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Larry Long No. 01 [October 24, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0527
Run Time
0h 18m 22s
Date Produced
October 24 1985
Q: Larry, you first started dancing with Ruth in 1958?
A: '58, yes.
Q: Tell about it.
A: Well, when I first joined the company . . . . Actually I joined the company after having met Patricia Klekovic doing summer stock; and at the end of the season for the summer stock, Patricia asked if I wouldn't like to come and stop with her in Chicago on my way back to New York, where I lived, and audition for Ruth. Which I did. Strange, because I auditioned for Miss Page five times. I auditioned once on my way back to New York from Chicago. At the end of that audition, there were two boys, myself and a boy named Chris Edwards, who had been a dancer in My Fair Lady, which was playing in Chicago at the time.
     At the end of the audition, she took us to lunch and she said, "Now, of course, I don't know." She spoke to Chris Edwards. She said, "I don't know why you want to join the company, you know. You make so much money dancing in a big Broadway show. It's a big hit; it's going to run for ever, and I can't pay you nearly so much money. Our season is very short, and it's going to be over very quickly. You get paid hardly anything at the Opera, and yet you work long hours and hard and everything. I don't know why you want to join the company." And to me she said, "Well, I don't know if I can use you. I don't know who's coming back from the company the year before, but I'll let you know. Thank you very much," and everything.
     So, I went back to New York kind of discouraged about the whole affair and went to an audition for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York. And present at the audition was Miss Page. So she watched that audition in its entirety. At the end of that audition, she called me over and she said, "You know, in a week I'm giving another audition, I'm having another audition at Judson Hall. Would you come and dance for me again?" She didn't actually . . . she didn't remember that I danced for her not too long before that. But she asked if I'd come, and I said certainly I would.
     Meanwhile I went to an audition for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo -- at which Miss Page was present. So I auditioned for her -- that was a third time. And at the end of that audition she said, "Haven't I just seen you someplace before?" And I said, "Yes, you just saw me at the Metropolitan Opera audition." And she said, "Well, I'm giving this audition." And I said, "Yes, ma'am, I'm going to be there." So I went to Judson Hall and auditioned for her again. That was the fourth time.
     At the end of that audition she said, "Thank you very much. I still don't really know if I'll be able to use you. I don't know what the situation's going to be." And so forth. And as I was leaving to get dressed after the audition, she said, "Oh, by the way, does anybody here (speaking to the whole group) do acrobatics?" And I raised my hand and said, "Yes, ma'am, I do." And she said, "Oh, what do you do?" And I said, "You know, regular tumbling runs." And she said, "Can you show me something?" So I did a round-off, back handspring, back handspring, back flip. I did a couple of other things. I did an aerial and flip. And I did a thing called "butterflies," which is another acrobatic. Well, that clinched it. Right then she said, we start rehearsals in -- I think it was a week and a half or something -- in Chicago for the Lyric Opera and so forth. Would you come? And so I did.
Q: And what was the company like when you joined? When you got to Chicago who was here? Who were the other, who were the principal dancers at that point?
A: The principal dancers when I joined the company were, of course, Kenneth Johnson, a wonderful dancer named Barbara Steele, who'd been with Miss Page for quite some time. They were the two kind of resident principals of the company. The soloists in the company were Patricia Klekovic, Orrin, Dolores, who was to become my wife, Charles Schick. Etta Burro was another dancer in the company. Bill Maloney at that time. Only four of us joined the company that year. The rest had been with Miss Page before.
     That year our guest stars, which was the . . . every year, for every tour, Miss Page would engage a guest couple to come and dance the leads in usually one, but sometimes both, of her ballets, and the company would do a little divertissement in the middle. And the guest stars that year were George Skibine and Marjorie Tallchief.
     But the company stayed very, very, very much the same almost the whole time I was a member of the company. The personnel, particularly the soloists and principals, changed hardly at all. We've had wonderful guest stars, usually different every year. But the nucleus of the company, what we called Miss Page's dancers, remained the same almost the whole 15 years that we toured.
Q: Why was that do you think?
A: The reason for it, I think is . . . the reason why everybody stayed is varied and many. There are all kinds of reasons. First of all, we made a life in Chicago. We made, probably for dancers at that time, more of an actual life for ourselves in Chicago than dancers anywhere else did. A good many of the dancers in Miss Page's company were from Chicago. So they had family ties here, ties to their school where they trained and everything. So there was that.
     Also, jobs were just enormously scarce for dancers in that time. There were very few companies where one could actually make a living as a dancer. That meant when you found a job, and you found a place, particularly one that was satisfying and led you to progress as a dancer and as an artist, if you will, you didn't give it up easily. The largest company probably at that time was Ballet Theatre. Second certainly largest, although it toured the most, was Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Our company was the third most secure company at that time. We were the only ones who toured as extensively as we did, although even we didn't tour as much as the other companies. And there were no other companies that exist nowadays. There was no Houston Ballet, no Pennsylvania Ballet, no Milwaukee Ballet, none of the Ohio companies. No Joffrey Ballet. The opportunities for dancers were very, very, very limited. The "big" companies weren't nearly as big as they are now.
     Also, one has to honestly say that working with Ruth had almost as much an influence as all of the other things put together to keep us here. We were never bored working with Ruth at all. She was always challenging. She was very difficult to work for, not an easy lady at all. Not easily pleased from a technical standpoint, but more even from an artistic standpoint. One really had to strive to do something extra to please Ruth. And if you did that, you felt a kind of immediate gratification, you know. It was like having a real strong drink of vodka -- right away you felt the effects, immediately. You also felt the effects if you didn't please her immediately. So, the satisfactions of dancing were very great. Very great. I think that's what kept the company together, and kept it such a unique unity for so long.
Q: When you were touring, how many months a year did you tour?
A: The company schedule was a marvelous one. Again, for the time, a very, very long, long contract. We got together at the beginning of September and worked for the Opera, September, October, and through November. We had December off. And then, when I joined the company, we were touring January, February, March, and into April, depending upon the dates. Sometimes it was April 18th, sometimes April 20th, sometimes April 11th. And then later, when Miss Page did Nutcracker in 1965, then it was solid through all that time. We did Nutcracker in the December that we used to have off. So the contract went through from September usually through April. And in those days, that was enormously long; that was really a plum of a job.
Q: And then what did you do from April or May through September?
A: Almost everybody in those days did stock. I know I did, my wife did, Patricia Klekovic did, Orrin did, Kenneth. Everybody did stock. We usually had places we had gone several years. My "place," as it were, was the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, which was a 17-week summer job. We went there usually the end of, sometimes the middle of, May. And then did
usually fifteen shows for a whole summer, ending just after Labor Day when it was time to come right back to work at the Opera. That was a grueling schedule.
     But that also . . . in a funny way, all of these things that we did, for example, touring with Ruth, meant we were sponsored by Columbia Artists Management, and particularly the arm of Columbia called Community Concerts. Well, that meant we did seven performances a week, usually one in a different town every performance. We performed six days, the seventh day usually Sunday was a travel day, so every night was a different place. Now that's a very . . . . that's a grueling schedule. It's very, very hard. But with those kind of ballets, it's the kind of experience that young dancers nowadays don't really get, or very seldom get, and I think it's one of the reasons -- I like to think it's one of the reasons -- that we developed as dancers and as actors and everything the way we did.
     When we did a ballet, ninety performances in a season in a tour, you really got to be perfect friends with your role, with your character. There wasn't anything about them you didn't know. If it was a comic ballet, as some of them were, you knew exactly what to do to get laughs, what to avoid to lose a point. If it was a drama, dramatic ballet, you knew exactly how to bring out the drama, how to bring the story, how to bring out the character, how to get the most response. Tremendous experience. The summers were that way, too. A different show for fifteen weeks in a row, performing one while you're rehearsing the next. You get a kind of experience. Your mind works immediately, you know, to grasp things, to catch the essence of things because you haven't time to experiment a lot. You've got to learn it, do it, and make it right immediately.
Q: Now, these were acting roles that you're doing during the summer, not dancing roles.
A: Both. Both. Because in stock you got the opportunities to do both. The dancers got fewer opportunities than singers in stock in those days. Now, to do musicals one has to be a dancer and an actor and a singer -- the whole thing. In those days, it was a little bit more compartmentalized. If you were a dancer, you were a dancer; if you were a singer, you were a singer. And the singers in stock generally got a few more parts than dancers did. Dancers were always under . . . suspect when they opened their mouth, you know? But still, one did get the opportunity to do roles and even to sing. It was wonderful, wonderful experience. It's too bad dancers nowadays don't have that kind of opportunity to learn and to work.
Q: Well, what's more, that kind of touring has completely left the American dance scene.
A: Yes. It, the whole system that works now . . . . I think, in going round to the companies as I do now to stage Page ballets, particularly, you find it's really apparent. It becomes really apparent to you, what good experience we had as compared to the younger dancers of today. For example, now when I go to stage Merry Widow, I go in two weeks to stage the ballet, come back a week before whenever the performances are. And often times, five performances is a long, extended season which means usually two casts. So that means one cast gets three chances at a role, and the other only two. You can't possibly get into a role that quickly, you know? You're just learning the bare essentials of it at that point. And what you'd really like to do is do it one hundred times, you know. By the end of one hundred times, you'd know exactly what you wanted to do. How to get the fun out of it, out of the role.
     It's different from doing kind of technical pas de deux that you can rehearse, and you actually get the most value out of a rehearsal. In a technical kind of role, you can perfect everything, the conditions are absolutely right. But when you're doing a "role" as opposed to a kind of variation or something, it's the performance. It's the interaction between you and the audience that is the most valuable. You know that's what makes you really learn that part, learn that role. Because you're always making dramatic points, you know, and you can't do it in a void. You have to be able to react to an audience.
Q: So when you teach a ballet like Fledermaus or Merry Widow, what do you do to help the dancers that you teach it to, to substitute for the fact that they don't have feedback from an audience in which to build their familiarity with what works inside this role? What do you do?
A: I talk myself silly. I talk myself hoarse. I try to give as much imagery as I can. I try to react myself for the dancers, so that they have an idea what it is they are going for. I talk as much about the story and what's coming across, and how to bring it across about their character and how to develop their character, how to bring their character to the fore. I talk as much about that as I do about the technical aspects of the piece. And, in a way, it's more important. Dancers nowadays are very, very, very good; very strong, very quick, very . . . they're wonderful dancers. So they grasp the dancing portions of the ballets fantastically well. So, it's almost more important -- the things that I tell them about the ballet, the things that we talk about the ballet. Mainly, I probably . . . I think it has so much to do with imagery, some kind of verbal image that will create an ambiance and a feeling for them of what they should go for, what they should hopefully expect from an audience.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)