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Ruth Page Front Room No. 10 [March 27, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0565
Run Time
0h 17m 52s
Date Produced
March 27 1985
Q: In 1947, you did the choreography for a Broadway musical called Music in My Heart. Do you remember it?
A: Yes, I do. It was done by Hassard Short who was a very, very remarkable man. I worked with him before on something, I forget what . . . .
A: The Music Box Revue, yes. He directed the Music Box Revue. This show wasn't particularly successful, and I wasn't especially interested in it. I never wanted to do Broadway shows. I never was interested in Broadway shows. It was stupid of me, because Hassard Short said if I would come and live in New York, I could do all the shows. But I couldn't go and live in New York, and I didn't care that much about Broadway shows.
Q: The reviews of this particular show said that your dances were the best things in it.
A: I think they were. That's true.
Q: You did one called "Beauty and the Beast." What was that like? What kind of dance was it?
A: I can't remember very well. It was what the story was. It was what the fairy tale implies.
Q: And then you yourself performed [sic] in a number called "Danse Arabe." I may be pronouncing it wrong.
A: "Dance Arabe." Yes. That was nice, I think. It was sort of an interpretation of an Oriental-ish kind of dance, you know. It wasn't Arabian at all. But it had an atmosphere of what you think of as the Orient, you know. Of course it's ridiculous, because in the Orient there are ten thousand kinds of dancing, and they're all interesting. But at that time, we thought of something oriental as, well, it just wasn't on toe and not classical at all. I had never been around the world, I guess, then [sic]; I know now what all the dances in the Orient are, because I've been around and studied them all. And each one is so different from the others, and they're all so interesting. But this was just a general interpretation of what we thought the Orient was like.
Q: It was a big success, that dance. But then it was censored.
A: It was?
Q: Yes, and it was not the first time that things that you've done have been censored. The first time you performed Frankie and Johnny in New York, do you remember the censorship?
A: Yes, and I told you about that. I said it was because there were two lesbians in it . . . . I think that was because there was a play there all about lesbians that had just been closed because they didn't like the subject matter. And those people were furious that their play was closed, and I don't blame them. And so they closed Frankie and Johnny because there were two lesbians in it, who you wouldn't even know they were lesbians. They were just two girls, one dressed in a mannish way. And so that was the reason. It wasn't for all the other things in there that are kind of -- maybe they could censor. But that was the reason. It was foolish, really.
Q: There was a big blow-up about it in the New York press with lots of people coming to your defense.
A: Yes, that's right.
Q: But you didn't seem to be . . . you're not quoted as getting terribly angry or exercised about it . . . .
A: No. If they wanted to criticize it, all right. I mean, if you just did what people thought you ought to do, you'd be awfully limited, you know. You couldn't talk about lesbians or prostitutes or thieves or robbers or anything. Well, it's limited. You've got to take from everything in life, I think.
Q: Later, Billy Sunday was also censored. They wanted you to change the name of one section of the dance from "The Wise and Foolish Virgins" to the "Wise and Foolish Maidens."
A: Oh, how silly. I'd forgotten that. That's true. That's ridiculous.
Q: And they insisted that you remove the cross from the Ku Klux Klan costumes.
A: Oh, yes. I remember that, too. I'd forgotten that we had the Ku Klux Klan in there, yes. That was considered shocking to use that, and Mrs. Billy Sunday thought I was making fun of her husband, too. I had a letter from her. And I wrote her and said, "I'm not making fun of your husband at all. I'm just using actually his words, and I'd seen pictures of him and, I'm using his movements. I'm not inventing anything new. This is what your husband did." So, she calmed down.
Q: Actually, Ruth, what do you think of Billy Sunday? Not the ballet -- Billy Sunday the evangelist?
A: Oh, well, I think he must have been fascinating, because there are so many high-falutin' speeches made about religion, you know, the Catholic Church, and they talk way above everybody's head. And I think this was a wonderful idea: to put it into slang, so that everybody could understand what he was talking about, don't you? I think he had a terrific idea.
Q: And that was what attracted you to him as a subject for your ballet? The slang?
A: Yes. The fact that he was talking so that people could understand what he was saying, yes.
Q: Now, when you went to Paris in 1950 was when you began your association with the Champs-Elysées Ballet. Subsequently, that company became very important to you; almost as though you were adopting it or that you wanted to adopt it.
A: Well, no. It was a French company, and they did my ballet Revenge which they did very well, and I was pleased that they were doing it. It was supposed to run one or two performances, and it ran every night for a month. So, naturally, I was pleased with the Champs-Elysées company.
Q: In fact, you choreographed Revenge, from what I have read, and gave it to them. You wanted to because they were in danger of going under and you wanted to help preserve the company [sic].
A: That I don't remember. Maybe I did.
Q: Did you look upon it as a potential European base for you?
A: No.
Q: The Ballet Russe and your association with Sergei Denham -- that was a long, productive and difficult association.
A: Well, he was the only one that had the guts to have a company. Diaghilev was gone, and he was such a great man, you know. Denham wasn't an artistic person at all, but he kept the company going. And so, if you were in that era, you weren't performing [unless you were with them]. Danilova was in it. Freddie Franklin was in it. Oh, everybody was in that company and did ballets for them. And it was difficult because you couldn't get exactly what you wanted, but at least you got the ballets seen somehow. He traveled all over the country, and it went on for a long time until he died.
Q: Now, you had a period of time in the late forties where you had licensed your ballets on a "Lend-Lease" program, where they took the whole thing -- the sets , the costumes, the choreography -- the whole thing as a package. Do you remember anything about it?
A: Who took it? I don't remember.
Q: The Ballet Russe. It was apparently a new concept that Tom or you had come up with. If they were going to do a ballet of yours, they had to do it the way you had conceived of the production.
A: Yes, of course.
Q: That was kind of a new idea at that time, wasn't it?
A: I don't know, but I wanted my ballets done the way I did them. I didn't want somebody else coming in and staging them. There are very few people who can stage your ballets. Freddie Franklin can stage Frankie and Johnny for me, and Larry Long now can do The Merry Widow and Fledermaus. I'd like to have other people do them, but they have to do them in my way, naturally.
Q: You say "naturally," but I think from looking at some of the correspondence, there was often some dispute. Not about the choreography, but changing the sets and changing costumes and changing orchestrations for some of your ballets. Do you remember any of that?
A: No, I don't. I can't imagine why they would change them. Who changed them?
Q: Well, there were some problems. There were problems over Love Song, for example, which was one of the ballets that the Ballet Russe . . . .
A: Well, maybe. I didn't get the musical rights to it or something like that. You have to be very careful. Like when you do Carmina Burana, you've got to go through all kinds of rigamarole. You need a lawyer to get the rights for that. There's so much music -- like The Merry Widow. I had a lot of trouble with that. That had to be all negotiated through a lawyer. I can't do that even now, I don't think, in Europe. I can only do it here, if I'm not mistaken.
Q: Tom?
A: He was very good at that, yes. He was very clever at negotiating things like that.
Q: It was his suggestion that you do The Merry Widow.
A: Yes. It was his idea, not mine.
Q: And your first reaction to the idea was . . . .
A: Oh, I thought it was too popular. I was too serious to do The Merry Widow. I had a lot of fun doing it once I got into it, but I thought that was just popular music. Actually, it's great music -- it's just terrific -- and I was glad he suggested it because it's the most successful ballet I ever did. It's going every place now, up to this day. It got a Peabody Award on television. So I'm awfully glad he suggested it.
Q: Now, when you started out with the idea of The Merry Widow the very first time that it was performed, you just did not the whole Merry Widow, but some segment called Vilia?
A: Oh, yes. That's right. Oh, I know what it was. I left out the whole middle section, which gives it the contrast, the Marsovian scene and all those dances that come in there. They're sort of demi-caractere dances, and they make the ballet so that it isn't just nothing but waltzes. And the "Vilia" was a beautiful song which we do at the end there, and it's a beautiful pas de deux. It has great variety in it, now. It wasn't nearly as good [then]. Now I think it's a marvelous ballet. It has everything in it. It's done in the right proportions, and it's a wonderful part for the Widow and a wonderful part for the man, Danilo.
Q: You kept working and working and working over the sets especially.
A: Well, those are difficult because the original version was just done with curtains that rise up and come down. At lots of theatres, we can't use the sets at all, because the theatres haven't got enough space to lift them up. So it is difficult to do that. We sometimes have to do it without any sets at all. We can do it without any sets at all, just against a black curtain. But of course, it's much more effective if it's done with the proper sets.
Q: The sets are really quite elaborate, the final sets.
A: Yes. Yes. They're all done by curtains that have to come up at a certain time, come down at a certain time. That tango has to be seen through the scrim. It's more effective that way. To do that ballet properly is hard. You have to have the right theatre, and you have to have the right dancers. It's not an easy ballet to do, but it's a sort of fool-proof ballet. If you do it badly, it's still a success. Do you know what I mean?
Q: Yes. It's a lot less difficult to relate to than a ballet say, for example, like Billy Sunday.
A: Yes, because everybody knows the story of The Merry Widow and there's nothing much to the story. It's just pretty dancing.
Q: There were a lot of legal hassles over the rights of The Merry Widow. Tom was very relieved in one of the letters he writes to you. He says he's so relieved he was able to get all the legal rights that you needed, and relieved that the ballet was a success, because he felt responsible.
A: Yes, he was.
Q: Was that the first time Tom had ever suggested a ballet to you?
A: Yes.
Q: And the last?
A: Yes. It was a good idea. A marvelous idea.
Q: So did Tom confine his suggestions mostly to the business end of your work?
A: Yes.
Q: Did you take part in much of the business end, Ruth?
A: No. I didn't have to, and now I have to and I find it extremely difficult. I hate doing business, and I'm not good at it. Sure, I try to get Solovy to do things for me, but he can't always do it, either. He doesn't know much about dancing.
Q: It seems from reading the things that Tom has written, that he was really, in addition to being your business manager, a real champion of your work.
A: I don't know.
Q: Did he used to tell you his opinions?
A: Well, he liked my work very much, yes, which helped me, because you know an artist is always doubtful. You never know if it's good or bad or indifferent. Somebody who tells you helps you a lot. Yes. It's very important to have somebody who eggs you on, so to speak. Yes.
Q: And promotes your career, which was important to Tom, too. Did he help you choose from among the offers that you got for performances?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: I gather sometimes he could be difficult.
A: Tom?
Q: Yes.
A: I guess so.
Q: In negotiations?
A: Oh, yes. I think so.
Q: And indeed, in dealing with some of the people with whom you worked . . . . There's the story of someone, I now forget who, just packing up and leaving St. Tropez because he and Tom would get into fierce arguments about some ballet or other. Was that a usual kind of occurrence?
A: I don't remember that at all. I wonder, who was it? See if you can find out who it was and maybe I can tell you. I don't know who that was.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)