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Ruth Page Orange Room No. 05 [March 25, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0560
Run Time
0h 19m 36s
Date Produced
March 25 1985
Q: We were talking about Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, the story of a nightclub murder that takes place. Right? Why don't you tell us about the eyewitness accounts again?
A: Oh, well, it's told by three different witnesses in three entirely different ways, because each saw it differently, you see, and it was all the same story. [It was] told by a Honeymoon Couple, and then a Hindu Mystic [sic] and then a Militant Idealist [sic]. I think it was an interesting story, actually. But we didn't do it very much. It was the first ballet that anyone asked Aaron Copland to do, and I don't remember if the music was good or not. It must have been, if Aaron wrote it, because he was such a talented composer. But that was the story of that, Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
Q: And the way it ended?
A: Nobody really knows what the murder was like, really, because it was told by so many different witnesses and each one told it differently.
Q: And you get the sense in reading what I read about it that justice isn't really served.
A: That's right.
Q: And it ends with them shouting, "Hear ye! Hear ye!"
A: The court is going on, taking another case.
Q: How did you decide on that story, Ruth?
A: Oh, I don't know. I was with lawyers all the time. My husband was a lawyer, so I kept hearing about all these cases all the time. And I suppose that's the way I thought about it.
Q: It's sort of a bleak view of justice. Is that what you think about the courts and justice?
A: Yes. Don't you? I think it's very hard to get justice. It's just very hard to get justice, that's all there is to it. Maybe sometimes you get it, I suppose.
Q: Did Tom like the ballet?
A: Yes.
Q: Was Tom a cynic about the courts?
A: No, not especially. I don't know whether he was or not. But there's no question everybody knows that you don't get justice very often.
Q: Nor truth. It also sounds as if this ballet is saying that there's no way really to know the truth.
A: The truth. That's true. It's very cynical, yes.
Q: Not cynical, philosophical.
A: Philosophical? All right.
Q: How did you come to pick Copland?
A: Well, I had known him and heard his music and thought he was very talented. That's all.
Q: The working relationship you had with him . . . . Did you spend a good deal of time working together? How did you develop it?
A: No, we weren't together very much. He sent me the music and then I'd say "I like it," something like that. We worked like that. Like with Van Grove. He was never with me. We did everything by correspondence.
Q: By correspondence? So, how would that work? You would write and say . . . .
A: We've got millions of letters, written to each other about what we think about this and what we think about that. He [Van Grove] was an opera man. He knew so much about opera. He found out a lot about ballet, and he knew what I wanted. And I had to put the opera into an hour-long . . . because you can't do a ballet all-evening, I don't think. Maybe you can now, but you couldn't then. And he was very good at taking out the best parts of the ballet [sic: opera], the parts that are danceable. All of the parts in operas aren't necessarily danceable. Some of them are and some of them aren't. And he was very good at putting the stories together and making it logical, and still making it like the opera, you see.
Q: But in working with Copland, where you were making up your own libretto, as it were, you started out by writing to Copland and saying, "Okay, here is the idea?"
A: That's right. I wrote the whole libretto out for him.
Q: And then he sent back the music?
A: That's right.
Q: Now, he would send it back and you'd play it on the piano?
A: Of course, yes.
Q: And then you would write back and say, "No, I don't like that. Yes, I like that"?
A: It was very good music. I didn't have to change anything, I don't think.
Q: Oh! Do you remember what you paid him?
A: No, I don't.
Q: $150.
A: Is that so? Imagine, getting Copland for $150. That really is something!
Q: You say, " I paid him $150, which was very hard for me to find, and he seemed delighted to get it!"
A: That's right. That's exactly right. I'd forgotten that. Is that in that John Martin book?
Q: Yes. It's in the John Martin book.
A: That's a very good book.
Q: It's a wonderful book.
A: Yes, it is.
Q: Later, in 1937, you somehow scrimped and saved enough money of the Chicago Opera budget to do a new ballet, An American Pattern. Now, that is, I think, also, like Hear Ye! Hear Ye!, an "idea" ballet.
A: Very much, yes. It is. It's about a young woman who marries, and she doesn't want to be just a housewife. She wants something more interesting in her life, and these three older women keep coming in and always remind her, bringing her back to domesticity when she goes out and has these different affairs and different episodes in her life. But she always comes back in the end, and at the very end, she becomes just a domestic housewife. It's a very sad story.
Q: It is a sad story. It really is.
A: She tries everything and nothing succeeds.
Q: Her last lover in the story is a sort of firebrand idealist, almost as though he's too much for her and so she becomes frightened.
A: Yes. She follows him along for quite a long while and goes along with him. Then, when the corps de ballet comes on, they're fighting for some idea, I don't remember what the idea was, but they were fighting for something. They were scary, and she gets frightened. It was too serious for her. And so, she goes back to domesticity.
Q: Do you think that's the story of a lot of women of your generation, or even of today?
A: I don't know. I don't know many women. I don't ever sit around and talk about their personal lives with them, at any rate. I don't think I really know that many.
Q: I mean observations, really. It's almost as though the warnings that all little girls grow up with, better . . .
A: . . . get married and have children.
Q: . . . be safe. Have someone to protect you and take care of you. It's almost as though in that ballet all those warnings come true.
A: Yes, that's true.
Q: But not in your life. You've never lived your life according to those . . . .
A: No. I always did what I wanted. Well, I never had any children. I didn't try not to have them. I just never got any children. So, maybe my life would have been entirely different if I had had children. I don't know. But I was pretty determined. I always knew what I wanted, and I got it.
Q: Yes, you did.
A: I got it.
Q: At the time when you were going forward and determined to do what you wanted to do, when Tom came home from your honeymoon alone, for example, and other times, it seems as though Tom must have understood, and you must have had a very strong sense that what you were doing was right.
A: Yes, I certainly did, and he understood very well. That's why we stayed married for so long. We were married until he died.
Q: A long time -- 45 years.
A: Yes.
Q: Was Tom different from other men of your generation, Ruth?
A: Oh, yes, very. He was a very unusual person. Very brilliant and just very different, I think.
Q: What attracted you to Tom?
A: Oh, he was such an interesting person. I met him when I came here in the Music Box Revue. He had a letter to me from John Crane, who was another beau of mine, and -- I think I told you this -- I had lunch with him the last day we were here. And I went back to the theatre to do my matinee, and I said, "That's the most interesting man I've ever met in my whole life!" And he was.
Q: It was also clear that he was crazy about you. He wrote a note back to John Crane thanking him for the introduction, where he goes on and on about you.
A: I have all of Tom's letters now. They're very interesting.
Q: He seemed to you at the time to be different in his ideas about life, and what was important about a relationship, about marriage. Was he different in that regard?
A: Yes.
Q: Did you talk much about what you wanted out of life? About how important dance was to you?
A: Well, he knew that. You didn't have to tell him. He knew I was interested in dancing, definitely! No question about it!
Q: There was one time when you were writing a letter to your mother about your beaux, and you said, "You don't have to worry. I like my dancing better than either of them!" This was before you met Tom.
A: Yes.
Q: Did Tom like An American Pattern?
A: I don't remember. I don't know.
Q: Was there anything in the audience's response to it?
A: The audience loved it.
Q: Did they view it as a morality tale? As you saying, "Look, don't stray from the fold, dear, because you're not going to be able to do it"?
A: I think it was, yes. Yes, definitely.
Q: You intended it to be?
A: Oh, sure.
Q: Why did you come to choose that particular theme at that time?
A: Oh, who knows? An idea comes and sits on your shoulder, and you do it. Nobody knows where ideas come from. Do you know where they come from?
Q: Sometimes.
A: Some get them from music, some get them from reading a book, some get them from looking at a picture at the Art Institute. You can get an idea walking down the street. You don't know where it comes from.
Q: So this idea came to you, and you did the ballet and the audience response was very strong, and you danced the lead role, you were the heroine. And yet it strikes me as kind of surprising that you would choose this as a theme for a ballet, because it's in no way reflective of Ruth Page's life.
A: Well, you don't have to dance out your own life. When you have an idea, why would you dance only your own life? I think that would be stupid.
Q: Why would you dance a life so alien and different from yours?
A: Well, because it was an idea that interested me. It was an idea. A very interesting idea, actually, I think.
Q: Do you think if you did that ballet today, if you look at it from the point of view of today, it is almost a beginning of a woman's lib ballet?
A: We wanted to revive it. I haven't succeeded in doing it yet because I don't have a company. But I would like to revive the ballet. I think it would be interesting now. Very.
Q: There's a sort of record-keeping film of it. Have you looked at it recently?
A: No. It's not very good. Part of it is left out, and it's not a very good film. But it would help me to remember it very much. It would help me to remember it.
Q: If you decided to revive it, Ruth, having the film, but not having the complete ballet, in other words, just having part of it, how would you go about reconstructing the parts?
A: Well, the ballet's all there, but you don't see all of the little details in it. It is too small. You can't see all the details. You'd either have to make them up or try to remember them.
Q: Are there any other notes you would have?
A: Yes. It is all written out.
Q: But not in the notation system?
A: Just in my inimitable fashion -- that nobody can understand except me, and I can't always understand it.
Q: After an American Pattern, in January, as a matter of fact, of 1938 . . . .
A: That was Frankie and Johnny, wasn't it?
Q: Well, it was before Frankie and Johnny. Because what happened was the Chicago Opera Company reorganized and became the Chicago City Opera Company and brought in Catherine Littlefield's Philadelphia Ballet.
A: That's right. Yes.
Q: I gather that there was something of a public outcry about the fact that you were no longer going to be the head choreographer for the Chicago Opera. Do you remember anything about that?
A: Sort of vaguely. I don't remember too much [about it]. But I think she only stayed a little while, didn't she?
Q: Yes, she did. And then they brought you back [sic]. It was at that point that you moved into the WPA, offering them your services as their ballet director, you and Bentley -- Bentley Stone was with you -- for which you were paid $150 a month.
A: I remember that, and the dancers were paid $94. I remember that very well.
Q: But it was a very productive move.
A: Oh, yes, that's the best opportunity that I ever have had.
Q: What made it all so good?
A: Well, because I had a free studio and a free pianist. I had a free modern dance company, a free ballet company. I had all the time I wanted. They didn't limit me at all. I could do whatever I wanted. Harry Minturn was the director of the whole project, and he said, "Ruth, I don't know a thing about ballet. Do whatever you please." Well, this was ideal. And we did. We had a long class in the morning, working on technique, and then we rehearsed all afternoon. It was a wonderful opportunity. I've never had an opportunity like that since.
Q: And it produced what I think you've said is one of your best ballets.
A: Frankie and Johnny. Yes it did.
Q: Now, how did Frankie and Johnny begin? Where did the idea come from?
A: You know, I'm not sure whether someone suggested the idea to me, or whether I thought of it. I can't remember. I really don't remember. I have a book in my room called Frankie and Johnny about this thick, that tells the story of Frankie and Johnny. It's a simple, perfect story for a ballet, really. And I was lucky to have Jerry Moross who wrote this marvelous score for it. I think it's a perfect ballet score for that, not a "ballet" ballet, but a perfect score for a work of that sort. And the music just makes the ballet, I think.
Q: I think the idea makes the ballet, too! I mean that's one that is on film and that I have seen, and it is quite a stylish, stylized, witty . . . .
A: Yes. I think it's a marvelous ballet, I really do.
Q: So do I.
A: And I hardly ever say that about my ballets. Bentley and I did it together. It just seemed so right.
Q: How did it go with the steps, sort of, as you went through the creative process of developing it, you and Bentley? And Moross doing the music?
A: Well, I don't remember.
Q: Did you sit down . . . ?
A: We didn't sit down! We got up and danced it! We didn't sit down at all! And I got a wonderful solo in there. I made that one for myself. Bentley's part isn't nearly as good as mine!
Q: It's true.
Related Place
Chicago (production location of)