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Ruth Page No. 10 [March 20, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0552
Run Time
0h 18m 34s
Date Produced
March 20 1985
Q: We were talking about the first season of the Ravinia Opera, and how much time would you get to rehearse each ballet?
A: As much as you wanted.
Q: A week?
A: Yes.
Q: And where did the dancers come from?
A: Around here.
Q: You recruited the dancers?
A: Yes.
Q: There's a story about a niece of Tom's walking through the house and some reporter or someone saying, "When you grow up, don't you want to be a dancer like your glamorous Aunt Ruth?" And she said: . . .
A: "I should say not, too much work!"
Q: And too much time on the telephone.
A: Yes, that's right. Too much time on the telephone.
Q: Because you were . . . .
A: Yes, because they'd change the operas sometimes at the last minute, and then you'd have to call up everybody and tell them, you know. That was hard. Some singer would get sick, you know, like they do . . . . They're always getting sick. They're always having to change operas.
Q: Now, you have been going to the opera ever since you were a child in Indianapolis.
A: Yes.
Q: It has often struck me that, even now, many opera singers with beautiful voices move very clumsily, so that when you come to the part of the opera where there's a ballet in it, it's a relief to be able to sit back and watch dancers move beautifully.
A: Yes, it's true. But I think the singers now move much better than they used to. They learn to dance, a lot of them, and they learn to act, and I think they're much, much better than they used to be. I notice a great, great difference, don't you?
Q: Yes, I do. Yes I do. Just in the time that I've been going. But in 1926, was the style that opera singers were using as they performed, you know, almost as though they weren't playing with each other, you know; moving forward for an aria and sort of declaiming it to the audience, rather than . . . .
A: Yes. They didn't act. They didn't fit in and act together. I think that's true. And they were mostly sort of big and fat in those days. They don't seem to be so big and fat anymore. It's entirely different, now, I think.
Q: In the ballets, how did you approach . . . . Did you have an overall kind of theory, where you said to yourself, well, ballets in operas should be a certain kind of way?
A: No. Of course not. I think that the ballet should fit into the opera. If the opera was Spanish, then the dancing had to be Spanish. If it was, oh, Polish, then it had to be Polish. I think every opera had to be different, so they were hard to do. You had to do a lot of research and think about it a lot. Samson and Delilah was quasi-Oriental, you know, sort of, I don't know what you call it.
Q: I always tried to think. What would you call it?
A: Yes. And the Tannhaüser bacchanale was . . . . I think I told you the story about the fur coats, didn't I? I wanted to do the Tannhaüser -- it was a great big ballet, and I wanted pieces of furs hanging from the costumes. I wanted the costumes made out of furs, so I asked Carol Fox to ask all the ladies to give us their old fur coats. So they did. We had so many marvelous fur coats, and the dancers all kept them! They wouldn't let them cut them up! Then they bought artificial fur. We all got wonderful fur coats for nothing!
Q: That's wonderful.
A: Yes.
Q: An interesting thing happened right after the first season that you did at Ravinia. The Metropolitan Opera came, or the ballet, the premiere danseuse at the Metropolitan Opera came to you and asked you to sort of stand in for her while she went away on vacation [sic].
A: Rosina Galli . . . . Yes. Well, she didn't dance for a few years. She was always sick, so they got me to come in. So I was very happy to do it, of course.
Q: You were the first American solo principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera.
A: Yes.
Q: And you made your debut in The Bartered Bride.
A: Right.
Q: You remember anything about that?
A: Well, it had charming little dances, absolutely beguiling. The music is charming. There's a little polka. And there was a dance called "Le Furiant." And I can't remember who choreographed it. I didn't. Whoever was the ballet master there. I don't know who it was. I can't remember at all. Anyway. They were charming dances. I loved doing them.
Q: And you were a great success in them. A very great success. It's been suggested that you were such a great success that she got healthy rather rapidly.
A: Yes, she did. She came back and danced right away. Yes. She was the mistress of Gatti-Casazza, so she could do whatever she wanted to do!
Q: But she didn't want anybody to steal her spotlight.
A: No. She certainly didn't.
Q: In your second season with the Ravinia Opera was when you choreographed one of your great successes, the Bolero [sic].
A: Oh, yes, I did. That's right.
Q: Now, how did that come about, that you did that?
A: I liked the music, and I thought I could do a good ballet to it, so I did. It was a very good ballet, actually. I'd forgotten all about it. That music became so clichéd, you know, and so awful after everybody started using it, but this was at the very beginning, and I think it was a very interesting ballet.
Q: Was it a sexy ballet?
A: Yes, it was. Wait a minute. I'm trying to remember what it was like. I did two or three different versions of it. One was with a girl in the middle and this boy . . . he would go around her, she would sort of, you know, dance very sexually. And then I did a version where the boy was in the middle and the girl danced around him. I don't know which was better. But they were both kind of interesting. And the girls sat in chairs, all around. And I remember one version, they knitted some, you know [sings: Bolero], then each one, each girl would get up and try to lure this boy who was in the middle. She'd put her knitting down. It was quite original, I think.
Q: Yes. Sounds very original.
A: It was . . . I don't know why we don't do it anymore. Well, the music got clichéd, you know.
Q: And it needed, really, I think, a big symphony orchestra.
A: Yes.
Q: So the music wouldn't be boring.
A: Yes. It needed everything, you know. It needed the whole works.
Q: Now, the Bolero was an independent evening. It wasn't obviously as part of an opera,
so the Ravinia Opera was permitting you to do separate ballets.
A: Yes.
Q: That was no big deal for you?
A: Oh, it was marvelous. I was delighted, yes.
Q: And then you began doing, I don't know if you began it in the third season, the Children's Matinees.
A: Oh, I did those all the time, yes. They had a children's performance, and they'd give them, oh, 45 minutes of the orchestra, Chicago Symphony. Then they'd give them each an ice cream cone. And then they'd give them me! So, I did a lot of dances for children. That was fun. I liked it. It's lots of fun to perform for children. They're so spontaneous, you know, and open to everything.
Q: There's a little story about a ballet you did for the children called Moonlight Sailing.
A: Ohhhhh, yes. Remisoff designed the costumes, and they were awfully nice. They had little sailboats, with little sails and masts. But I apparently took too much choreographic liberty, and the whole audience came backstage the first time I did it. "What's the matter with you, Miss Page, don't you know that sailboats can't go backwards?" So, with children you have to be careful what you do with them. They're very difficult.
Q: And I suppose you also know when they're bored because they move around in their seats.
A: Yes. You have to hold their attention. It's not easy to dance for children, I don't think.
Q: Also, you did La Valse [which] you choreographed barefoot and on pointe.
A: Oh, yes. I'd forgotten all about that. That was interesting. That was Ravel, and I had the aristocrats, they were on toe, with little tuxedos; and the rabble, they were in their bare feet. And it was sort of the juxtaposition of the aristocrats and the poverty-stricken people. I don't remember who won, but it was such lovely music, you know . . . . Ravel is wonderful for dancing.
Q: It was unusual to do a ballet in that fashion at that point, wasn't it?
A: I guess so, yes.
Q: A mixture of two styles.
A: Yes. Yes.
Q: 1928 [sic] when you did this.
A: Yes. Yes, it was.
Q: Also, you did some choreography to Gershwin's "Prelude in Blue."
A: Yes.
Q: Do you remember? What do you remember about that?
A: Well, that's lovely music for dancing. Gershwin is marvelous for dancing, and I have pictures of the dances. I can show them to you. I don't remember what the dances were like, but I did them in heels. It wasn't on toe. I remember the costumes, and I remember . . . it was a bluesy sort of a thing. They were very bluesy.
Q: Kind of sexy . . . ?
A: I guess so. I don't know.
Q: The choreography for Polka Melancolique is lost. You speak about pictures of dances, and dance notation, you know. Have you ever done any thinking, Ruth, about what would be the best system for dance notation? It seems to me . . . .
A: Take moving pictures of it. That's the best notation. There is a Labanotation, somebody named Laban invented this very complicated way to write them out. I never learned it. And none of the dancers would ever learn it either. I have The Nutcracker, my Nutcracker is Labanotated, but we would have to have somebody come who knew how and read it back to us. None of the dancers will learn it. It's too complicated, and it's too much trouble, you know. A lot of them rely on their memories, but if you have a film of it, then you don't need Labanotation. It may be perhaps, in the film you have an interpretation of it, while in Labanotation, it would just be what the steps were, you see. So, I guess it is a good idea, but I never learned it, and I'm never going to.
Q: Now, you have your own system, obviously, for making notes.
A: Oh, yes . . . . Oh, my dances are all written out and I don't think anybody can understand them except me. Like [demonstrates with hands], this is a "rond des mains inside" and [demonstrates with hands] that's a "rond des mains outside." What would that mean, unless you explained it to somebody, you know? So, I have my own little [system]. I call it [a step] the "strut step," or this and that. Nobody would know what they meant except me. So my ballets are all pretty much lost anyway. The Merry Widow isn't because we kept doing that all the time. And Frankie and Johnny isn't because that's been on television, and so has The Merry Widow been on television, so much that those are down for posterity. But all my other ballets are more or less lost. It's a shame, but that's the way it is.
Q: It's a shame.
A: I have a stunning ballet, a whole evening of Carmina Burana and Catulli Carmina. See, we did it first with the Lyric Opera as opera. And there's lots of dancing in that. I was so fascinated with the music and everything, and I loved doing it with the Opera. I liked doing it very much. Then I decided to make a ballet out of it. And the ballet is about, it's half an evening. And they, of course, with the Lyric, it's a whole evening. And then the Catulli Carmina is interesting, too, because it's about old men who are making fun of young lovers. It's kind of an interesting subject. And I have very interesting pictures of that night. We have sort of a "working film" of that. I'd love to do that one again, but it would be hard to revive it.
Q: Yes. When, in the days before you could have it, films of your dances . . . .
A: Then they were all lost.
Q: When it came time to perform them, the choreographer would teach the dances to the people in the company . . . .
A: Sure.
Q: To everybody.
A: Yes.
Q: And when it came time to do your own dances, over and over again, let's say like a dance like Peter Pan . . . .
A: Oh, well, I remembered my own dances.
Q: You always remembered your own?
A: Oh, yes. I remembered everything I danced myself.
Q: If you danced it yourself?
A: Yes.
Q: It's a shame, really, that everything isn't just recorded. There's some . . . .
A: Now, Balanchine's are all recorded -- all of his ballets -- and about 15 different people can stage them, because they learned with him, you see, so his ballets will never die out. They may change a little bit here and there, but they've got films of them and all these people that know them.
Q: Do you think that's a good thing, or does it have a stultifying effect to say, "Well, this is the way Balanchine did them and it's good to have them"?
A: Oh, [yeah,] of course.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)