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Betsy Ross Davis No. 04 [June 13, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0577
Run Time
0h 20m 0s
Date Produced
June 13 1985
Q: Why don't you start by saying, just so we have it on tape, "I danced with" -- what was it called then? - "the Chicago Opera Ballet."
A: They changed the names so many times, I can't remember. I'll never remember.
Q: "I danced with" . . . it was called the Chicago Civic Opera, actually. "I danced with the Chicago Civic Opera with Ruth and Bentley, from 1937 to 1942." That would be right. Five years. And then go back and talk about Guns and Castanets.
A: All right? Ready?
Q: Any time.
A: I danced in the Chicago Opera with Ruth Page and Bentley Stone from 1937 until 1942. As I was remembering Guns and Castanets, which was later on [1939], the music was so impressive in it, because they used the songs from Carmen. Carmen has more songs than arias, really, you know. It was opera comique in the first place. But the poetry that was interpolated in it was absolutely beautiful. Jerry Moross was helping with that. I think he did the extra music in it, and it was beautifully done. That's what I mean about Ruth's taste -- everything goes. Bentley was the same way. Beautiful taste, both of them. Then the set itself was like Spain with the sun on it. A big wall here, a bench down there; a very simple set. Bentley did Escamillo in that and came diving -- I've forgotten if he jumped or what -- but he came literally out of the sky. He was always coming in from some high thing which, I think, he jumped himself. He had magnificent, magnificent elevation. Walter [Camryn] did Don Jose and Bettina Rosay did a very stylized Micaela. She didn't have any contact with the characters at all. She just came in and out to that magnificent music. It was dramatic.
     She had wonderful dancers in it. We were there with the Federal Theatre then. She used a great deal of a few of the modem dancers, a great many, as a matter of fact, from Kurt and Grace Graff, from the Graff Ballet. They added a great dimension to it. Mary Gehr and I were gypsies in that. Mary was a fine gypsy because she had dark hair. I had blond curly hair which was the bane of Ruth's existence. She was always putting me in a black wig, and I had a black wig in that. I was fancy. I looked like Hedy Lamarr. But I was the only one who fancied I looked like Hedy Lamarr. But at any rate, I was a gypsy cavorting around in a big black wig. The gypsy dancers were excellent in that because Ruth had been in Spain -- where hadn't she been? -- and watched the gypsies dance and I think worked with them on some, I'm sure, with some Spanish dancers, because her Spanish work was excellent, always was. Her work in Ravel's Bolero, of course, was one of the greatest. We did that a great deal, too.
Q: Oh, you were in the Bolero?
A: Oh, heavens, yes. Everybody's been in the Bolero!
Q: The famous Bolero that starts out with the knitting needles?
A: The famous Bolero. Oh, no, that's the second version. Ruth is like a lot of choreographers. She changes her [ballets]. Balanchine always changes his ballets. Well, Ruth changes a lot of hers. The first one, we had shawls and fans, and we sat around in a huge circle. And we fanned for maybe 32 counts. And then we lunged for 32 counts one way, and then we lunged the other way for 32 counts. And then we had red shawls and we . . . meanwhile, Ruth was having all the fun. She was in a long fitted white Spanish, typical Spanish dress, fanned out in ruffles at the bottom. Big red roses at the top. And she danced with the man in the middle. Very seductive. Very seductive.
Q: Was she sexy?
A: Oh, gosh, yes. Haven't I mentioned that? Oh, my word, how could I leave that out? Yes. That's a number one quality there. Yes, indeed, she was, is . . . .
Q: Could you start that over again and say, "Ruth is very sexy," so we get it, Okay? Then say it again or something like that.
A: Ruth is very sexy, and she was extremely sexy in Ravel's Bolero. As a matter of fact, we got censored once when we were on the road. We were playing a series of colleges, which ballet companies do on the road, and we hit one which insisted that the man be taken out of Ravel's Bolero. I didn't see any particular reason for this, except that, at the end there, she fell flat on the stage and he fell prone over her and we all tossed the red shawls over the two of them. You might call that sexy. Yes, I suppose you might. Anyway, he had to. So Ruth had to do all the sexy dance all by herself with all the girls around her doing this, this and the other thing. My word, it looked worse than it did with the man in it! But at any rate, she had, indeed, a great deal of physical appeal.
Q: And today?
A: And today, she has a great deal of physical appeal, I think.
Q: Now you started with the company in '37 and so you must have . . . who hired you? How did you go through that process?
A: We did for Ruth and not for Bentley at that stage. I remember, a regular formal tryout, where she asked us to do a barre and then watched us in class. She had seen a few of us, except for the out-of-towners, in our own classes in our schools, or in a performance, and was familiar with some of our work. But it was a regular tryout. Not in the slightest bit like A Chorus Line, you know, nobody talks to you in tryouts like that. You just do your best, and hope for the best. And when you get hired you are euphoric.
Q: And you were euphoric?
A: I was euphoric. It was a great thrill.
Q: What did you get paid?
A: Oh, my Lord, not much at all. Tom Fisher was running, always ran her business company. And I was terrified of Tom. I got to just adore him later, but I was scared stiff of him when I first met him. So sophisticated, so knowledgeable, so learned, there was nothing in the world he didn't know. And I got, I think it was $20 a week.
Q: Oh, my.
A: Yes. Well, see, we were rather at the beginning, what do you call, not regular -- extra dancers. Yes, I complained wildly because it wasn't as much as my allowance. I told my father I was going to be self-supporting, and when I came back with that, I was really dashed. They changed it very shortly because then I did work more.
Q: And what was it like working with Ruth? What are some of the things you remember?
A: Well, it was fairly uncomfortable, as a matter of fact. She was a very demanding director. Her choreography was not what we always expected, you see. We'd been trained to do classical work and were all looking forward to fancy-dancey pretty stuff, and she didn't do that. She fixed us up, however. We had a class every morning, 10 o'clock. And Monday, Tuesday worked regular classical ballet, and Wednesday, we had a modern teacher, the first for a lot of us -- which was valuable beyond words. Oh, how we complained! We didn't like Wednesday morning at all. We had to roll around the floor and do all that. Frances Alice was her name, and Ruth took it with us and said this was very important. Well, it was, of course, but it was rather disappointing to not be on your toes all the time. You do that very little in the opera. You do Samson and Delilah, you do like Carmen, and you do Aida. and you need a lot of modem work. It was a great gift, as a matter of fact. And I used it a lot later, of course, when I worked with de Mille. So, I was glad I had it. She was insistent on style and you had to look like something. See, I didn't always please her, because in the first place, I looked like the girl next door. And she preferred people who were much more exotic. So, aside from the black wig, I had to work harder.
Q: Personal contact with Ruth. I mean did she . . . was she a good trainer, a good teacher? Did she correct you? What was that like?
A: She was a better rehearser. You learned more from her in rehearsal and in performance than you did teaching. I never thought she was a very good teacher. She wasn't interested in being a teacher. She could give a good class, and they were interesting classes, because she talked about... she studied with Cecchetti and she knew all of the very interesting things, which we did not, but we knew what she was talking about. And we were happy to hear her do it. But she was more interested in performing herself. Where you learned from Ruth was in watching Ruth in action. And then you did learn because, in the first place, she was a perfectionist about her own performance. We could be in Lawrence Canyon, Texas, and Ruth would give the same elegant look, the same performance all out, and the very best that she would do, as if she were doing a premiere in New York.
     She always looked absolutely wonderful and nothing else would do when she walked on the stage, and that was a good role model for people who were apt to be more casual, or not take it that seriously. But you learn. And she learned that in turn, you know, from the people she worked with. She was with the Diaghilev company, with Pavlova. And we knew that about her background. We knew who she was and watched her carefully.
     But I remember her very well at the beginning of Love Song. She made her entrance after. She did not appear in the first ballet, which was [La] Giaconda. where we were in pretty tutus
and in toe shoes and all knocking ourselves out, looking charming and dancing hard, and then we had to change into the Love Song costume and come back up to the stage, where Ruth already was, ready to go. She'd always stand with her hands up in the air, which makes them look very nice and white. The curtain goes up and wait. She would say, "Girls!" -- we got to be a little late. We had to go sometimes all the way downstairs or sometimes all the way upstairs -- it was always uncomfortable, no matter where we were -- changed from head to foot and we were still in toe shoes, thank heaven. "Girls!" she'd say, "girls!" and by the last "girls!" you had better be there. Love Song again.
     But in rehearsals, she would demand to see the characterization and would always perform all out herself. She never marked anything. She did it. If she marked in her own rehearsals, I don't know. She tried dances out on different people. We were learning. We would learn dances, for instance, and not do them, which was all right. Somebody else would do them and so forth. She was a very interesting person to work with. She didn't discuss the things that she did. As in opposition to de Mille, who always talked of the dance. She could sit and tell you what to do without moving a muscle, which was just as well, probably. Ruth would do more dancing, or then say, "Do it like so-and-so, she was the cutest and the best." That was her great phrase, "She's the best. Everybody do it like Mary."
Q: Was that ever you?
A: Oh, sure, sometimes. Oh, yes, sometimes.
Q: "She's the best. Do it like Betsy."
A: "She's the best. Do it like Betsy." Not that often, though, not that often.
Q: Personally, did you have any kind of personal relationship with her at all?
A: Not very much at that particular time. I did later.
Q: Talk about your personal relationship.
A: It was a much more formal one, because Ruth and Tom were extremely sophisticated people. Very. She was always, in civilian life, off the stage, again looking marvelous. She had
wonderful clothes, and very, very high-styled. And they always saw, which is another thing I learned from the two of them, they always saw all the latest movies, read all the good books. They read, knew everything about the theater, everything about the opera, and discussed it in depth. Well, of course, very few of us could do that, if any. So, we listened a lot, which was very good. And listened to every . . . well, you know how people are. The first year in the opera, I think I was like this [listening] all the time . . .
Q: I understand Tom was a championship talker.
A: . . . trying to learn. Tom was a wonderful talker, raconteur. He was a great charmer, really great charmer. And that's what I was scared of. I hardly ever got into a conversation, but I did listen whenever he talked. I truly did. He'd say, "Betsy, what are you doing now?" You know, or every once in a while he'd say, "I was watching you last night. That was very good," or something of this sort. That was a treasured compliment. Didn't happen often. He was very imposing. He used to turn up -- with what always impressed me -- with a fur-trimmed coat, and he was a very tall man. He was taller, I believe, than Brooks [Davis], my husband. He and "Peter," as he called Ruth, were a smashing couple.
Q: Do you know why he called her "Peter?"
A: Peter Pan. She did Peter Pan. I've seen her pictures.
Q: I know that. Do you think she was . . . I mean what could you, as a young girl in the corps de ballet, what could you observe about the relationship between Ruth and Tom?
Q: Oh, I thought he was crazy about her. And she about him. I thought it was a very happy marriage. I've read all the things about it later, and indeed, I heard a great deal when I was there about the open marriage and all this and that. And I frankly gave it very short . . . my attention span about that was very short. Maybe a little here, something there, of course. But the two of them were admirably suited. I thought they were a wonderful couple. And he obviously worshipped the ground she walked on, to use an old-fashioned phrase. He loved her in an old-fashioned way. I realize, I think probably they were -- this is mere speculation -- but as I saw them, like people who assumed almost a role and a position and behaved in a certain style because, well, we all do it, because that's the way people are behaving now. And I think that had a great deal to do with it. I know about Tom's affairs. I just read about it in a book -- my book, you know, in my own library -- and all that, but I think it was trivia. I think that deep-down it was an enormous, deep attachment. And very important to both of them.
Q: What did she get out of it?
A: She got Tom's protection and management, and when I say "protection," I do mean it, in every way: from getting in and out of cars, to writing contracts for her company. Everything, everything you expect a husband and a man to be, he certainly was. And she, of course, was a great beauty. He was proud of her. How wonderful to have Ruth, a wife like that! Very proud. He wouldn't have been very happy with any other kind, I don't believe.
Q: And what was your personal relationship to Ruth as it grew later, Betsy, and you got to know her?
A: Oh, later. Well, you see, I admired her so much and then, as the -- you wouldn't call it fright -- as the formality wore off, I began to know her better. Of course, I always admired her very much. And it was just easier. Then I was amazed to find her so easy, utterly amazed to find her so easy. She's never lost her enthusiasm for anything. She's almost . . . childlike is not the word, but it's so free and open. We were driving to Springfield with her not too long ago, and she hadn't driven down that particular road for a long time, and the countryside was beautiful, if you can call Illinois countryside, it's so flat. But it's charming in its own way, you know. Ruth was intrigued with the barns, and then she was intrigued with what she called the "lakes," which, of course, were those things that you scooped out beside the highway. Now, Brooks tried to explain that to her once, but she was having none of that. She enjoyed the lakes very much, and the other things she enjoyed were the apple trees. Well, now none of the three of us in the car knew anything about trees whatsoever, but the only tree that was in bloom got from Ruth, "Look at the apple tree. That's marvelous." So, then we decided that apple trees, all right, Ruth, they could be white, pink, or plum colored, as the case may be. So it was apple trees all the way to Springfield. And she adored every one. Then she went to Lincoln's house when she got to Springfield, which she, I don't believe, had ever seen before. And she enjoyed that very much. And she told me that André Delfau, her husband, is very interested in Mary Lincoln, because of a collection of Mary Lincoln's that he saw in New York. She was interested in investigating. There's nothing in the world that doesn't interest her. Nothing. And I think that's the secret of her vibrant, eternal youth.
Q: What do you think drives her, Betsy?
A: Well, do you know what drives Ruth? I don't know what drives Ruth. She has alway wanted to be a very good dancer and very good performer. Perfectionist is not a word that suits her; she's more than that. She's very . . . the creative thing in her, I suppose, is what drives her. And her constant . . . her energy, for one thing. She's got energy like an engine. Perfectly amazing. That may be it: her energy. I called her one morning in Springfield to see if she wanted breakfast or coffee, and she said I would have to wait fifteen minutes until she finished her barre. She does a barre, a ballet barre, no matter where she is, every morning of her life and has done a ballet barre every morning of her life. It's the best exercise in the world. I have a bike now and do some yoga, but a ballet barre has not occurred to me for a long, long time. But Ruth always does one, and does not do a thing until she has.
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