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Betsy Ross Davis No. 05 [June 13, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0578
Run Time
0h 19m 24s
Date Produced
June 13 1985
Q: Why don't we talk a little minute about [the artist, Isamu] Noguchi?
A: I was at the Arts Club with Ruth several years ago, three, four, maybe, when Noguchi was going to make a talk there. I'd never heard him. I'd never seen him. I was enchanted beyond words. So I responded to the invitation at once. Mary Gehr also belonged to the Arts Club. Joan Stone, a friend of Ruth's also. All of us there. And when we got there, we all discovered that  Ruth, of course, was there, too. We were intrigued. So we all sat in the first row, and Noguchi was perfectly enchanting. Isamu, I'd never known how to pronounce his first name before, but Ruth immediately said it as soon as he came into the room. Well, he gave an enchanting talk, of course. And then Ruth invited the three of us over to her apartment after the talk which he gave, because he and his secretary were coming over and would we like to come over for sandwiches and a drink? Would we! Oh, we were truly moved. And it was a very exciting evening to meet an artist of that caliber so unexpectedly. Perfectly charming man. He's about Ruth's size, you know. They look like a couple of bookends together. Perfectly adorable people together. At one point in the evening, I remember very well, Joan Stone and I were standing together in Ruth's lovely apartment, and Ruth and Noguchi went over, and she wanted to show him something. She opened up something, they had their backs to us, and they both got the giggles. My dear, we were so curious. We were so curious! And as soon as they . . . of course, we were too polite to do anything about it at all. We stood still as we could until they left the room, and then we rushed over to see what on earth, and we couldn't find a thing. To this day I don't know what started the giggles. But we were giggling ourselves, like silly girls. But he is a perfectly enchanting man.
Q: Did they seem to be close friends? I mean . . . what could you observe from seeing them together?
A: A perfect poise and utter charm. And, yes, yes, very simpatico. Good friends, certainly. And they look like a pair, because of the similarity in height and the grace of the two people. It was a fascinating experience, of course. He's a fascinating experience -- a great artist.
Q: Ruth said when she saw him, she's written that he was the most "beautiful" man she had ever seen.
A: I would expect he could have been. I saw more character, character and style, certainly, than beauty, at that point. But he's very attractive. His personality is completely charming.
Q: Do you think she made the right decision?
A: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I think so. How do you know? You make a choice, and you have to be right. You always have to believe you're right, or you break your heart.
Q: In your own relationship with Ruth, how did she treat the rest of the dancers? I mean, did the dancers in the company love her or hate her, or what?
A: Oh, both. Oh, both. Dancers that worked with Ruth loved her or hated her, I would say. They were never indifferent. It was impossible not to be. She's too strong a personality. I think everybody admired her. That emotion was absolutely 100% with the company. I can't remember exactly any specifics about that, but it was more of a personal reaction to a stronger personality, to a more attractive woman, in many cases. The men with the woman director, this happens every once in a while, although the boys are apt to have more sense than that, I would think, in a dance company. But there certainly was some resentment. A good deal of it, I suppose, as happens in every ballet company . . . is the phrase, "She never gives me a chance. I can't do this. I can't do that." Ruth and Bentley always did the leads in the ballet, that's true. But why not, for heaven's sake? It was her ballet. Besides, nobody matched her very well, you know, to work with. You have to be sensible about that, too. I don't know what they would have expected, but there was a reaction from her style, and perhaps they weren't dancing the way they wanted to. But my dear, in Chicago it was the only job in town. If you wanted to do good work in the ballet, you had better be in Ruth's company. There was nothing else for a long, long time. She held ballet together in Chicago, and we knew that. We knew that very well.
Q: Were people afraid of her?
A: Occasionally, I think. She could be very sharp, very sarcastic at times. She had the woman's way of correcting, where a man always sounds more impersonal. This is true in business, also, a good deal of the time. Although women are most certainly putting that aspect away to a great degree, now. But she could be sarcastic and very cutting about things that you did. Not as much as most, but you mostly learned from Ruth by example and not by verbal direction.
Q: She wasn't protective, motherly?
A: Oh, heavens, no! I would never think of her like that. She was proud of her people. Proud of her productions, and we knew that, when they were good. When they weren't, you most certainly heard about it. But most of the things that she did in the long run when they were finally turned out, she had worked on them until she was fairly well satisfied. I don't see Ruth turning out a product that she did not wish to be known as her own. I don't see that happening. So when it went on, it was all right with her.
Q: Now at this point, it was no Page-Stone, it was Ruth . . . .
A: It was Ruth at the Opera. They did a good many tours together without the corps, without the ballet behind them. People don't do that any longer, and it was a very, very interesting program. The two of them were interesting personalities. They did solos. They did duets. The two of them could do a two-hour program. They traveled with Ruth Gordon who was a fantastic pianist, and very sympathetic to their work. And then they ran the gamut between the two of them. They had so much variety between tragedy with the Wagner thing -- the Tristan, which was a beautiful, beautiful pas de deux -- and a comedy, Zephyr and Flora, and all kinds of things in between. They both did character work beautifully. And Bentley, of course, had a marvelous ballet technique. Ruth also had dances which she did to poetry.
     She did everything. Did you ever notice what a beautiful voice she has? She has a marvelous speaking voice, perfectly beautiful, very melodic. I think she could have made a perfectly magnificent actress if she hadn't been so determined to be a dancer, which was from childhood. And her voice hasn't changed as she's gotten older. Lots of people's do. It gets harsher, it gets scratchy. Hers is just as lovely as it was when she was a very young woman. But her speaking voice on the stage, she could . . . oh, there's a cute story about it in one of her books. She was telling Alexandra Danilova, she said, "I can do pirouettes and recite poetry at the same time." And Danilova said, "Vat do you say, dear, ven you do pirouettes?" Which is a very good question.
Q: What did you hear Ruth, what kinds of poetry did you hear her do? The Carl Sandburg things? Is that what you remember?
A: I didn't hear the Sandburg things. I remember The Cautionary Tales, where she was adorable.
Q: Tell me about them.
A: The Cautionary Tales are Hilaire Belloc, and I can't recite any of them, unfortunately. She still can, from beginning to end, she knows them all. But she left a wonderful phrase with me from those, which the end of one is, "I think you better stick to nurse, for fear of finding something worse." Which is a good thing to remember in all kinds of funny circumstances. She did them in costume, and they were demi-caractère, you would call it.
Q: What do you mean, demi-caractère?
A: Demi-caractère . . . a whole, full character [dance] is when you're doing Slavonic dances and stamping your feet a lot, and tossing your head. That sort of thing. And demi-caractère is more gentle, where you do a characterization, which is maybe occasionally amusing, which these things were.
Q: Did she share control of the company when you were in it?
A: With Bentley?
Q: Yes.
A: Oh, yes. I should say so. They had a high regard for each other. Bentley respected her and truly loved her. And she was marvelous with him, because he was a first-rate dancer in the Opera when she first started working with him. But he didn't have Ruth's sophistication and background. And he most certainly didn't have her ability to get a ballet on. I didn't mean choreographically. I mean money-wise or anything else. So he enjoyed working with her very, very much. They were good for each other. People said Bentley could have gone to the Balanchine company and become a big classical dancer and that sort of thing. He wouldn't have had as fulfilled a life artistically -- I hate that word -- fulfilled a life if he had done that, I don't believe, because Balanchine, at that point, was not doing very much for male dancers. He was very big with the ballerinas, who he was wonderful with. But I don't think it would have been the right thing for him to do. He had a chance to stay with the Rambert Ballet in England, but he chose this. And I think it was just right. He did all of the classical ballets. Straight classical, for instance the little ballet in La Juive. which is so unusual. He did Giaconda. of course, he danced the lead male dancer in Giaconda. And then his work on Frankie and Johnny, for instance, with Ruth was a real collaboration. He always called himself a "hoofer." He was not. I saw him tap dancing. He wasn't very good at that. He was too tall, and he was too poetic and too turned out. He could make all the right noises, but he was a jazz dancer. He loved it. And his sense of syncopation in that kind of thing was much better than hers. And the two of them in Frankie and Johnny hit an absolutely perfect thing, because a lot of those funny, crazy jazz things are Bentley's. But they're dramatically placed, put in spot by Ruth. And, of course, her work in that ballet is the most jazzy, if you want to call it that, that she ever did. Jazz is a good word for Frankie and Johnny. It's that period, anyway.
Q: What could you, from being in the company, tell to characterize the relationship between Bentley and Ruth?
A: It was for the most part extremely sympathetic. They understood what they were trying to do together. You could see that in Frankie and Johnny a good deal. You could also see it in Guns and Castanets, which I think was also another good collaboration. I think that he occasionally resented her domination. I believe she was the stronger of the two artistically, and saying what we were going to do . . . what they were going to do next. Then I think he always recognized that her suggestions were good and valid, and went along with them. Certainly it wasn't smooth all the way, but we never heard or saw any, there was never any public disagreement. If they ever had any disagreements, being people, both people of great dignity and good taste, they did it somewhere else. We never heard it.
Q: Were they friends?
A: Yes. Yes, indeed. They were very companionable. I think when they went bucketing around the country together, they had a marvelous time -- Ruth Gordon, Bentley, and Ruth. You could see them touring New England. They both liked seeing things. Bentley was a very intellectual person. Extremely. Very well-read, interested in everything. Very much like Ruth.
Q: Now, what about Tom Fisher? You said he took sort of, I guess, fatherly interest, at least in you. Did he take a fatherly interest in the rest of the company?
A: Oh, he didn't take a fatherly interest. . . "fatherly" isn't . . . he oversaw the company, because it was Ruth's. He didn't have a fatherly interest in any particular one of us, except when we were good or what not. It was later on that I realized he was a very good friend. And I, at the time, as I say, was too scared of him. I wouldn't, I truly didn't have much to do with him at all. He was very impressive. He was very knowledgeable, and he was forever telling everybody what to do, you see. So he was the entrepreneur of our little world.
Q: Did you ever see him and Ruth quarrel about anything?
A: No, never. No, I wouldn't have been together with them that much at that time. I never saw them quarrel. I've only seen the greatest affection between the two of them.
Q: Now, did you go on the road at all, Betsy? Did you ever tour? Did this company tour?
A: Oh, yes. Ruth took us. One of the first big trips I ever took in my life was to Caracas, Venezuela, where we had an opera season. That was a fantastic experience. We went with the put-together opera company, and we went down on a cruise ship. I always remember looking up at the . . . we went to New York on a bus, which was the most unglamorous procedure, with chorus of the opera, who ate oranges all the way to New York. I can remember the smell on the bus to this day. This group piling out of a bus at the pier and getting on the "Santa Rosa" to go on a spectacular ship. It was a regular cruise. And all of those people looking over to see who their glamorous companions were going to be and seeing this bunch tumble off a bus and up the gangplank -- it must have shocked them beyond words. We had a marvelous time, and the season was, I think, very successful for Ruth. It was very glamorous, certainly. We did more tours on a bus and truck. And you know, people travel that way now. The road company of Chorus Line  goes bus and truck. We did, indeed, too, and traveled with Giaconda, Love Song, divertissements, and Bolero. All over, about six weeks at a time, I think we went out. We went all through Texas for months. We played Amarillo, Canyon, all those gay places. It was quite an experience.
Q: What was that like? Life on the road with the bus and truck?
A: Great fun. We would pick up, get into the big thing, all of the corps de ballet in one. Bentley occasionally rode with the corps, because he liked to chat with the corps, loved to talk to us. And Ruth, occasionally. But more often she would be in the car with Ruth Gordon, who was the musician. And a driver I can't remember. We had two ballet boys with us. We had the head electrician of the Opera. Head electrician is a suit job, it's not blue collar. He traveled with us, and Nanny Brunner and his wife, Winnie Brunner, who was in the corps de ballet. The two were absolutely marvelous companions. And that was off on the first tour. We traveled all the way down through Illinois and around to Texas, these places in Texas, across the Gulf to New  Orleans, Florida, and then back up. It was a long tour. My first time away from home.
Q: Did you share rooms?
A: It rained all the way through Texas. Yes, Mary Gehr was my roommate and we have been close friends all of our lives. Borrowed each other's bobby pins, talked all night, got scolded quite often. Bentley sent us to the bus one night. Oh, another girl, Paula Swanson and myself, got sent to the bus one night without night lunch because -- Bentley could be very, very severe -- because we giggled during Bolero. Well, I'll tell you, Bentley was doing the sexy male, you know, and he started snorting, which we thought was hysterically funny. We were behind the fans going, "titter, titter, titter." Of course, he could hear us. It was terribly bad discipline. I mean, it was, really. You can't do that sort of thing. So, off we went to the bus. Oh, he yelled and screamed and stamped his feet something fierce. I think it was mostly because we laughed at him. Well, he was carrying on, you know. It's still funny.
Q: It's still funny.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)