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Ruth Page Lunch w/ Ann Barzel No. 03 [April 1, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0521
Run Time
0h 19m 45s
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).
RP: Where did I first meet you? I don't remember our first meeting, the date.
AB: Well, actually, our first meeting happened during the WPA days. It was at a picnic, and you asked all the companies to come out. I remember the Graffs were there.
RP: This was the late 1930s. That I know.
AB: You knew Berenice Holmes pretty well and you asked Berenice and myself and Margaret Walbrook -- remember that skinny blonde girl? -- to come out to Hubbard Woods on a Sunday, and you were really asking Berenice, but she always had her . . . .
RP: Entourage.
AB: So we came, and that's the first time I really talked to you. The funny thing was we thought we were invited just to go swimming, and Berenice with her crowded little roadster -- we're going to "No Man's Land" -- so we thought, "Let's stop at Dmitri's and have a hamburger." Are you old enough to remember Dmitri's and the hamburgers? Well, we stopped there, and we had a hamburger, and next to us were some people, and they said, "Can we have the ketchup?" So we gave them the ketchup and we got talkative with them. And when we got up and left, they got up and left. We get to Ruth's house and there's dinner, and they're invited and we're invited. We all kept our mouths closed. We hadn't realized that it was for Sunday late dinner.
TF: Why is it , do you think, that you have become such good friends?
RP: Well, I don't have many "girl friends" and Ann and I . . . .
AB: And I got along well with Tom. And then I asked you, "Could I come to rehearsals?" I said I'd sit quietly and watch. And then when I got on the newspaper, the Hearst paper was right across the street from the Opera House, and it was so easy to go dangling across the street and look in on rehearsals.
RP: But we were interested in the same things.
AB: We put a few trips together . . . that wonderful Hamburg trip.
RP: We had a wonderful trip to Hamburg, where we stayed for a week. We get along well. We travel well together. We're not either of us very particular about how we eat or where we sleep. We sort of take things as they are.
AB: I stay at joints like the Wellington and elegant Ruth doesn't mind, so she stays at the
RP: Yes, I mean, I'm not fussy at all, and Ann isn't. She's the only person here in Chicago that I'm really very close to. Why, I don't know.
AB: Because we pick ourselves up and go. Well, that happened after I gave up teaching school.
RP: I always admired her very much because she finished teaching school, so she got her pension, and then she was free to spend all her time on dance. She spent a lot of time on dance anyway, which I thought was marvelous. And she's one of the few intelligent people here that are interested in dancing, at least that I know. There may be more now, but I don't know. I don't know any critics really, and I don't like to know them. I think it's much better not to.
AB: And you knew Remi Gassmann and I knew Remi. Remi Gassmann did the score. . . .
RP: He was a critic?
AB: Oh, yes.
RP: He composed my Billy Sunday, but I didn't like it at all.
AB: He was the music critic for the Chicago Times. He also wrote on dance, and he was going to Europe, and I was just writing for Dance Magazine. He came over to me one day and said, "I'm not going to write today, I'm leaving town. You go over to the Times Building, and tell them that Ray Hunt told you to come." And they were furious over there -- they'd never seen me before -- because it was the opening of the ballet, "How can we possibly not have [a review]?" So I wrote the review, and I didn't know where to give it in or what. And I asked one of the boys in there, "Where do you hand things in? How do you do this? How do you do that?" And that's how it happened . . . . It was Remi . . . .
RP: Remi Gassmann.
AB: That was on the Times. It was then the Hearst paper.
TF: Chicago Today.
RP: I knew Claudia Cassidy. I adore her. I think she's a terribly interesting person, besides being a critic. She's a very cruel critic, but I think she's a fascinating person. And I also liked John Martin very much. I was crazy about him. Otherwise I don't know any critics, I don't think.
AB: Walter Terry, he was so sweet.
RP: Well, Walter Terry, he was something special. Nobody could hold anything against Walter. He was very tactful. He was critical, but he was very tactful. Yes, I think he was a marvelous person. And who else is there? Do you know anybody else?
AB: Well, you know, you've just met Clive Barnes. He's a nice person.
RP: I don't know him very well. I think he's a very good critic.
AB: I like Clive very much.
AB: Another critic, or rather a writer of books we both know -- Agnes de Mille.
TF: What do you think about her?
RP: Agnes? Well, she and I used to be very good friends. She, I think, takes credit for a lot of things she hasn't done. Like she always says she was the first one that has ever done Americana. And she's the first one who, like in Oklahoma, integrated [dance with] the story. That's not true, because Balanchine had done the same thing with . . . I forgot what his was . . . . for [On Your Toes].
AB: Eugene Loring had done Billy the Kid way before Rodeo was done.
RP: Yes, that's right. Eugene Loring. So, I think she is inclined to exaggerate her own importance. I like her very much. She's an interesting person. And I haven't seen her for a long time. I don't know what she's doing now.
AB: Well, she's in a wheelchair now after a stroke.
RP: I know. It's very sad.
AB: But she gets around. She's a very good speaker. Of course, if she doesn't know . . . she'll write anyway. She did a book on American dance which is so full of inaccuracies. Remember what she wrote about you?
RP: I don't remember. What did she say about me?
AB: "Ruth Page and Bentley Stone run a ballet school in Chicago . . . " and on and on, ". . . and with this they have a company . . ." and so on. It's all wrong. Remember?
RP: Well, I think she was very jealous of me. I really do. I think she resented the fact that I did everything before she did, and she never liked to talk about it.
AB: Of course the two coasts do not know that there is a Midwest.
RP: That's true. That's very true.
AB: In fact, a great deal happened here that they don't even know happened. Well, in 1852 in St. Louis, there was the first resident repertory ballet company, which was directed by Leon Espinosa.
RP: I didn't even know that, did you?
TF: No, I didn't.
AB: I read somewhere it lasted a whole season there, and broke up because cholera hit the company and several of them died.
RP: There are a lot of regional companies now. Really good ones. Regional companies all over the country. I don't know, I haven't seen any of them, but they tell me they're very good. They say that Indianapolis has a very good company now, and St. Louis, and all over.
AB: The Tulsa one is going to do your Fledermaus.
RP: And they're supposed to be very good. And Milwaukee. I've had some ballets up there. They're very good, too, up there. So dance has really spread around. It's not just New York any more. I used to go down there always to see the New York City Ballet when Balanchine was there. But I don't care about going down now especially to see them. And Ballet Theatre always comes here. Joffrey always comes here. So there's no point to go to New York anymore.
TF: European companies, which ones are the most interesting?
RP: Well, I'm just trying to think of ones I've seen. The Paris Opera Ballet had marvelous dancers, but they don't do very much. At least, I haven't seen very much that they do. And they did do there -- I just saw it about a month ago -- a whole program of Tudor's works, which the dancers put on themselves. Tudor never went near it. And I thought that showed great initiative. I was very impressed with the fact that they did that. And in London, what did I see? Well, the London Festival Ballet there has some interesting things going on every now and then. The Royal Ballet, what I've seen hasn't been very interesting. But that's about all I've seen.
AB: But one of your ex-dancers, Edith Ballard, is now ballet mistress of La Scala.
RP: Yes, that's true.
AB: Yes. She was with you a whole season, and she was in the first Bells.
RP: How did she happen to go to Europe and have a whole career over there? How did she first go to Europe?
AB: She went to Europe with the last expiring breath of the de Basil ballet. They went to Paris, he died, and she stayed there and married a Frenchman, and then she auditioned for the [Theatre du] Chatelet and went there as a minor soloist. And there she is.
RP: I'd love to live in Europe. I'd love to be there more often. It's so much more interesting than here. But now my husband, who's from Paris, he says he thinks all the action is here. He says Paris is still a beautiful city, but all the action is over here in America. That may be true, now that we are a great nation of dancers. We produce so many different kinds of dancing. So it's hard to say.
TF: Do you think that's true, Ann? That most of the action is here in dance?
AB: In the United States? A great deal of it, yes. London has a great deal. But we have a thing called the regional ballet movement, and there's no similar thing to that. [Do] you realize that there are over 100 companies, attached to different civic organizations?
     You know there's a phenomenon that people don't realize, that's the dancing school which proliferated all over America in the days of "fancy-dancing," aesthetic dancing, tap-acrobatic. There was no such thing in France until after World War II. The only people who studied dance were those who were attached to a theatre, and studied at the theatre. England did have these organizations you know . . . that's the Espinosa family, the man who started here, really lived in England. So that they don't have a lot of different companies. But when you realize how many ex-dancers find places to become directors . . . .
RP: Like [John] Neumeier . . . .
AB: I'm talking about in America. Like Bruce Marks. Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin have a company in Tulsa. Somebody who danced in the Ballet Russe, by the name of Nathalie Krassovska, has a company in Dallas. Well, there are companies that I know in Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Tulsa, Miami, Atlanta, Seattle -- there are several in Seattle -- San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Think how many companies. Now most of them are directed by former dancers. Like Helgi Tomasson now will be with the San Francisco Ballet. Ballet West, which is in Salt Lake City, has Toni Lander, now that Bruce Marks is leaving. Do you realize how many there are?
     Part of that is that in all these dance schools at one time, the level of teaching was very, well, I won't say low. But did you know that dance had more done for it in kindergartens and gymnasiums of America in the early twentieth century? There was a Pestaltzi-Froebel psychology of childhood that said, "Let them move around." Kindergarten teachers had to take normal courses in dance. That's where Muriel Abbott came from. She was kindergarten teacher. Edna McRae was going to be a gym teacher; she and her sister Alma, went to the National College of Physical Education -- and there were Pavley and Oukrainsky teaching. And when colleges became co-educational, what the heck were you going to give the girls? You can't throw a basketball to them. Oh, well, give them dancing. At first it was a very dilute ballet.
     And then there was the Greek idea, and that wasn't just Duncan. The Greek dancing was pre-Duncan. It was Schieman and Winckleman who were the archaeologists. Just like the Egyptian things became very fashionable recently with all the excavations. That's when Vassar started the Greek games, the Vassar daisy chain and the tunics. Then there's Delsarte. All these things together. But the United States picked it up educationally, and the gymnasiums and the kindergartens were full of dance.
TF: Are there enough good choreographers to go around now?
AB: No, because choreography is a very rare creative talent. Because there are no materials. It has to come from here and here to pick it up. If you're going to be a painter, you buy a piece of canvas and you get colors and you daub it. But choreography, either you work it on your own body first -- which you have to, I know Ruth did the first one -- or you have to have clay to work on. And that clay is going to criticize you . . . . So that the whole choreographic picture is a very difficult one.
     That's why it's so sinful when a great choreographer such as Jerome Robbins, with a very rare talent, wasted twenty years of his life doing great musicals like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. In Russia, choreography is important. No choreographer would think it more important to do some musicals. But our American standards are such, and that's why when Jerome Robbins came back, he was like a hungry man. It kept coming out of him . . . .
TF: Do you think Balanchine has had it too great?
AB: Balanchine's a very great choreographer. I wish they wouldn't put him on a pedestal, and try to make everybody a Balanchine. I think even he sort of shrugged it off.
TF: What do you think, Ruth?
RP: I agree that he's a great choreographer, but I don't think anybody should copy anybody, even if he's a great choreographer. I think you should think of things yourself. Otherwise, you're just sort of . . . .
AB: He loved Frankie and Johnny. He recognized there could be other sorts of things. But that was his interest. But everybody's doing the same thing.
TF: What about all the lost ballets, Ann? There's so much choreography that's lost.
AB: The minute a dance has been finished, it's gone. Even the second time they do it, it isn't exactly the same. It's a very ephemeral art. I mean, you think of all the great ballets that are nothing but a few words on a piece of paper, either in a program or a book or a newspaper. It's a very ephemeral art. So is acting.
TF: But you have the play, you can read a script.
AB: For example, Giselle . . . . No, La Fille Mal Gardee is the oldest ballet still being danced, but we're quite sure that very little of what is done now is like what they did. A ballet changes even in one season, as dancers put in their own improvements.
TF: And yet it's important to record it?
AB: Yes it is. And, of course, taping has been the great thing. Film should have done more, but it was so expensive and difficult. And worse than that, the stagehands and musicians unions have helped kill the perpetuating of choreography because although any musician can go in anywhere and record on tape or a piece of wax, if he's a pianist, his ability to play, if he's a composer, the piece itself. If he's a poet, he can write it down. If he's a painter he can put it on canvas. If he's a choreographer -- it costs a million dollars.
RP: You have to pay the stagehands, the musicians, everybody.
TF: What about Labanotation?
AB: Yes, that's a very wonderful instrument. It's not perfect. But it's great that it exists.
RP: Can you read it?
AB: No, just like anybody can turn on a faucet and get water, how many know what to do if it goes wrong? You have to get a plumber. Same with notation. There have to be specially trained people. Also, we're not sure how accurate the actual notating is. For instance, if the notation is, "The right arm is up," you realize that "up" is here and "up" is here and Where is the palm? . . . and where are the fingers? . . . Where's the elbow? Of course there are things in notation that show that, and what is every other articulation of the body doing? While the arm is up, is the head here, or here, or here? And if it's a ballet, say with even twelve people, what are they doing? And where is their relationship on the stage and what's their relationship to the time of the music? So notation is really very laborious. They do get simulation.
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