, but against a certain form. She didn't wait for things to come to her. She went out. "Whatever they're doing," if that was the fashion -- it's not just because it's the fashion -- "I'm here in the avant garde right with you. This is it. We're of the times." She was always of the time.
TF: Does that sound like you?
RP: Oh, exactly. Well, Ann knows me pretty well. She's the only one who's seen all my ballets.
AB: I don't think you can know anyone very well, but those are the things during the years that I've noticed in her, and that I've loved in her. And there's that personal charm. She's wonderful.
     You know these lecture demonstrations that were done in schools, which I'm sure she didn't care to do, but it kept the company together at the end so they got paid for it. I went with them once, to see how it went at Oliver Wendell Holmes High School, an all-black school in a bad area. And I thought, "Oh, gosh, what's going to happen here?" as the thundering herd with a big whoop came into the assembly hall. Then Ruth at the time had, I believe it was a Dior or Yves St. Laurent that looked like a Little Lord Fauntleroy velvet suit and, "Oh, gosh, what are they going to do to her?" The curtain opened and Ruth came out with all her charm as she thinks, "These kids are wonderful," they think she was wonderful. Well, they were eating out of her hand. And do you know, they were to do two [shows] there, and the company ate lunch in the lunchroom. When they walked into the lunchroom at this kind of school, they all stood up and applauded. That I'm sure you remember.
RP: I like to do those things, and it's very interesting to perform for kids and influence them. You can influence them at that age, tell them what to think. I think we got a lot of people interested in dance doing those things, I would love to do those again, sometime.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)