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Ruth Page No. 02 [March 18, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0544
Run Time
0h 18m 18s
Date Produced
March 18 1985
Q: We were talking about your mother, and it strikes me that she must have been a rather extraordinary person to have raised you. I mean, she must have been extraordinary! What was your mother like? I mean, what kind of person was she, other than her love of music?
A: Well, she was very pretty. And she was always into something, doing things. She was always busy! I don't know what she was doing, but she was always busy doing things, going to musicales and having people to the house to play, and she always played for everybody when they came. She practiced a great deal, and she always played for me. I would always improvise for her, while she was playing the piano. I liked certain pieces better than others. She'd play the ones I liked, you know, and she went around every place with me when I had to go. I don't think she paid any attention to Lafayette and Irvine at all. She always went with me.
     My father went off to the War and so did my brother Lafayette, and I don't know what happened to Irvine. He was too young to go. And Mother went to South America with me. We spent a whole year with Pavlova.
     That was a very interesting year for both of us. We went every single place! All around -- across the Andes by train and then up the West coast. We went down to Valparaiso and Santiago and Concepcion and Antifogasta and down in Chile. And then we came up to Lima, Peru. We went through the Panama Canal and ended up in Cuba, at the other end of Cuba, for some reason -- I don't know the proper end. But there was a strike in Cuba and we crossed [the island] in a strikebreakers' train, and we finally got to Havana. And after that, Mother and I went home [sic] because the year was up and Father was back, and we had to [go] back and I had to go back to school.
Q: Now, look. Here you were, you were 16 years old at this point . . .
A: About 18.
Q: . . . and here you were spending a year with your mother traveling with the Pavlova Company, the most famous dancer in the world! What was it like for you with the other people in the troupe and traveling with your mother? I mean, did you feel as though you were sort of the petted baby dancer who was part of the group, or did you feel separate because your mother was with you? Or . . . what was it like?
A: Oh, no. I felt a part of it. Mother was a great friend of Pavlova's, and everybody was very friendly with Mother. We went every place by boat, you see, and we were a very long time on boats. I remember getting terribly bored with all the boats we had to go on, because every place we went, we went by boat. We started out in, I think it was Parambuco, and then we took another boat to Bahia, and then another boat to Rio, and then we went by train to Sao Paolo, and then we went by boat to Buenos Aires, and then we crossed the Andes by train, and we went to Santiago and Valparaiso and Concepcion and Talca and Chile and up the coast to Lima. We stayed a long time in Lima. And then we came home . . . via the Panama Canal. Well, I just told you all that.
Q: Well, it was an amazing kind of journey for you to be taking.
A: It was.
Q: What was it like to dance on the same stage as Pavlova?
A: Well, she was thrilling. I was just in the corps de ballet. I wasn't anything. But I enjoyed it. I loved it.
Q: You must have felt a special kind of pride. I mean, it wasn't everybody who got, you know, picked out of Indianapolis, Indiana, I mean, and gets to dance in the corps de ballet of Pavlova . . . .
A: Well, there weren't many Americans in the company. There were mostly English girls, and they all took Russian names.
Q: They did?
A: Yes. I took a Russian name. Mine was Alexandra Stepanova [sic] or something like that. So, we all had to pretend we were Russians.
Q: Did you really pretend you were Russian? I mean, when people came up to you and said . . . .
A: Well, we couldn't very well pretend when people came up to speak to us.
Q: No. Was Pavlova able to speak English herself? Did she speak English?
A: Yes. She spoke excellent English.
Q: Did you spend a lot of time with her yourself offstage?
A: No. Mother did, but I didn't.
Q: And your mother was just . . . . It strikes me that your mother might have been, in some ways, your closest friend. Is that possible? She spent a great deal of time with you.
A: Mother?
Q: Yes.
A: Yes. I have all my letters to Mother. They're very interesting letters. When she wasn't with me, I was in New York in school, I wrote to Mother every single day. And we have all those letters, and they're terribly, terribly interesting. Somebody showed them to me the other day. I told her everything I did. And I remember I had three beaus and I said, "Mother, you don't need to worry about these three beaus of mine because I like my dancing better than any of them!"
Q: Your mother didn't want you to get married?
A: Well, I was too young.
Q: And she approved of dancing as a career?
A: Yes.
Q: And your father?
A: I guess so. They didn't ever say anything against it.
Q: Was there ever a time when they said to you, "Ruth, you ought to come back to Indianapolis and settle down . . .
A: No.
Q: . . . marry a doctor"?
A: No. They never said . . . . I didn't like Indianapolis. I didn't want to go back there. I didn't like it at all. I remember it very well. I think I'd like it now. It sounds like an interesting city. But at that time, I was crazy about New York. I wanted to live in New York. I always wanted to live in New York.
Q: One more question about Pavlova. On the South American tour where you spent the year, what were the ballets that you were doing?
A: Well, that's an interesting question. We did The Fairy Doll -- Puppenfee, it was called -- and we did a ballet called Amarilla.
Q: I don't know it.
A: Well, I can't remember much about it. She was a gypsy, I believe. And what else did we do? We did Puppenfee, it seems to me, most of the time. And there was a ballet called Les Preludes, that we used to do, of Liszt. Isn't that funny, I can't remember all the ballets we did. She had quite a big repertoire. And then she always did, every night, a series of divertissements and she always did two. She did The Dying Swan . . . . We opened up with, oh, a Hungarian rhapsody or something. That's what the corps did. Then she did Dying Swan. Then there was a girl in the company, named Hilda Butsova, who was sort of a soloist. She'd do something, a little minuet or something. I don't remember what she did. And then three of us did a thing called Moment Musicale, which was always a big hit. I remember we came in with little pipes -- [sings Schubert] "Dum da da dum da dum da . . . " -- and it made a great big hit. We always had to repeat it, the three of us. The girl in the middle had a scarf. Then she ended it with either the Pavlova Gavotte or the Bacchanale. And once in a while, instead of The Dying Swan, she'd do Mirabule, that's The Dragonfly.
     And that was it. she did two ballets every night, plus two divertissements. Then, when she got old -- I say "old" -- she was 50 when she died -- she only did one ballet and two divertissements. But she never missed a performance. She danced every night of her life. And she danced just as well in the little, tiny places as she did in the big cities. She was very conscientious and did the best that she possibly could for every performance.
Q: You could tell that because you were traveling with her, and so you could see.
A: Oh, yes. And she didn't care where she danced. She danced in the tiniest, little towns, and she'd give her very best.
Q: Could you get a sense, then, when you were up on stage while she was dancing, did she seem to get the same, to electrify the audience in the same way, no matter where she was?
A: Yes. Oh, yes.
Q: The same as in Indianapolis?
A: We were mad about her. Just mad about her. I remember another ballet we did. It was called Faust. I remember that ballet, too.
Q: The music would have been . . . .
A: I'm trying to think. There's three different Fausts. There's Gounod . . . and Berlioz, and Boito . . . those three. And I think this was the Gounod one. I think it was Gounod's Faust.
Q: [It's] the most danceable.
A: Yes. It was very popular. And I remember, I got to cross the stage with [Pavlova] . . . and I'd touch her hand, and I was thrilled to death with that part of it. But, I'm trying to think of what else she did. Oh, she did a Russian dance, too, where she just stood still sort of . . . and two boys broke their necks doing all these kind of stunts. You know, people only looked at her. These boys did their utmost. They were breaking their necks to do all kinds of really hard things, and people only watched her. She had that kind of charisma.
Q: Real star. She was absolutely, absolutely . . . .
A: There's never been a star like her.
Q: Is there anybody today -- maybe you've answered the question already -- to whom you could compare her? Have you ever seen anyone dance and you've said, "All right, well, that's talent. . ."?
A: Well, there are a lot of great dancers today, and they, the dancers, what they do now is much, much harder dancing. What she did was very simple steps. Now the poor dancers have to break their necks to get anybody to look at them at all. Makarova, I suppose, is the best one. But there are a lot of very, very good ones now, but they aren't anything like [her]. They couldn't have a whole company of their own, just be the whole [cheese]. I don't think any of them could. They have to be sort of part of the group.
Q: Is there a way that you can figure out to kind of define what the star quality was that she had? Was it something like a movie star?
A: Oh, how can you define somebody else? She was a genius, that's all. She was really a genius. Kreutzberg had that same charisma that she did. I think he was a genius, too. But he wasn't as well-known as she was.
Q: He was your partner for a period of time.
A: Yes. I was lucky to dance with him. We went to Japan together. He was a very remarkable dancer.
Q: You danced for the Emperor, didn't you?
A: Emperor Hirohito, yes. That was 1928, wasn't it? I think so. Yes. He was marvelous.
Q: Going back to the South American tour and Pavlova, the fact that you were then 16 years old [sic] . . . . When was the first time, Ruth, that you knew that you were a good dancer, that you had something special?
A: Oh, darling! I always thought I was good! I always thought I was something special! There was never anything ordinary about me.
Q: I believe it! So that when Pavlova's teacher said, the ballet master said, "Why doesn't Ruth come to Chicago and spend the summer with us?" you thought that was just perfectly ordinary.
A: Sure. Yes. Of course, dancers were rarer. Now, women dancers are a dime a dozen. But in that day, they were more rare, rarer. There were lots fewer dancers, and we didn't have to do really such hard things as they have to do today. Oh, when I see the auditions we have at our school -- people who rent our place to try out dancers -- oh, my God! What they get them to do! You have to be able to do everything -- acrobatics and tap and fouettés and real classic dancing and jazz dancing. I wouldn't like to be a dancer today! I really wouldn't.
Q: Yes, but you can do everything, too, and have done everything, just about, in your day.
A: I've never done tap. I've never done acrobatics.
Q: Well, sort of acrobatics. Some of your ballets . . . not acrobatic, I guess, in the sense that you mean. Not the way it is today.
A: No, no.
Q: And no tap -- ever?
A: No. I wish I had. I love it! I took a few dance lessons last year, but I didn't do very well. It's hard. It's lots of fun, though. We teach tap in our school.
Q: I know you do. I guess what I'm thinking of, isn't there a tap part of Frankie and Johnny?
A: Oh, a few steps.
Q: There are a few steps that she dances. And didn't you dance Frankie and Johnny?
A: No. Yes. She doesn't dance . . . .
Q: She doesn't do tap dancing?
A: No. The boys come in carrying a coffin doing a tap step . . . .
Q: I knew I wasn't . . . .
A: No, they do a tap step as they bring in the coffin, which is very amusing.
Q: Oh, it's wonderful! It's a great moment.
A: It is. You've seen it?
Q: Oh, yes. I've seen it live and I've seen it on tape . . . . This is totally out of context, but I was reading something, the very first time that ballet was performed in Paris, Frankie and Johnny, it really had quite a reception. Right?
A: Yes. People were shocked. They didn't know what to make of it because they'd never seen anything like that. There were lots of pros and cons. And Larionov and Gontcharova -- they were two very famous artists there -- they "okayed" it, and said it was great. And then the whole of Paris started thinking it was great, too. But without them I think we'd have had a hard time.
Q: What was it about it that was so shocking to them?
A: Well, they'd never seen a real ballet like that. For them ballets were in tutus, you know, like Giselle, or well, a classical ballet, Swan Lake, and this was completely an American thing, and they'd never seen anything like it, an American story . . . .
Q: It's still, in its way, today, startling. It's original.
A: Yes. It is very original. But it's a classic now. People don't think anything about it anymore. But it took a long time. Yes. I used to dance it. I danced it a lot. I danced it in Paris. But it has no tap steps in it. . . , for me, I mean.
Q: For you.
A: For the Frankie.
Q: For the Frankie. Nobody ever said to you, "Ruth, you're not terribly tall . . ."? How tall are you?
A: Oh, I don't know. I think I'm 5'2" or 5'4". I don't know which.
Q: And nobody ever said, "Isn't that a little short to be a dancer?"
A: Nope. The dancers are getting taller and taller. Now, I would be short to dance. They're all getting so big. I don't know.
Q: They are big, yes.
A: Yes. They're too big. They have to have such tall men. But they're also getting much bigger.
Q: Pavlova wasn't terribly tall, I mean, I always pictured her as being very, very . . . .
A: No. Oh, she wasn't tall at all.
Q: No?
A: No. She was about my size.
Q: Oh . . . all right. Anyway. So then you came back after the South American tour and went back to school in Indianapolis . . . .
A: No. In New York.
Q: Then you went directly to New York?
A: No. I went to school in New York.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)