dontate now

Join Email List

Facebook  Become a Fan on Facebook
twitter  Follow Us on Twitter

329 West 18th Street Suite #610
Chicago, Illinois 60616
(312) 243-1808

Search Collections

Betsy Ross Davis No. 03 [June 13, 1985]

Bookmark and Share
Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0576
Run Time
0h 19m 52s
Date Produced
June 13 1985
Q: "The first time I saw Ruth Page dance was in 1934, in Oak Park [Illinois] . . . " and take it from there.
A: All right, except I'm not sure if it was in 1934 at all.
Q: I am.
A: I can't remember the first time I heard her name. I can't remember the first time precisely that I saw her dance. But I know it was with Harald Kreutzberg, and I know that it was in Oak Park. And I remember a few things out of that concert so vividly. One was her solo. She was doing Tropic then. It was probably one of the first times she did it. And it's a solo that you probably wouldn't see in this day at all, because it's a "mood" solo. She wore an extremely exotic costume, very native, very, I think bare midriff, probably. Ruth had an absolutely gorgeous body. Absolutely. And a mask over that face, if you can believe, and a beautiful headdress. It was very moody; a very warm, slow, tropical dance, if you can believe such a thing. And why such a thing would appeal to a young person -- who didn't know very much about dancing, let alone very much about modern dancing, which, of course, I was obviously looking at for the first time -- I don't know. But I remember it as if it were yesterday. I can remember Kreutzberg, of course. Everyone remembers him. He did something called the "King's Dance," where he was very, he wired, [and wore] a very wiry crown. A very noble dance. And the two of them together were charming. Perfectly beautiful.
Q: Can you describe Kreutzberg's dancing?
A: Lots of people have tried and failed. I don't know that I'll make it either. He moved like the wind. That's all I can say. He was strong when he wished to be and pliable when he wished to be, apparently. Of course, he had a look, a very, very definite look. As so did she. They were magnificently matched, the two of them together. He just moved, that's all. Very effortless, very quick or slow as he wished. Very impressive man. I saw him much later. He danced with Ruth here again, in Chicago, long after I left the company. I believe it was in Carmina Burana. He was still impressive.
Q: Now, you met Ruth, then, around when?
A: Well, while I was still in school. Bentley [Stone], my teacher, was her partner at the time, and since I'd always heard of Ruth -- I can't remember precisely the moment I said, "How do you do, Miss Page?" I remember what she looked like, of course. And I do think one of the few times I saw her, she was sitting directing her corps de ballet at the Opera House. I think Bentley had brought me to meet her. I wasn't working with the company, yet. As I say, I was still in school.
     I remember the first time I heard of her. I remembered it while I was talking about Kreutzberg. She did, a long time ago -- before I was ever taken anywhere -- a dance called The Flapper and the Quarterback, with Paul du Pont. Now, you see, Ruth did Americana long before anybody ever thought of it. And The Flapper and the Quarterback was apparently an all-out hit. Because my mother saw it at probably the Drama League, which she belonged to. It was somewhere downtown. She came back raving and singing and carrying on about Ruth Page and some man in The Flapper and the Quarterback. I never saw it, I'm sorry to say. But I certainly heard about it.
Q: Your mother liked it?
A: Adored it. Thought it was perfectly wonderful. But, of course, the point with that is that she was doing jazz and American themes and things that you see everyday in America, long before everybody else did Billy the Kid or de Mille with her Rodeo, and what not. Long before.
Q: Oh, it's true. She was the first in a great number of things.
A: First in many fields.
Q: Okay. So you were with Bentley and you met her and she was choreographing . . . .
A: For the opera company. And the opera company, the first year I was in it, I'd tried out and all, with the usual case of nerves, and got in the company and so forth. Very proud of myself. Well, that's a thrilling thing. And you'll never feel smaller in your life than when you walk on that great huge opera stage for the first time. It's an enormous -- the biggest thing you've ever seen. You feel just about so high. We had that year a very good company, I think. She had a lot of girls, I remember particularly, from the older company which had been in the opera ballet. They were very experienced, very smooth, and knew a great deal about the opera which, of course, is a field in itself. They had to learn all new ballets. Well, they'd done Ruth's repertoire. It wasn't their first year, but it was my first year. She still had girls from the Novikoff days, and so forth.
Q: Your first year was when, Betsy?
A: My first year was in the late '30s.
Q: Late '30s.
A: And out of high school, I went to Northwestern one year, but I didn't finish it. I wanted to do other things. Northwestern was a perfectly charming school, but it was very much like a musical comedy, and that was not what I had in mind at that point. Although it was later.
Q: You mean they were into musical comedy . . . they were doing musical comedy?
A: They did that, but the school itself was like an off-stage set. And it wasn't as interesting as the opera was to me at that point. So, over my parents' hysterical objections, I did not do
another year at the school. At any rate, the repertoire was perfectly wonderful, and Ruth's opera ballets were, I think, superb, much better than anything I've seen since in the opera. She had the taste to fit them in, drama to make them good, and just the all-around style, so that the ballet did not interrupt the opera as much as it added to it. Lots of them interrupted, you know, and they haven't got the look. You're not supposed to dance in tutus and toe shoes in Samson and Delilah and wiggle a little when the sexy music comes, you know. Her Samson was the real thing, a real bacchanal. It was kind of scary, as a matter of fact.
Q: Tell me about it.
A: Well, the movement in the ballet was, I don't think you'd call it archaic, but it was certainly more typical of how people might have moved in that day and age, than anything I've ever seen since. The music is a little fancy-dancey, if you recall it. But Ruth had this sort of movement, you know, very sharp, very angular. And the Bacchanal was the real thing. Parents, when they saw their daughters cavorting around, were always a bit put-off by it, like, "Who was that young man?" You know. But really, what dancers are doing in a case like that is going "2, 3, 4 -- push!" and something else, and you don't think anything about it at all. Ruth and Bentley were absolutely magnificent in that. Of course, they both looked absolutely wonderful, very exotic, very much in period.
     Thais was another where they looked wonderful. I can't remember that ballet; that was my first time on the stage. I was probably so absolutely beside myself, I can't remember a step of it. Some of the other ones I actually can remember. Thais was all a great blur. But I know that it was considered, Thais, rather shocking at the time. They had their pictures in the paper,
I recall, because both of them -- as I mentioned before they had absolutely marvelous bodies -- were wearing very, very little at the time. And, of course, at this time it would mean absolutely nothing. Bentley was tastefully attired in what sort of looked like a drapery thing, a tassel here, and very little else. And I can't imagine what Ruth had on, not much -- probably a flesh-colored leotard. In fact, I recall -- I think that's right -- a huge red scarf which covered her up here and trailed down the back, which was not necessary at all, but looked absolutely wonderful. And the papers indeed took pictures of this. She rather stole the show from Helen Jefferson, or whoever it was. Looked wonderful. Thais, they don't do very much anymore.
     She had a repertoire they don't do very much any more that year, too. La Juive was another one that was in the season that year. Very interesting ballet -- Meyerbeer, I think. And that ballet is adorable. But the operas she did had great style and great taste. Style and taste don't sound very exciting when you apply them to a dancer, but actually they were very important. The style, you know, it's the way you look, and the impact that you have, and the style also, I think, has a great deal to do with the fitness of things, how everything goes. The taste, of course, definitely has to do with the fitness of things. But everything she did was always all in a unit, and always all fit together. The music was always perfect. The costumes were always perfect. In Lakme, she had her own East Indian costumes for us -- she'd traveled a lot in the East and had a whole trunk, trunks full of them -- and had a Siamese costume, and had a little Siamese dance in the middle of it, which the ballerina Bettina Rosay did. And our costumes were real saris, and of course, she taught us exactly how to put them on and how to hold them when we danced and so forth.
Q: What was Ruth's . . . what did Ruth look like when she performed?
A: Stunning. Absolutely marvelous. She . . .
Q: Betsy, I wish you could start again and you would say, "Ruth looked stunning when she performed," or, "How did Ruth look when she performed? Stunning!" You know, just so we have it.
A: Ruth looked absolutely marvelous when she performed. Her makeup was completely suited for her. You wouldn't describe her face as strong -- she was the most feminine of women -- but
it's a face that projects right smack to the back row of the house. There have been a few other faces like that. Katharine Cornell had a face like that. You could see it for miles. Maria Callas had a face like that, and name any more, I can't. Garbo, if she was on the stage, would probably have had a face like that. But Ruth's makeup -- I think she told me once that Remisoff designed her makeup -- close-up it was rather blurry, a beautiful maquillage. Of course, the base makeup, and then her eyebrows and eyes were not sharp lines, but rather blurred and soft and out, and then, of course, a very lovely mouth and pretty. That was all there was to it. Not very complicated. She didn't need to complicate a makeup. Her hair was interesting, it was always straight. And she wore it in a very typical . . . it wasn't a pageboy; it was pretty straight and just curved in below the jaw. She shortened it gradually. And now, of course, it's what we used to call an "Italian cut": very short and very charming and very sharp. But it was long then, and also longer so that she could pull it back, put it in a ballerina knot it [if] she wished.
     But her appearance on the stage was elegant. I remember her most vividly -- because probably we always saw her that way so often -- in the opening of Love Song. She entered after the first number, after we did the first number. And she wore a long black ballet costume, low cut -- she changed the neckline a few times -- low cut, sometimes with white flowers around the side, and a veil was down over her face when she made the entrance, and she put it up shortly after her first entrance. But it was very dramatic and so black-and-white, and such an impact. Very stunning.
Q: Can you describe her as a dancer?
A: Describing Ruth as a dancer is very difficult because she had such variety. She did so many different things. The first time, in Tropic. I saw her being, I remember, languid, slow. Then she would do something like the, oh, she had some little caricature dances which were very fast; very, very fast. She did Zephyr and Flora with Bentley, which was one of their famous pas de deux together, which was an amusing what you call take-off on old formal dances, which was enchantingly funny. They both were very funny in it. Then she was very fast. In Love Song, and in Tristan and Isolde, she was very statuesque and tragic. And in Gold Standard, she was the perfect soubrette. Her ballet work, her classical ballet, the pointe work, she always mixed with modem movement. Her movement was very interesting. She blended a good deal of it in her style, so that you never saw her doing an absolutely classical role. I never did. I saw her do classical work in class, where everybody's working. That's different. You're trying hard and doing a little bit beyond what you can do. She was more like a modem dancer. But, on the other hand, her background was classical. She was very individual, and that is the best I can manage -- and invariably colorful.
Q: Still?
A: Yes. Oh, still. Yes, still.
Q: Is there a dancer today that you can think of who resembles Ruth in any way at all? Looks like her? Moves like her?
A: People can imitate her. No, nobody looks like her, I don't think. Dancers all look alike now. Ruth? No, I can't think of anybody. I was thinking of Cynthia Ann Roses, who did Frankie with the Cincinnati Ballet. And there was one passage in that ballet which I saw her do, where she got such a close imitation of Ruth, and she did the role precisely in that way. And, also, with the heart you see. You can't just imitate her. She got pretty close once, but she doesn't look at all like her. No, she's one of a kind. There's no one I can think of that comes anywhere near.
Q: Talk a little bit, if you can, about Ruth's personality, the personality that she projected.
A: The personality that Ruth projected, again, was different every time. Her projection was enormous, and that's what we called it. I don't know what they're calling it now. But projection is exactly the right word for the way she came across. In Frankie and Johnny, for instance, which is, I think, one of her greatest performances, because it was such a completely rounded character. The ballet itself is bawdy, it's interesting, it's got a great deal to it. But Ruth's characterization in that was, well, she looked like a hot little number all right, in the mini skirt and the shocking pink top and a mad hat. You know, I think lace stockings, probably. But she had also in that characterization, in the way she projected, a rather vulnerable side to that character, which made it occasionally slightly pathetic in different circumstances; which made Frankie a real person, and that was a perfectly magnificent performance, when you think back on it. It was thrown into contrast, too, by the people who worked with her. She had a bartender who was the height of vulgarity, and rather threatening, which, of course, brought out the poignancy of her character in that particular scene.
     Bentley, as usual, was extremely complementary to her. He was flashy and treated her exactly the way you would expect that kind of man to. He was excellent. Nellie Bly was a cool number. Extremely cool, which contrasted. If you'd ever seen a pragmatic prostitute, Sandy Devine was doing it in that part. And it was a wonderful contrast with Ruth's role, which was so dramatic, so passionate, and so poignant in parts. And in Love Song, she was extremely poetic. I saw her do that many times, too. And in Guns and Castanets, which is, I think, one of the best ballets that she did during the time I was with her. She did Carmen. She's absolutely perfect in Carmen -- a spitfire and demanding, spoiled, arrogant. She's magnificent in it. She's done Carmen several times. I think it's probably because it suits her.
Q: Four times.
A: Four times, actually.
Q: What do you remember of Guns and Castanets, specifically?
A: I remember probably a good deal about it. By that time, I had done a couple of ballets with Ruth, and you learn a great deal from working with her and the people. She had a marvelous
musical background for that, the Bizet score was the basis of it. However, there was interpolated -- now this doesn't make a patchwork thing at all, it was done so beautifully -- Spanish poetry of [Garcia] Lorca, I think. This was a long time ago.
Q: That's right.
A: And the scenes that came into it. She transposed the ballet to modern Spain, the civil war there. And that was the time of political ballets [which] were then not supposed to be charming. Like Nutcracker was not being done. At that point, you had social content.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)