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Betsy Ross Davis No. 08 [June 13, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0581
Run Time
0h 15m 13s
Date Produced
June 13 1985
Q: Betsy, would you say that Ruth is [un]appreciated?
A: Wasn't appreciated a lot. I think she knew, has always known that. But that's the penalty you pay for being ahead of your time. You're never appreciated at that point. And a lot of people whose concept of the ballet was the powder-puff tutu school, came to a ballet to see powder puffs. . . and saw Bolero or something like that. Frankie and Johnny really stood their hair on end, occasionally, and lots of time I think they resented it. But the people who really knew what they were about and liked the idea of doing something new and being smart, almost intellectual about an approach once in a while, like it very much.
     Nutcracker, of course, has been the all-out success, the right thing at the right time. That pleases her very much. She's also pleased because after the first Merry Widow on television, everybody recognized her on the street. You know she did the opening for that and did it so charmingly. Certainly everybody adores recognition, and I think she probably knew she didn't always get it for what she did. But you have to take a chance when you are that sort of person. And take a chance she did.
Q: Indeed. Over and over. She feels that the fact that she didn't go to New York made her less appreciated in this country than she would have been had she been based in New York.
A: Well, I think that was true. I think it's very true of anybody. It's almost even true now, in spite of the fact that television can take you from one part of the country to the other without any trouble at all. And people travel more than they did when she was first establishing her career. They move faster now . . . and more. But New York is still "it." It's certainly the arts center of the world now. And dancers in New York . . . . The shows are all started there for one thing; that's why dancers always go there to get jobs. Ruth did as much as she could for everybody here, but she couldn't do a year-round thing that those people needed. New York is the critics headquarters. Time Magazine will write about opera: they'll write about New York, then they'll do a San Francisco opening. You might as well not exist in Chicago. And the Lyric is an absolutely magnificent company. That happens over and over again. The "Second City" gets skipped over. We're not even second now. I guess we're third. But the things in Chicago have never been a part of it and gotten what they deserve. Sometimes it turns around. The big art exhibition at Navy Pier, you know, is supposed to be one of the best in the world.
Q: Yes, Art Expo.
A: Yes. That's great. Ruth has gotten more attention by television and working with regional companies. The regional companies, I think, are terribly important. Besides, somebody's got to employ all those dancers that are getting trained. But, New York, yes. It would have made a difference; makes a difference to everyone.
Q: Anything else that you can think of, other observations? You are a very shrewd, sensitive woman.
A: Pretty observant.
Q: . . . close observer. Anything else you want to talk about in relation to Ruth and her work or anything?
A: I was thinking of what you said of her popularity with the company. I don't think that they did like her all that much. I think she was also ahead of them, too. I thought about that. I've never considered it before. I think about the young people who were all around me at the time. We'd talk about our frustrations, our modern lessons on Wednesday, which of course turned out to be a ball. Why, when I saw Frankie and Johnny, I realized how dancers are used and not really shown up. But after all, you've got to develop your own self, as people aren't supposed to do it for you. And we certainly got as much out of all that experience as we possibly could. I think about that very much with her . . . and also the fact that there was no dance world at that point. You had to make it. Dancing now is everywhere. You say "ballet" and everybody knows exactly what you're talking about. They have their favorites. They've seen a few. Then, there weren't any. There truly and honestly weren't any; the place was a desert. When Balanchine went to New York with Lincoln Kirstein, he started the school and he started the company with new thought.... Ballet was all in the opera companies, or then they were occasionally in musicals. There were a few dancers in musicals who did very nice work, beautiful work. The big companies, there were none. There were no ballerinas to speak of until the Russians came over in strength and got great publicity and what not. The people knew what a ballerina was, but somebody else had to show them . . . . Americans are slow to take on Americans. They're a little snobbish that way, or used to be. I think they're getting better now, I hope. To get more chauvinistic would help. To be a native dancer in Chicago, for heaven's sake, that was all uphill work. Must have been heartbreaking. There were good companies here, but they were Russians. Novikoff had the ballet, opera. He was Russian. Pryor, [Ruth] Pyror was a little Irish dancer. She was perfectly adorable. She was a native and a very popular, lovely little dancer . . . . But a Chicagoan, a Midwesterner, an American, well, that's a problem.
Q: Do you think you understand Ruth Page?
A: Oh, no. Not altogether. I don't have to. I like her. I love her. But I didn't always. I think she's a remarkable woman, and the more remarkable women we have, the better off we are, I always say. No, I don't understand her. Very few people understand each other. We're a world of strangers. But I mostly know what her reactions are going to be -- no, I don't, I take that back right now. I simply did not know that she would drive to Springfield and adore apple trees and barns and all that sort of thing. I didn't know that she would be the hit of a lifetime in Lincoln, Illinois. Or at the Lincoln Academy for that matter. When she got her doctorate, the young people and the faculty of Lincoln College absolutely adored her, and all she did was talk to them. She opened her speech by saying, "I've never been in Lincoln before. As a matter of fact, I've never heard of it." Now, that didn't sound too tactful to me, but they absolutely adored it. And she went on from there. They're still talking about her. She has an impact personality.
Q: She does.
A: Bentley was my teacher. I met him when I was eleven. He came out to Oak Park. Dancers had to support themselves by doing other things, and he found this studio in Oak Park where he was offered a job and took it. He was an unusual bird to turn up in Oak Park, Illinois, but he was very popular. The young people, the little, little children adored him. And he yelled and fumed and made ferocious noises, but he was a most magnificent dancer. Taking a class from him was a lecture demonstration. He talked a lot, and he danced a lot. But he was an excellent teacher. Mary Kay, the woman he worked for, was an old friend of my father's, so my father insisted that I go to this school. So I marched over and took one look at Bentley, who was gorgeous, and I thought, well, I think this is going to be all right. He was really a stunning man and terribly interesting, most amusing, and remained a good close friend of mine to the end. He was at a time when there was no place for a male classical dancer, practically, in the world. A great dancer. His technique was impeccable. He had unusual feet for a man. He had unusual turns. He was spectacular looking. He was unusual [looking]: the cheekbones, slightly slanted, you know the type. They all look like that, the good ones. I can't understand why. It's a type. Anyway, with his wonderful classical technique, of course, he was doing all of these other things with Ruth. And his close friends were always saying to him, "Why do you do this? You should be out doing your own work." He was forever hearing this story. "You shouldn't be working with Ruth. You should be doing your own wonderful classical work." She gave him a chance to -- some -- but the big thrust, of course, was the new thing. He was, as I said, an intellectual. He was well-read, well-versed, deeply musical; a really remarkable man and very amusing. He liked what he was doing, and he certainly made a free choice with working with Ruth. He enjoyed every minute of it, And he did like her very, very much.
Q: Are you going to tell me that story . . .
A: No.
Q: . . . about what Tom Fisher did for you?
A: No.
Q: Okay.
A: No, I'm not. But he was a dear friend, and I liked him very much. I miss him very much.
Q: Were you there at his funeral, the party?
A: He didn't have a funeral. Oh, yes. Tom's party.
Q: Start and say, "Tom Fisher didn't have a funeral," and then tell the story.
A: Tom Fisher didn't have a funeral. He apparently wanted none and had none. But Ruth had a party. She called it "Tom's Party," and she had a big reception one night at her apartment -- which was at 1100 [Lake Shore Drive], you know, that building that unfortunately now is gone. And all his friends were there. She couldn't sleep, and she was very lonely. Brooks and I were not married too long at that point, and I was always regretful we didn't call her more often. I wasn't in the habit of that. . . and didn't realize she was having this very bad time. She always seemed so busy, so occupied, so well-traveled. She was always off somewhere. But then we began going to the movies together. Ruth and Tom always went to the movies. They loved movies. So, I went. Brooks and I would always call Ruth and go over to a movie. But Tom was a great loss for us. Brooks liked him . . . as short a time as he knew him, liked him very much. And Tom was very pleased to finally have me settled down with a man he approved of. He was very pleased and told me so, which, of course, I repeated to Brooks, who was probably very pleased by the whole thing. I got his blessing.
Q: Well, that's good. Do you think . . . did you spend any time with Ruth when she had that hip surgery? Those two muggings?
A: We saw her immediately after both of them, of course, because they were both so shocking. That was the most despicable thing in the world. You know Ruth's a tiny person, always has been. She's got energy like mad, but she's small. I think that's the most despicable thing to have to happen to her. To have it happen twice is absolutely awful. Of course, she's the one for taking chances. The last one, she was walking home from the Drake along East Lake Shore Drive, and it was totally unexpected. The first one was in broad daylight. Bentley said afterwards that Ruth is always dressed to a "T" . . . and walking through a bad neighborhood . . . and she should be more careful. Though she's not the careful type. She is now. She's better about it. But she's a spectacular-looking woman . . . and if she was walking west of here in not a particularly dangerous neighborhood, she'd never think twice about it. But it's that kind of world. But she came back from both of them in absolutely elegant form. Of course, dancers do that. Bentley had a dreadful operation when he was in the army, danced after that, and was never quite the same, because it was a nearly fatal thing. He had knee operations, and the next morning when his doctor came in, he was up doing a barre at the end of the bed. You see, it was that kind of thing. Ruth's the same way. The muggings and the hip operation only slowed her temporarily, and she was back at it. You don't dare stop, you know. If you're going to keep going, you've got to keep moving.
Q: Okay, anything else?
A: I don't think so.
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Chicago (production location of)