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Ruth Page Lunch w/ Ann Barzel No. 01 [April 1, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0519
Run Time
0h 20m 7s
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).
TF: Bolero. I'm dying to see it.
RP: Well, you know that music became so popular that everyone got just sick of it.
AB: But your way of doing it was tongue-in-cheek.
RP: Now you can do it, but at the time, it was done all the time . . . .
TF: Let's talk about critics and the role of critics.
AB: I'll tell you another thing about Ruth . . . more important. We went to Hamburg. And Ruth had danced with Harald Kreutzberg for a couple of years, and their accompanist was Friedrich Wilckens, a wonderful pianist/composer, now a very old man living in a retirement home. She won't tell it, so I will. This was her way of saying goodbye to him. She paid his way to Hamburg. [He] lived in the same hotel we were at for two weeks, ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with us. Then we'd go for rum cakes and hot chocolate every day at four. But that was her way of seeing an old friend, knowing that she'd probably never see him again. He was deep in his eighties at the time. Right?
RP: Yes, I guess so. I don't remember.
AB: That's another thing about Ruth . . . . And numerous young dancers whose training has been covered completely at the school.
RP: Well, we gave a lot of scholarships over there, yes.
TF: What other kinds of things? Tell us about it, because Ruth certainly won't tell us about them.
AB: Let me tell you about the Harvard thing. I told you about an inner city high school. Tom Fisher was a Harvard graduate, and in his name, she has established an annual lecture in the performing arts to which all students at Harvard can come without any admission charge. And the first lecture was to be by Arthur Mitchell.
RP: I remember.
AB: And so we were in Boston, so she'd be there at the time to see it. And we arrived, and Arthur Mitchell didn't arrive. And they're all sitting, the place is filled, a big hall . . .
RP: With all these attractive young men . . . .
AB: . . . and standing all over the place. I said, "Go ahead, say something." And she did, and she simply charmed them.
RP: Well, I had to talk 'til he got there.
AB: "Only" 45 minutes!
RP: Only 45 minutes! Can you imagine coming 45 minutes late to a lecture you were going to give?
TF: What did you say, Ruth?
RP: I don't remember.
AB: She just made sense for 45 minutes; just charmed with everything; talked about dance and her own experience and stuff like that.
TF: Talking about children and things you have to say. There's something you wrote that hasn't been published yet, about advice to a young dancer. One of the things you said was, "You have to learn what you want to do in life, and if you can't discover it for yourself, someone will have to tell you. But it's important to pick the right people to listen to in your life."
RP: Yes it is, don't you think it is? I've never picked the right people to listen to -- at least so my husband tells me. And I think kids are very influenced by the older people that are around them. Don't you? I used to go around and give lectures at the schools all around Chicago, and I enjoyed it very much because I thought I could do some good -- influence those kids to be more interested in dance and art. I did it for a long while, and took a couple of dancers with me, and told them all I could think of to make them interested in dance. I think that's very important, don't you?
AB: I do, and I think you did it. As I say, when I was studying dance, an important thing was that you have a company worth being in that had open auditions.
RP: Yes, that we did, too.
AB: That's why I don't believe in this -- that you [a company] have to have a school, and the school prepares them, all the right style for it.
TF: After the company's last tour, the fourteenth tour of the Ruth Page International Ballet, as it was being called then, you did something called "Ruth Page's Invitation to the Dance."
RP: Oh, that was a talk, sort of like my slide lectures now. Sometimes we call that "Invitation to the Dance" -- just because we couldn't think of anything else to call it -- in which I show slides and then describe each dance and what choreography is and what influences you.
     Like with Balanchine -- I always say this in the lecture, and I'm sure it's true -- he's entirely interested in the music. He picks the music and then does the ballet to the music. Merce Cunningham doesn't pay any attention to the music at all. So it shows how many different ways there are to do choreography, and what an open thing it is. You can come in there and do anything, start something entirely new.
     The Toronto company, I've never seen any company like that before. You weren't here, but they were extremely interesting, I thought. I didn't even know they did everything in their bare feet. They had no stories at all. But the movement was sufficiently interesting. There was one ballet they did that was very surrealistic. I forget the name of it, but it was completely surrealistic. That was interesting. It just shows what a variety there is and what you can do. And you have to get kids and get them interested, and know that they can do all kinds of different things; it isn't just one set thing that they have to do. So I think that influencing kids in high school and before high school is very important.
TF: Do you think it's more important now, that kids know more, and are more interested in dance than they used to be?
RP: Well, I think they know more about everything, don't you? I mean, they are so sophisticated at no age at all, that you have to listen to them, instead of their listening to you! There's lots of talent around, there's no question about that. And then, of course, with television, that makes a difference. You can see ballet on television -- quite often not very good, but sometimes very good. So they see a lot more than they were able to before, in my day. We didn't see anything!
TF: It seems to me that the notion as far as men is concerned -- that dance is for sissies -- is passé.
RP: That idea is out completely now, because of the success of Nureyev and all the great dancers. There are more male stars than there are female stars. Don't you think there are?
AB: Dancing is a male art. They've got the physique for it, and the muscles. Did you realize in primitive societies the men dance, the women sit and beat the drums? And that all through history, even now, who are the great dancers? Fred Astaire, José Greco, Rudolph Nureyev. The women are secondary. It's only in those few decades of Victorian times when they had to have an ideal which was danced by the woman, and the men became porteurs. Men dance better than women. Of course, they don't have to dance on toe, and that helps a lot too.
RP: You bet!
AB: I mean, the degree of difficulty . . . . I just watch this class, and well the two groups did things on pointe and it becomes labored. It takes so long 'til the pointe shoes become part of your body and you dance on it. And men don't have to do that. But the truth is that the spectacular things [are for men]. Think even in a pas de deux like Le Corsaire. There's the pas de deux and they show off the girl, fine. Then the man gets 90 seconds to do the big things. The girl's variation is nothing. It's the men's dancing. Think back -- those are the big names in dance, even today.
TF: That's unusual because a lot of people think of it first as a female art, the prima ballerina.
AB: Men are more graceful than women. The men with the big shoulders and the thin waist. That's why Mr. Balanchine brought up an anorexic generation, because you don't find a single girl with a bosom or anything; they are all boyish-looking. And the male body is . . . . Stand by a window and watch people passing by. Men stride by much more gracefully than these teetering women mincing around. It's true.
RP: It's hard to walk well.
AB: The word graceful is always mixed up with things that aren't. Men have much more grace in movement. Awful thing to say. But there are some women, of course . . . .
RP: I think it's because they're dressed simpler, too. Women dress in some crazy clothes.
AB: All those years they wore those corsets and all those heavy skirts. Nobody realizes it, but they can always talk about the great radicals such as Isadora Duncan. The big thing was getting the corsets off! And when they started to wear bloomers . . . . You know, in the old dance books, they're all wearing a midi blouse and the gym bloomers. A lot of dance came with that. That's more theories.
RP: Where do you think dance is going now, Miss Barzel?
AB: It's just going to trip along like it always has. It's not going. It goes back and forth. There's always a change. It's intrinsic to the arts -- change. It isn't just modem dance that made the change in so-called ballet. In the nineteenth century, there were always revolutionaries then, too. It's the way of an artist -- to try to make change. Like Ruth Page, she never did the same thing twice. You never did another Flapper number. That was done, you went on to the next. You never did another saloon number after Frankie and Johnny.
RP: You have to keep going on.
TF: Always going forward.
RP: At least, it's more fun if you keep going forward.
TF: Ruth, you once wrote something in which you said that sequels are a bad idea.
RP: Yes. I don't think you should try to repeat yourself. If you make success of one thing, don't try to do something like it, because it usually isn't as good as the original. I tried that with my dance Tropic, which I think is my best dance. I tried to make sequels to that, and they were never any good. They were all right, but they weren't anything special. So there you are.
TF: . . . What role do critics play, should play, do play, in the development of dance, and in your own development as a choreographer?
RP: Well, I think that critics can be very creative and help you. There are not very many of them that do. There are not very many of them that know much about dance. Actually, because it's usually the music critic. Ami knows a great deal about dance. She's a real critic. And John Martin, I think he was a good critic. He was on the New York Times for years and years and sort of made that job amount to something. Clive Barnes is a good critic, but he doesn't write very much -- he's not on the Times anymore at any rate -- and you don't see much of what he writes anymore. And there are a few good ones. And there are a few that are helpful to you, but in general, I don't think they are. We all like to read the critics, but you shouldn't pay too much attention to them. I think you should go ahead and do what you feel like doing, and not listen to what they tell you to do. Don't you agree with me, really?
AB: I think the critic shouldn't be writing for the choreographer, who knows more than he does anyway. He should be writing for the reader. He should be trying to. Now that's what John Martin did. For years, he advocated the modem dance, and he did great deal to make it acceptable, to explain it to the people so they'd want to see it. He did help Graham, Humphrey and Weidman. But the big thing he was trying to do was talk to the audience. And that's what a critic should do.
TF: What about this technical criticism that you sometimes see, Ann?
AB: In words of ten syllables, I couldn't say them for this . . . . I think it's a lot of rubbish. The only time you use terminology is if you're a teacher teaching class, or if you are writing notes for the future. Or if you modify it in some way. If you say the dancer's "entrechats were brilliant," okay, then use it. Or you say his "entrechats were faulty" because . . . . Or "the arabesque was so beautiful because it opened beautifully and then folded." Okay, then use the word "arabesque." But to say she "did an arabesque" says nothing.
TF: To change pace, as a friend of Ruth's, what things would you like people to know about Ruth that aren't generally known about her?
AB: Well, I think people do not appreciate her personal quality of sympathetic empathy with whomever she's with; that unless you know her, you don't get that. I never heard her bad mouth anything. She doesn't. People have done things to her, she doesn't remember that. She's big enough to know the world goes on. They all know she's adventuresome, that she's creative -- that part. But as a human being . . . .
     Probably why her parties are the most wonderful parties is because there's so much warmth there. I always talk myself into getting invited, because I'm not a party girl, usually, but hers, I like . . . . That somehow or other she's not the center and everybody's whirling around her. But the fact that she's there with an eye out . . . . It's planned well. One lovely part -- she knows the dancers are hungry. You don't come and drink cocktails for three hours waiting for the food. Also, you know that the vultures that came to the performance and are hungry and start eating. You don't touch it 'til the dancers come. When the food is ready, the dancers come on and we start. Very few know that. I've been to parties where you come in, and it's a cocktail thing. We're all looking at the table; nobody dares go near.
TF: Did you get to that party, were you at the party when Tom died? Were you there?
AB: Oh, yes, the memorial party. That was beautiful, yes.
TF: What was that like?
AB: Well, it was very much . . . you remembered what an urbane man he was. What a way of life. You remembered him, and that's what it was all about. And wonderfully, it was not in a chapel, but in his home -- that was his setting. You kept thinking of him in that setting. [To Ruth] Did you have that feeling? You probably didn't. The appropriateness was there. I think Ruth and Tom both were very sure of themselves socially. That's one thing about Ruth. She doesn't have to try to be aristocratic because she is; it's an old family. And she doesn't have to do social climbing, which helps a lot, so she can afford to be relaxed. Not naming other people who are so uptight because they feel they have to impress people. Ruth never tries to impress.
TF: What was Tom like?
AB: Tom . . . very, very wonderful human being. I used the word urbane before. Cosmopolitan, urbane, could speak on any topic. He was almost arrogant, but he didn't have to be arrogant. He took the center always. Wonderful conversationalist. [To Ruth] You can add a lot to that.
TF: We've talked about that.
RP: We've talked about that. I think he was a very remarkable man. I was crazy about him.
TF: Tom's contributions to creating Ruth's ballet companies?
AB: He was very, very -- more than cooperative. He was deeply involved, even before he married Ruth. You see, they met during the Allied Arts days, right? And so that he was already interested in the arts. And here was an art right on his doorstep. And of course, he was interested in it.
     And I'm sure that when I say "adviser" I don't think he was above, but they could talk about things because he understood. They could talk the same language. And, as they traveled around the world, they met everybody and knew everybody, whether they were in the art of the dance or music or architecture or whatever. And of course, there was a great plus in Ruth's life because there was no antagonism; there was, "We do this all together."
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