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Ruth Page Front Room No. 08 [March 27, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0563
Run Time
0h 17m 58s
Date Produced
March 27 1985
Q: Frankie and Johnny did shock the French, although they clearly loved it, too. One of the French newspapers printed a list of ten things in Frankie and Johnny that shocked them, and illustrated it with photographs. Here's the list: #1 -- They didn't like the daring manner of this dance; #2 -- They didn't like Frankie's red hair; #3 -- They didn't like Johnny's purple shirt; #4 -- They didn't like the dance with the coffin -- which I think is one of the best parts of the ballet . . . .
A: Yes, I do, too.
Q: . . . because a coffin is apparently an absolute taboo on the French stage.
A: Yes. I remember once in St. Tropez, on the beach, there was somebody's tomb and it was a marvelous place to have a picnic. And we started having picnics up there because you didn't get in the sand. And you know more people said, "Oh, get off of here! Get off of here! This is a tomb! Don't you know that's a tomb?" So, I guess they don't like tombs and coffins.
Q: #5 -- They didn't like the placing of a corpse in the bier; #6 -- They didn't like Nellie's lily wreath; #7 -- They didn't like the fact that they thought the parody was macabre; #8 -- They didn't like Frankie making effects with her legs over the coffin -- another great moment; #9 -- They didn't like the Salvation Army girls drinking beer; and #10 -- They didn't like that all the dancers dressed in earth colors. It's silly. What do you think of the list?
A: It's ridiculous, of course! It's ridiculous.
Q: After you read that in the newspaper, you wrote: "Well, if they don't like this, I'm sure they're going to hate Billy Sunday! But they didn't. They loved Billy Sunday. You got a French actor to come out and explain.
A: Yes, that's right, we did. Because the words are all in English, you know. I forget who danced it there. Did Freddie Franklin dance it there? Who danced it?
Q: I would guess it would be Freddie Franklin [sic], who was with you on that tour [sic]?
A: Yes. He was marvelous in that part. He was terrific.
Q: No, no. I'm sorry. I think it was Bentley. It was Bentley Stone.
A: Yes. He was good in it, too. But I liked Freddie better than Bentley in it. I don't know why. Strangely enough, he was English, but he got the American accent better than Bentley. You know it was supposed to be told in the vernacular, and Freddie got that just perfectly.
Q: Now, Billy Sunday is a very interesting ballet. Where did you first get the idea of deciding to do a ballet about Billy Sunday?
A: Well, I've always liked the Bible stories. I've always wanted to dance all the Bible stories, and then everybody's done a Bible ballet, so that I thought I'd have to find a point of view of something different. And then I remembered about Billy Sunday, how interesting he was. The way he told the stories in slang. I remembered him, and that's why I did it that way.
Q: Right before that, you had also been doing some words and music in solo programs of yours, where you danced and recited poetry at the same time. It was really quite a sensation when in Billy Sunday there was so much talk.
A: Well, I was the first one that sort of started dancers to talk. I don't know if it was a good idea. I did lots of poems, solo dances, where I recited the poems and danced at the same time. I did a lot of e.e. cummings . . . .
Q: You did "The Cambridge Ladies." Do you remember that one?
A: Oh, yes, very well. I should say I do.
Q: Do you remember it now? Can you do it now?
A: Yes. "The Cambridge ladies, who live in furnished souls, are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds. Also, with the Church's Protestant blessings, daughters, unscented, shapeless, spirited. They believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead, but are invariably interested in so many things. At the present writing, one still finds delighted fingers knitting for the -- is it Poles? Perhaps. While permanent faces, coily, bandy, scandal, and Mrs. Inn and Prof. Dee. The Cambridge ladies do not care above Cambridge and sometimes in spots of sky, lavender and cornerless, the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy." [APPLAUSE] Well, I did all kinds of poems. I loved to do them.
Q: Yes. Now, when you did them, Ruth, you danced and recited the poems at the same time.
A: Yes.
Q: The poems were not tape recorded?
A: No, no. I did it. Of course I did it.
Q: Now, a lot of people said it's too hard for dancers to talk.
A: Well, they all do it now, so I don't know what they were talking about. It isn't hard at all if you use your breath right. Of course, you can't go leaping around and do classical dances and talk at the same time. But, if you choreograph them right for the talking, it's perfectly possible.
     I like talking, also. I like words. I like straight dances, too. I don't mean that I always insist on always talking while I'm dancing. I did lots of dances without any talking. But those poems . . . . It was a time Bentley was off in the War, I think, or something. I didn't have a partner, so I had to do things alone. And that's when I started doing them, I think. When was the War -- '40?
Q: Bentley went in just after, I think, in 1939 or 1940 [sic].
A: Well, whenever it was, when Bentley went off to the War is when I started doing them, because I didn't have anybody to dance with. So I had to either not dance or . . . .
Q: Actually, I have that wrong. Bentley went later. It was in '41 and you began doing them in 1943.
A: Yes, that's right.
Q: The Dances With Words and Music, we have no records of those. We have some photographs of you in costume, but we have no records of those. What were the dances like, Ruth?
A: Well, it's impossible to describe dances in words. They weren't complicated dances, and they were geared to the words, like "The Cambridge Ladies" and that other one of his, "Hist Whist, little ghost things . . . ."
     I did the Carl Sandburg "Songs" -- "Oh, I had a horse and his name was Bill, and when he ran, he couldn't stand still. He ran away one day and I ran with him."
     And what other ones were there? "I'm sad and I'm lonely, My heart it will break, My sweetie loves another, I wish I were dead." There were a lot. They were sort of semi-humorous at the same time.
Q: And the music?
A: Well, I think Wilckens wrote all that music. No, it was Louis Horst. Yes, Louis Horst.
Q: I think so, yes.
A: Louis Horst wrote all of the music for them [sic]. He was a very extraordinary man. He really knew so much about dance, and he was a very good musician, too. He knew how to write music for dance. I don't say that he was the greatest composer on earth, but he knew how to write music. He'd watch you rehearse and wouldn't say a word. And then, at the end, he'd have the music all in his head, and it always worked. I think he was a very extraordinary person, really
Q: And yet he never really did the musical arrangements later for any of your ballets, or composed?
A: No, I don't think so, no.
Q: Was the music just played on a piano?
A: With piano, yes.
Q: And so you would go in, and you would do programs, and you had a variety of costume changes . . . .
A: Yes. I always liked costumes. I was very careful to have costumes made so that when I was . . . doing the Carl Sandburg "Songs," it was one basic costume, and you'd put the tail on when you were the horse named Bill. And "I'm Sad and I'm Lonely," the costume was sort of all black and white, and I had a little hat that I wore for one or two numbers. I think that was designed by Nicholas Remisoff [sic], if I'm not mistaken. Wasn't it?
Q: I think so, yes. He designed all the costumes [sic].
A: He was a very good costumer. A marvelous costumer. I was always very careful of the costumes. I was in all of my ballets. When Delfau started doing ballets for me, he did marvelous costumes for me. He did my Fledermaus ballet which we are reviving soon. And as I look back on the costumes, they're just marvelous . . . . And I don't know what to do with all my costumes now. We're going to take them all out and decide what to do with them; throw them out or -- I don't know.
     There should be a costume museum where you can keep all the costumes, but I don't think there is in Chicago. I don't think there is in New York, either. I don't know, really. They fall apart pretty quickly, you know. They don't last forever. But costumes are very fragile things, you know, especially tarleton ones. They don't make tarleton anymore. That used to be this marvelous material that you made ballet skirts out of. They don't make it any more, I
don't believe. They make some kind of different tulle, and the materials change. They're hard to copy, in other words. If you make a costume at a certain time, if you want to copy it twenty years later, it's very hard to get the same materials; also the same colors. It's not easy, this subject of costumes.
Q: There was one ballet of yours for which the costumes proved absolutely impossible, and you got rid of them and changed them.
A: What was that? I don't remember.
Q: It was one of the . . . . I'll find it later. Then you had some costumes once designed by Calder.
A: Oh, Alexander Calder. Sandy Calder.
Q: I think they were impossible to dance in.
A: Yes. He didn't have a sense of what to design. He was a great artist, I think, and a marvelous person, and I admired his work so much. But he didn't have any sense about dance and what you could dance in, and I don't think I ever used them, maybe. I don't remember using any of Sandy Calder's costumes. I'm trying to think. I don't remember.
Q: In choosing people to design your costumes, you've chosen people to design your costumes who were not necessarily designers. They were artists, starting with Noguchi and moving right on through Clavé and Delfau. They were not experienced costume designers.
A: Well, Delfau certainly was.
Q: By the time you met him, I'm sorry. I'm wrong about him.
A: Yes.
Q: But I know Remisoff, before you met him had designed costumes.
A: Oh, yes. He designed most of Balieff's Chauve Souris. He did a lot of costumes. He was a great costumer.
Q: But yet, Clavé, Calder . . .
A: Yes, they hadn't done any [sic].
Q: . . . Noguchi.
A: Yes, that's true.
Q: Now, what was it that you saw in Clavé's work, for example, that made you feel that he was going to be able to design costumes?
A: Well, I admired him as a painter, and I liked him as a person. He was easy to work with, and he lived right next door to me at St. Tropez. So, it was as simple as that.
Q: You didn't think that there was a certain amount of risk in it?
A: Oh, of course. There's a risk in every art. If you don't take any risks, you can't do anything. You have to make some mistakes, of course.
Q: So, when you would go searching, thinking, of someone to design settings and costumes, you would look for an artist you thought had an original vision or . . . .
A: Yes. Or you would ask somebody. I remember when I got Delfau, Marjorie Tallchief was working with me, she and her husband, Skibine. They were dancing in my company, and it was Skibine . . . . I said, "I need someone to design this ballet. Who do you think would be good?" And he said, "Oh, I think Delfau would be marvelous." That's how I got him. I wrote to him and said, "Would you come over and do this ballet?" And he said, "Yes." It was as simple as that.
Q: And they're very expensive, ballet costumes. I read somewhere that three costumes for The Merry Widow, for the Widow, cost you $21,000.
A: That I don't remember. They are expensive. Well, The Merry Widow is something very special. Those costumes, they were expensive because they were so elaborate. I mean, I like the red costume that the Merry Widow makes her entrance in, is all covered with diamonds sewn on it, you know, and full skirts with pleats. Then, Mrs. Popoff's costume also is a very elaborate white lace costume with big hats. And the tango costumes are very elaborate, too. So that's a very expensive ballet to do. But it's beautiful. It's worth every cent of it.
Q: You never stinted on sets and costumes for your ballets. You always seem to have been willing to spend what was necessary in order for them to be right.
A: Well, I wasn't extravagant about it. I got them right. But they weren't anything elaborate for those days. Lots of people spent lots more than I did on them.
Q: Going back now for a minute, now, to Billy Sunday and to the whole story of getting that ballet started. It took years before you finally could get the music. The composer kept promising it . . . .
A: Well, that was Remi Gassmann. Yes. He wasn't the right choice for that, either. The music was never a success the way he did it. It was supposed to be everyday kind of music, you know -- popular music. And he didn't have any sense about that at all. He was too intellectual to do it. That was the trouble with him. He was a good composer, but he wasn't right for that ballet. I picked the wrong person for that ballet.
Q: And you stuck with him.
A: Yes. Well, I wanted to give him a full chance, and I had it all re-composed.
Q: Later.
A: Yes.
Q: When he was finally finished. As one reads the long story of Gassmann promising, one marvels at your patience.
A: Yes, he was very slow. Well, some compose quickly, and some compose slowly. Some are always late, and some are before time. Every artist is different. You can't expect them all to be the same. But he was always late. He drove me crazy. He never had anything ready on time.
Q: In fact, several times that ballet was scheduled and had to be canceled.
A: Yes, because he wasn't ready with the music. That's true, yes.
Q: There is some place that you wrote that if the music had been better to begin with, Billy Sunday would have been an even greater success.
A: Yes, I think that the music is terribly important in a ballet. The reason Frankie and Johnny, I say always, the reason that's such a big success is that Jerry Moross did such a wonderful job on the music. That's a perfect score for that ballet. And that's the only perfect score I ever got.
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