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Ruth Page Orange Room No. 04 [March 25, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0559
Run Time
0h 20m 18s
Date Produced
March 25 1985
A: [Discussion re: photo of Ruth Page incorrectly identified as Olga Spessivtseva in the book Great Russian Dancers] . . . I've always wanted to be in a lawsuit, but having been married to a lawyer, he always kept me out of lawsuits, and my present lawyer said, "Oh, Ruth, you don't want to be in a lawsuit. What good would it do you?" And he said, "I'll just write them and tell them they made a mistake." But that arabesque will be her [Spessivtseva] for posterity.
Q: I think that's awful.
A: I do, too.
Q: It's a very important picture of you, that perfect arabesque.
A: It is. As I said, it's the only time I ever got into a perfect arabesque in my whole life, and the camera just happened to be there. It is a perfect arabesque, and Cecchetti is the one who said that, and he's the great classic teacher.
Q: I know. And it was on your birthday cake and all.
A: Oh, yes! Oh, that's in the ice box. I forgot all about it. Want a little piece of it?
Q: Maybe later.
A: I'll get Carmen to bring it in here. They gave me the top of that cake. I forgot all about it. I had so many birthday cakes. But that one with the arabesque on it is in the ice box now. You don't want a piece?
Q: Perhaps when we're finished here.
A: All right.
Q: I really think that's awful.
A: I do, too. But Ron Reicin, my lawyer, said, "Oh, think nothing of it. That's not important."
Q: He doesn't understand.
A: No, he doesn't understand the importance of the picture at all. Oh, well.
Q: Maybe they can change it in the next edition.
A: I don't think there'll be a next edition. I think this is the book. This is it. It's a lovely book.
Q: It makes me angry.
A: Me, too. I was furious when I heard about it. I said, "My God, the one truly marvelous picture that I have, and someone else gets credit for it."
Q: Who?
A: Passetski [sic: Spessivtseva], I think it was.
Q: That looks like you. I suppose it was an error. Anybody can [make one].
A: Oh, yes. The man who did the book didn't know. I don't know where he got the picture. He must've gotten it at the Library of the Performing Arts in New York, because that's where all my pictures are. And it teaches me a lesson, too. I should put my name on the back of the pictures before I let them out.
Q: You should.
A: Because even I sometimes don't know who the picture is of, and when it was taken and
under what circumstances, and who took the picture, you see? It's hard to remember after a
certain number of years.
Q: Who did take the picture of "the perfect arabesque?"
A: Nicholas Murray -- Murray, but he pronounced it "Mur-eye," because he was
Hungarian, I think. It was taken in New York, oh, I'd say around 1924! But it was taken so
long ago, I don't remember posing for it or anything. But his name is on it.
Q: And then when did Cecchetti see it?
A: Oh, I have no idea about that.
Q: And you just heard that he said that, or he called you?
A: No, I was studying with him.
Q: Oh, and you showed him the picture?
A: Yes. And he said, "That is a perfect arabesque." And for him to say that was so unusual, you know.
Q: He was a real perfectionist.
A: Oh, my God. One finger would be out of place, and it would spoil the whole thing! But it is a perfect arabesque. Usually, an arabesque, of course, was done like that [demonstrates port de bras]. This is a "fantasie," but anyway. I don't have any other pictures as good as that. I have one other that is in a good arabesque. It's sort of different. But that one's perfect.
Q: It is a beautiful picture. Although there are a lot of pictures of you performing in costume in your ballets. And you always look wonderful and you look very different. Did you spend a lot of time putting on makeup? Because you look different from ballet to ballet. . . . [Discussion of certain photographs] . . . You were a very good actress as well as a very good dancer.
A: Maybe. Who knows?
Q: Did you think about that consciously? Did you prepare yourself before you would go out on stage in the same way actors do, thinking about the role, the person you were playing, the character you were playing, rather than the movements of the dance?
A: Well, they went together, of course. You couldn't separate one from the other. They were dances, and so you had to do it. If you were a doll, you'd do it entirely differently from if you were doing Possessed, you see. So the idea behind the dance influences you on how you're supposed to look and what the costume is.
Q: Before you would go out on stage to dance whatever the role, whether it was Frankie and Johnny, or Possessed, or Porcelain Doll [sic: Maid], going back, or Park Avenue Odalisque . . . did you think yourself into the role, the way some actors do? What would you do before, as you were waiting?
A: Well, I'd get into the mood, think about what you're going to do, I suppose. I haven't danced for so long, I don't remember. Well, you must think about the role before you do it.
Q: You choreographed a very, very interesting dance, a landmark really, for the 1933 World's Fair -- oh, no, right before . . . . No, wait. I'm going to get this right.
A: What dance was it?
Q: La Guiablesse.
A: Oh, that was a ballet. That wasn't a dance. That was a whole big ballet, based on the West Indian material by Lafcadio Hearn. I got the idea for that from Two Years in the French West Indies. I did it for Katherine Dunham.
Q: Well, the first time you did it, you did it for yourself, in 1933.
A: That's right.
Q: This was a most unusual ballet, before its time.
A: All black.
Q: All black, except for you and, ultimately, all black. And the story of the ballet?
A: Oh, it was about a sort of witch. Not really a witch, but a person . . . who was very different, who came down from the mountains and lured people after her.
Q: She was really quite something -- a she-devil.
A: Yes. It's "Diablesse," but in the patoi, they called it "Guiablesse." I got the idea entirely from Lafcadio Hearn, from his Two Years in the French West Indies. It's a very interesting book.
Q: And the music was written by?
A: William Grant Still. Yes, he was black.
Q: Which came first? You got the idea from reading Lafcadio Hearn? Then you said, "I'm going to commission some original music for this," and went to William Grant Still?
A: He was the best black composer that I knew.
Q: You felt because it was a black subject, it ought to . . . .
A: Well, not necessarily. But I thought it would be nice to have a black composer.
Q: Where did you get the dancers from?
A: I went down to the South Side one summer and had try-outs, and picked up all these black people who, a lot of them, hadn't ever danced before. That's the way I got the company. I picked the ones I thought had talent. It wasn't hard dancing in it, but they had to look beautiful and they had to move in a certain way. I remember we had long fishing poles at the beginning for the scenery. But I went down there every day all summer. It was an awful job, but I did it.
Q: It was something new. You were aware you were creating something new?
A: Yes, yes.
Q: Was it exciting for you? Did you say, "I'm going to try something radically different here?"
A: Yes. It was very exciting for me. I've always liked working with black people.
Q: And creating new things? Now, the first time that was danced, that was danced at the Century of Progress, in the Auditorium Theatre, actually, and most of the dancing at the Century of Progress had been thus far things like Sally Rand and her fans and, in reading about it, this was really a serious attempt to bring some good dance -- to say Chicago can also produce some excellent dance -- to bring that to the Century of Progress. Do you remember how the audience . . . .
A: They liked it. That's why the Opera asked me to do it over at the Opera. And I said, "Oh, it's impossible. I just can't go down there and get all those dancers together again, but," I said, "Katherine Dunham. I think she might be able to do it." And she did. She put it all together again, and they did it at the Opera.
Q: And she danced the lead role.
A: She's a very intelligent dancer.
Q: Can you remember any ways her interpretation of the role was different?
A: No, of course not. You don't interpret a role, you do it as the choreographer wants it done. There's no question of interpreting, I don't think.
Q: That same year, you did . . . when Katherine Dunham did that for the Opera, also on the same bill . . . I'm trying to find it and I can't. There was another . . . . It seems as though that year, you went from Ravinia -- you were just going, going, going most of the time. In fact, during most of the '30s, it seems as though you were performing and choreographing and putting the Ravinia season together, and then racing to do the Chicago Opera season and putting that together. You were just going, going, going all the time.
A: Well, yes. You have to in the days that you can go. Do it while you can!
Q: It seems to me that you still do. In 1935, when you launched the first ballet company with your own name -- the Ruth Page Ballets . . . . The first program was made up of four ballets. You did it at the Studebaker Theatre. One of them was Love Song. What was Love Song?
A: I put the music together from Schubert, his love songs -- there was one of them, "Du bist die Ruh," and I forget the names of all of them -- and I put them together. And it started out, I was all in black. I was sort of a Tragic Figure. And Bentley was in it. We did a pas de deux together, and this flirtatious girl came in and took him away. I forget who did that role. But it was a very simple idea. That was all there was to it. It was a nice ballet, I think. I think it was one of my best ballets. I remember it very well.
     There was a group in red, sort of a cerise color, and a group in green. And then it was put together like a modern thing. It wasn't put together like a ballet. Then Walter Camryn came on with two boys and two girls, and they were all dressed in salmon pink, and they all did a sort of divertissement in there, which was very charming. I remember it. Walter was awfully attractive in it. I forget how it ended. I think it ended with me alone again. It was a very sad ballet. Very sad.
Q: And it was a big success.
A: Yes.
Q: Was it Tom's idea or yours to found the Ruth Page Ballets? Subsequently, there have been lots of other companies with your name in them. But that was the very first in 1935.
A: I didn't remember that.
Q: Was it a milestone for you? Was it something you always wanted, to have your own ballet company?
A: Oh, I think everybody would like to have their own ballet company. Certainly. It's much easier to have your own.
Q: Tom was instrumental in setting it up?
A: Yes.
Q: He drew all the contracts and arranged all the financial things, too?
A: Yes. We made money out of it [sic: Ruth Page thinking of Ruth Page Chicago Opera Ballet in '50s and '60s]. We had the Opera -- I told you all this. We had the Opera until Christmas and we had . . . well, the opera didn't go 'til Christmas . . . . We had at least 6-8 weeks with the Opera. Then we had The Nutcracker . . . . [Repeats information on '60s tour] . . . . It paid for itself.
Q: That was good.
A: Yes, because now, if you have a company, it costs a fortune. Very few people can afford to have their own company. They're not supported by the state, like they are in Europe.
Q: Do you think they ought to be?
A: No. I think we should keep government out of it. They don't know anything. I believe private enterprise is much better.
Q: Do you think it should be private philanthropic groups, or do you believe that by and large dance companies should be able to pay their own way?
A: Well, I think now they can't pay their own way. So you have to find people who will support it for you. There are plenty of them.
Q: No. [They're] hard to find. Another opera, 1934, that you choreographed for the Chicago Civic Opera, was an opera called Gold Standard.
A: Oh, that was a ballet. That wasn't an opera.
Q: Oh, that was a ballet. I'm sorry. You did it for the Chicago Civic Opera. It was a . . . .
A: It was music by Jacques Ibert. It was charming music -- it was called Divertissements, I think -- and I just did a ballet to it. It was a short ballet. There was nothing to it. I remember the costumes very well. They were sort of, oh, big hats . . . . It was a cute little ballet. Nothing special.
Q: Did it have a story to it, Gold Standard?
A: Yes. I don't remember the story. It did have a story.
Q: Was it about going on the gold standard, or something?
A: No. It was a girl who was attracted to somebody because he had money; the attraction was the money.
Q: An old story.
A: The same old story.
Q: In that same year -- a new story. A new kind of way to do a ballet, that was in the year 1934, when you did Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
A: Oh, yes. That was the first ballet that Aaron Copland ever got a commission for. I thought he was talented, and so I commissioned him to do it. We only did it a few times. I wish we had done it more because I think it was a good ballet. And Remisoff, I remember, did the costumes. It was a story that's been used a lot since, about witnesses that tell the same story a different way. It was told by a Honeymoon Couple. It was told by an Arabian, like a mystic [sic]. He wasn't Arabian; he was mystic, a Hindu Mystic. It was told also in the manner of the Militant Idealist [sic], that was Bentley Stone. He was marvelous in that part. And this girl sort of torn between the different ones [sic].
Q: And it told the story of a murder. A murder that had taken place in a nightclub.
A: Yes. Actually, I told the wrong story. I told the story of American Pattern. But Hear Ye! Hear Ye! was sort of the same story, really [sic].
[Q: Well, there were three different people . . . no, you've got it pretty right . . . . three different people, three eyewitnesses tell different stories . . .]
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)