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Betsy Ross Davis No. 07 [June 13, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0580
Run Time
0h 19m 55s
Date Produced
June 13 1985
Q: We were talking about Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
A: I saw Hear Ye! Hear Ye! It was one of the first ballets that I saw, and I was very interested in it . . . . Bentley had sort of a gift for getting slaughtered in ballets. In Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, he got killed three times. It was an interesting ballet: very smart, as I remember, again, Art Deco. It seems to hit me. All black and silver. I remember black and white, black and silver, and nothing much else in it. It was three versions of a murder. There's a Japanese story like that.
Q: Right. Rashomon.
A: Right, Rashomon. And Ruth did it with Bentley. He was always the one who got killed, and she killed him once. Ginny [Virginia] Nugent, who was a close friend of mine, was in the corps de ballet, and then we became close friends after that, after I got in the company. Ginny killed him once, and I forgot who killed him the other time. But it was a very chic nightclub set and very, very smart. Not a sympathetic ballet, and certainly not one that maybe should be revived or anything of that sort. But it was smart. It was stylish.
Q: Do you know that was the first time that anybody commissioned Aaron Copland to write music [for a ballet]?
A: . . . and the score. I was mentioning it to some musician here in town, who has a chamber orchestra, and I said . . . he was doing Copland, and "there's another Copland score I heard once and I've never heard it since and it's Hear Ye! Hear Ye! and Ruth Page commissioned it." And he said, "Where's the music? Who's got it?" And I said, "Ruth, I expect."
Q: Oh, she does.
A: Yes, Copland . . . . That was his first commission?
Q: First time anybody had ever commissioned him to do music for a ballet was Ruth.
A: I wonder how she found him. I'd love to hear it again. She has a gift for those people.
Q: She does. She does. Did you know Noguchi did a ballet for her?
A: No, no. Of course I did. You mean The Bells. Yes, sure. Yes. He did The Bells, and it's stunning, too.
Q: You saw The Bells?
A: No, I've seen pictures of it.
Q: But you haven't seen it?
A: Never saw it danced.
Q: I guess she was doing something called American Song Bag, those are the Carl Sandburg things in 1940. Is there another ballet?
A: The first ballet I ever saw Ruth rehearse was American in Paris. She did that before I . . . .
Q: American in Paris?
A: A Gershwin ballet.
Q: Oh.
A: Blues number in it. Blues dances from Harlem. She had black dancers in it. And she did it the year I joined the company [1936], because I saw it in rehearsal. She had acrobats in it. It was a very short ballet, very small ballet, not a big corps de ballet. I think it was called American in Paris.
Q: Do you remember anything about a ballet called Delirious Delusion?
A: Oh, yes. That wasn't a ballet. That was Ruth's. She did Salvador Dali. She had an eye on her tummy and a picture frame around here [torso]. Oh, it was madness.
Q: Tell me about it.
A: In bare feet. It's very hard to describe. She and Tom had a Dali, a painting, in their apartment. The melted watches ["Surgeon Lifting with Great Precision the Cuticle of a Piano"]. So she somewhere along the line decided to do it. A Dali solo of her own. So, she had a picture frame, big Dali eye here . . . what else did she have? Perfectly awful. It was sort of awful, as a matter of fact. It was terribly smart and very amusing, and that's all I have to say for that number. The costume was incredible, of course, but she didn't dance. She mimed and she legged and she carried on, and it was great theater.
Q: She risked things.
A: It was a good show. But as far as a dance, it was not. But it was fun. It was fun.
Q: She liked to take risks.
A: Well, of course, and she also likes to shock people, I think; startle them and do something new. She has been naturally one jump ahead. But she likes to maintain it and so, occasionally, sure, out on a risk, out on a limb. But invariably good theater. She doesn't miss on that angle.
Q: Of the performances you can remember seeing Ruth dance as a soloist, solo ballets, you know what I mean, not really ballet, but just a dance . . .
A: Her own solo.
Q: . . . what else can you remember?
A: I remember the Nursemaid [Berceuse], a little group of three satiric dances. I don't remember the music to them. But in the one, she was a Nursemaid and was taking care of a baby, which, of course, you can guess, she tossed it eventually at the end of it. She had great humor in a lot of those things. The Shakespearean heroines, on the other hand, were occasionally humorous. Juliet was perfectly beautiful. She was lovely in that. That was never developed. She did Romeo and Juliet as a ballet later.
Q: Uh, huh. And she did . . . .
A: . . . But she was stunning in it. She had a costume that was very beautifully draped and moved beautifully with her. It was very effective.
Q: Who made her costumes, do you know?
A: Different people. Remisoff, for a long time. Remisoff did her costumes, did her makeup, did her home in Hubbard Woods. He was very influential with her. I've seen pictures of her . . . . I have no idea who did those costumes. Later on, Paul du Pont did a lot. He also danced with her at one point. Then John -- what was his name? He married Katherine Dunham. John Crane, it wasn't John Crane. [John Pratt]. Big Chicago family of some sort . . . did a lot of her costumes for the road. She had Léonor Fini later. I don't know if she did costumes. I know she did her sets. And then of course, André Delfau did these magnificent costumes in Alice. She's had a great many good artists working for her and with her . . . . They have a challenge.
Q: What do you mean they have a challenge?
A: Well, Ruth has great taste and great judgment and a great sense of theater. And it better be right, you know. If it weren't, it wouldn't be there. I'm sure she has given many of them fits, because she would have the concept. She's got a great sense of style. Her clothes are always wonderful. A great sense of personal style and a great sense of style for other people and certainly for a ballet. I think she was probably quite demanding [about costumes]; they don't only have to look well, they've got to move well. That's another problem with ballet costumes. It must be quite a chore once you pass the original tutu, which moves fine.
Q: If you had to guess, would you say that Ruth's major motivation is performing? Or the thing she enjoys most is choreographing?
A: I think she liked the choreography. I always thought she liked it. When she talks about it, she'll say, "I made a dance and I did a solo because I had nobody else to work with." But the dance and the look of it always seems important to her. Then, when she could have a few people, then she could do a few things . . . . But her whole first work was on herself. She had to do her own solos in Indianapolis when she was very young. She did a lot of them. She said, "They couldn't keep me from performing in the living room." She was always dashing in and showing somebody her dances. My children ran in with their drawings. I'm sure she ran in with her dances.
Q: Did she like to perform, Betsy?
A: Oh, I think so. She was a successful performer and she always looked so marvelous, you know. You couldn't help but enjoy it. You couldn't help it.
Q: She got a lot of big ovations . . . .
A: I think so, yes. She was extremely well known. At the time she was dancing, dancing didn't have that many ballerinas. There just weren't that many. And certainly didn't have that many American ballerinas. And when the ballet company came to town with one ballerina in it . . . and she was a very interesting performer, never a bore. Never a bore. Sometimes, yes. And sometimes, no. I don't think they received Frankie and Johnny with open arms. I'm trying to remember, I can't. No. All the time she was a little ahead. And when the critics get baffled and don't know what to say, then they get angry. People, besides dance critics, they don't know anything about it, most of them.
Q: Why do you say that?
A: Well, I'm thinking of that time Claudia didn't know anything about dancing undoubtedly. She wasn't trained that way. But she was perceptive enough and had taste enough to know what was going on in front of her. She's a quintessential critic, as far as I'm concerned, because she's got the imagination to match the artist. But a lot of them that are music critics and music teachers or music professors or whatever they are and try to critique the ballet at the same time, they don't know what they're talking about. You read one criticism, you're completely appalled and wondered if you were sitting at the same performance. They don't know what they're talking about, quite frankly. Then there were some great ones. The woman on the New York Times is super [Anna Kisselgoff], but that's another matter. And Arlene Croce, I think, is an interesting critic, although she does go on about it to a degree. She writes as long as the ballet, for a forty-minute ballet, she can write a forty-minute article! And she is too one-sided. She's very, very New York; very New York City. She says things, but she should get around the country and see what other people are doing. Everybody should at this point.
Q: Now, you went and danced in New York after you left Ruth's company?
A: Yes. I'm trying to remember exactly how that happened to me. I can't. I picked up and went East with the opera company, then did a Puerto Rican tour with the Metropolitan, which was fun. I was so sure I was going with the company because I thought I was a very good dancer, compared to the others. This was a tour, pre-season tour, and then I didn't get in the company . . . a shock and severe disappointment because I wanted to be an opera choreographer. I thought that was a very good thing to be. Besides, I liked it. I thought it was an interesting thing. Ruth, as a matter of fact, was probably a role model for me on this one. But she didn't care for the opera. She would rather have been doing her own big things, whereas I thought the opera ballet was simply great. But at any rate, that ruined my great ambition at this point. But then it turned with Oklahoma, which, of course, was a great experience because it was all success. Really great fun. It was an experience bar none.
Q: So, now you've known Ruth and stayed interested in ballet all your life, obviously.
A: Yes. Even after I stopped dancing. You don't spend that much time . . . and it's an art and it's a discipline, and you simply don't put it away and forget about it. The dancers I've found to be extremely interesting people. Well, like my dearest friends are still dancing, and they're wonderful -- or were dancers, I should say, at this time. Of course, I stayed interested in it. Bentley stayed a close friend of mine until the end of his life. And Ruth, of course, is a good, close friend. I just love her, and so does my husband. My husband has a big crush on Ruth, if you must know.
Q: Ruth has that kind of effect on men, doesn't she?
A: Yes, she really does. She really does. From the first time he met her, he could see no one else in the room, and Tom noticed it, too. Ruth was flirting with Brooks, that's my husband, one night, and I can remember her standing . . . right after we were married and Ruth and Tom were over. My husband is the Civil War expert/authority and so forth -- you don't say "buff." I'm thinking of other words. And she was looking up at him and saying, "Someday you must tell me all about the war." So Brooks started talking to her, and we couldn't hear him. But Tom was standing next to me and said, "You know, Betsy, I think he's going to, right now."
Q: Did she always flirt with men?
A: Oh, certainly. She was a born flirt and does it very well. It's enchanting to watch a good performance, a very good performance.
Q: But not serious.
A: Oh, well, that. I don't think so. I think it's perfectly native to her. She's very feminine.
Q: Now, you've known Ruth and known about her work intimately for the last fifty years, at least.
A: Oh, dear, it seems so. Yes, of course.
Q: It would have to be. Now what would you . . . where would you rank her work in terms of her contributions and in terms of her accomplishments? Grown up woman that you are now, and no longer star-struck young girl in the corps de ballet . . . . What would you say?
A: I'm trying to line them all up. The times change, you see, and somebody's great at one point and not at another. I don't know. Massine's works, for instance. You've probably never seen any of his work, which was fabulous when he came over here and did symphonic ballets. This was again a real modem ballet, but mostly ballet. With a ballet of Ruth's, they probably wouldn't go very well now. I don't know how long the Balanchine hysteria will go on, because it is so -- I don't want to say one-dimensional -- but this is a one-type thing, as opposed to a repertory company. You see, Ruth always had a repertory company. I'm thinking of her choreography, which is entirely different from the Balanchine company, which doesn't change style. They do different ballets, but they do them all in the same style. In hers, she switched from Spanish to modern to jazz to some such entirely different thing. You've got to be fast. You've got to be smarter, I think, to do that sort of thing.
     As far as Americana goes, I think she's superior to de Mille, in that Agnes de Mille always does the same type of thing. Now, in a way, she's probably been forced into it because people wanted her to do it, after she was successful with Rodeo, for certain. But I think Ruth is better than that. I think she's given it a lot more thought. Agnes copied herself to such a degree, you had to be careful you didn't get steps mixed up, because you would occasionally find yourself doing the same one in two shows.
Q: Oh, my.
A: Well, that happens. That can happen. But it was pretty much the same style and the same approach, even though her ballets were different. Agnes's best one, I always thought, was Fall River Legend, which was not in her galloping horse medium at all. But I think Ruth is better than that, but certainly will never rank with Balanchine, who seems to be the top recognized genius. I think some of his work is absolutely marvelous. There was a time I didn't like it, when they were all out in black leotards and looking like something from a prison camp, when they couldn't afford sets and all that kind of thing. I thought it was pretty boring. But I must say, he's very, very good. I think he's probably top rank, and she'd certainly come in after Balanchine, but before de Mille. But, when things change and what not, then certainly ballets are in and out.
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