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Clive Barnes No. 03 [April 15, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0612
Run Time
0h 18m 21s
Date Produced
April 15 1987
Q: Tell me about the first time you met Ruth Page.
A: The first time I met Ruth Page, I think in actual fact, it was after I had come to live in America in 1965. I met her and her husband, Tom Fisher, under rather curious circumstances, actually, because I had given a very, very unfavorable notice to one of her ballets or performances of the Chicago Opera Ballet in Brooklyn. And it wasn't a very happy meeting. Subsequent meetings were a lot happier.
Q: What had you heard about her and her work before?
A: Oh, I'd known her work quite well before that, of course. I had seen the ballets she had done in France and England. She did Vilia, for example, at the London Festival Ballet. I'd say that must have been about 1951, or something like that. Even before that, she had done Frankie and Johnny, of course, which was seen in Paris in about 1949 or 1950. Then I saw her ballet to Il Trovatore, Revenge, which she did for Roland Petit. I knew her work moderately well before I came to this country, but I had never met her.
Q: What would you say are the qualities of her choreography that come to mind when you think of Ruth Page?
A: I suppose the main quality of her choreography is her ability to express dramatic themes. She was always interested in drama. It's not an accident, I think, that so many of her ballets derived from opera, from opera librettos. She had a great feeling for that kind of thing. I felt it was the drama, but also something of diversity that is so characteristic of her as a person. She's a very lively, zippy person and something of that, particularly in some of her lighter ballets, Vilia, and ballets like that, that does emerge as a certain ebullience there.
Q: Ebullience is very much a part of Ruth. Do you see her coming out of a tradition?
A: The curious thing about Ruth is that she doesn't really come out of any particular tradition. You've got to remember that she grew up at a time when there really was no American dancing. She was a pioneer really, even before there were pioneers. I mean she was before Denishawn, really. She was before Agnes de Mille. She started to dance with Pavlova in 1918 on a South American tour.
     Consequently, although I suppose you would have to say that her background was like the Russian Ballet, the Ballet Russe, Pavlova, to an extent Diaghilev, she more or less had to create herself. She certainly had to create herself as an American choreographer. In this, I suspect, she was greatly helped by her association with Bentley Stone. Together they did
Frankie and Johnny. Frankie and Johnny, together with some of the works of the Littlefield sisters, particularly Barn Dance and Terminal, these really were the first American or Americana ballets. Even before de Mille, even before Rodeo and all of the ballets we associate. Really, the Littlefields in Philadelphia and Ruth in Chicago really created the first American-style ballets.
Q: What is an American-style ballet?
A: It's really something that hasn't really happened. But when we used to think of an American-style ballet, I suppose it was a ballet that used vernacular American dance in the way that Robbins did in Fancy Free, in the way that de Mille's Rodeo, using square dancers, and using ballroom dancers as in Fancy Free. The curious thing is, that it's a form of character dance that really hasn't progressed. It's a form that is now almost extinct. I really suppose it's because there isn't an American folk dance. We tend to pretend there is, but there isn't. You can't really say that square dancing is folk dancing; it isn't. And ballroom dancing is such a genre on its own that it doesn't really lend itself to ballet as such. I think that Americana ballet, what we used to think of as popular American ballet, the stuff that Loring did and all of that, I think that's almost as dead as a dodo.
Q: He [Balanchine] wasn't even choreographing then, really, and she asked him to choreograph a little dance for her for $50. It's called Polka Melancolique. I don't know what the piece of music is, but there still is her notes on what the steps were. You know, made up herself: "high hat," "say hello," not Labanotation or something like that. Apparently, this so incensed Diaghilev that it was one of the reasons that she left after being there a little less than a year [sic].
     There are people who say that once George Balanchine came on the scene in America, it sort of wiped away almost everybody else. What do you think?
A: Of course, the impact of George Balanchine at the end of 1933, when he came here and formed the School of American Ballet, and from 1934 onward is when he was a performing power. There's no doubt that Balanchine completely changed the pattern and the line of American dance. Of course, people like Ruth, who came from a rather different tradition, a character tradition . . . she didn't have the sheer technical resources of Balanchine -- I mean technical resources choreographically about many things. They didn't know the steps in a way that Balanchine knew. They were very soon swept away by the sheer force of Balanchine, who was also extremely well-organized.
     When one thinks of Balanchine, one always has to think not just of Balanchine, but the force of Balanchine, which is very much the force of Balanchine plus Kirstein. Lincoln Kirstein played a vital part in all of this. Lincoln Kirstein wished to form American dance in the shape of Balanchine, and indeed he did. So, one must never forget the influence of Kirstein in this, and to someone like Kirstein, Ruth would have been anathema. She just wouldn't have . . . he just wouldn't have even considered her for a choreographer, I would imagine. [sic]
Q: Actually, there's this story that he did ask her to go along when they were doing . . . .
A: I think he did, but I suspect that that would have been financial. I mean, Lincoln always had a very strong regard for anyone with money and anyone prepared to put money into dance. Ruth was always prepared to put her money where her heart was, and her heart was always in dance. She was always prepared to back dance with her own or sometimes with Tom's money, and this is an important factor.
Q: By the way, you were saying that things are changing now. There are people who say that we're going to see a return to the romantic, classical, story ballets since the death of Balanchine or even before?
A: Are we going to see a return to the classical, romantic, story ballets? Well, of course, classical, romantic, story ballets have never died. Remember that Balanchine himself did them. I think that one of the important things of Balanchine was to establish a technique. And his plotless, neo-classical ballets were extraordinarily useful in formulating that style and technique, just the same as in Great Britain where the circumstances were very similar, where you had a classic tradition being evolved and planted. The neo-classical ballets of Frederick Ashton played much the same part.
     I think that ballet has a very wide spectrum, and there will always be room for all types of ballet, just the same as there is room for all types of opera or all types of plays. I think that, at any one time, some may be fashionable or unfashionable according to the mode and temperament of the moment, but I think this will always vary. We may be coming back to romanticism, but if we are coming back to it, we'll be going away from it in ten years' time. That's fashion.
Q: As you know, Ruth went through a number of different styles. She started off doing Americana ballets, then a period where she was doing jazz ballets, and then there was also in her life a very modern period where she was dancing with Harald Kreutzberg, and then the opera ballets. First of all, what effect do you think she had on American dance, and secondly, do you think that the fact that she worked in so many different styles lessened her effect?
A: I think the total effect on American dance of Ruth Page is not going to be particularly large. It was always unfortunate that she never -- despite I suppose, something like four decades of effort -- she never really succeeded in creating a ballet tradition in Chicago. There are certain reasons for that.
     I think that Claudia Cassidy, the critic, must play a part in that, because she was a very powerful critic and never provided a particularly helpful climate for local Chicago products. It's the same way that there wasn't much in the way of a local Chicago theater, or there wasn't much in the way of local Chicago . . . where even the Lyric Opera didn't exactly flourish. I think that not just Claudia, but the general critical attitude of Chicago which always took the line that, This can't be any good, otherwise, why is it happening in Chicago? The second city syndrome was always very tricky for Page. I think that affected her final effect. But I think in the kind of ultimate answer to the ultimate question of her effectiveness in American ballet, I think the answer must be that it won't be that much. Because although she employed a lot of dancers over a long period of time, I don't think her ballets themselves have much in the way of lasting. They haven't got what on Broadway is called "legs." I don't think they'll continue to run.
     I think this is unfortunate in many ways, because she had great talent as an organizer and as an inspirer. Perhaps, she would have had a bigger effect had she found a choreographer; had she been like a woman with whom she has a certain amount in common -- Ninette de Valois in England. Had she been able to find an Ashton; had she found a choreographer who she could have influenced and molded. Perhaps, if things would have worked out differently with Bentley Stone, that might have been a different answer.
     I don't think that she herself had the steps in her. She just didn't have the ability to turn a dance phrase that you would say, "My God, I'm going to remember this all of my life!" She didn't have that special smidgen, that essential smidgen of genius, that could have taken her from a dance arranger into a major creative choreographer of the twentieth century.
Q: So, then, what do you think of her contributions to dance?
A: I think her contributions to dance influence have been as a popularizer. She's done a great deal to popularize dance. Some of. . . particularly her operetta ballets, have been extremely popular. The long tours that she did with the Chicago Opera Ballet, often with guest stars, sometimes Danes, sometimes Ballet Russe people . . . . And she did a terrific amount of pioneering work going on one-night stands, on half-week engagements to places where they wouldn't have seen ballet. Together with Sergei Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which did much the same thing but on perhaps a slightly larger scale, still, she helped develop the great American audience for dance. The great American audience for dance that was (A) ready to send its children to dancing school, which is important, and (B) also it was ready for the big video dance explosion that was about to burst toward the end of the '60s, perhaps, to which she was still playing a small part.
     But, I think her importance was as a popularizer of dance and, also, she had a great effect in the Midwest. There wasn't all that amount of dance available in the Midwest. You can tell from the writings of someone like Ann Barzel, who knows that scene better than anyone else, of course. I think Ann's assessment would probably be something similar.
Q: Are there some personal memories of Ruth that you have? I know you've known her over the years.
A: I just find her kindness and generosity of spirit so . . . she's just such a very, very nice person. She's one of those few people in dance that I have never heard anyone say a bad word of. Certainly, a lot of people who don't like her choreography have written bad words about Ruth, certainly. A lot of people have written about her work and talked about her work, perhaps; but Ruth, as a person, she is adorable. She's generous with her time, with her energy, with her money, but most of all, with her personality and spirit. She makes you want to do things. She brightens days up.
     I used to love it when she would come to town, to New York, and she would see me and she'd say, "Come and have dinner," and we'd usually have dinner at the Plaza -- she used to stay at the Plaza -- and we'd have dinner in the Oak Room. She would talk incessantly, and it would all be gossip, and it would all be kind gossip, somehow. Now, what on earth is kind gossip? But Ruth always has been a past mistress of the "kind gossip" and always very, very fascinating.
     Her views on dance were always very, very perceptive -- not only perceptive but very generous. She wasn't one of these choreographers who never had a good word to say for any other choreographer, like Balanchine or someone like that. I don't think Balanchine ever saw any other choreographer . . . or, at least, he didn't like any other choreographer. This is true of most creative artists. Ruth had the mind, manner, and taste of a true connoisseur; she really knew quality. You could see that in the way she dressed and the way she always dressed perfectly for what she was. She always knew what fitted her, what suited her. She had a great taste in dancers, and she had great taste in almost everything she touched.
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New York (production location of)