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Anne Kisselgoff No. 01 [April 15, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0614
Run Time
0h 21m 10s
Date Produced
April 15 1987
Q: Tell me about the first time you met Ruth Page.
A: I think I've always met Ruth Page at some intermission. That's one of the things I like about her is that she is still interested. It was usually in New York, but it was also in Denmark. In 1979, all of the critics in the world seemed to converge on Copenhagen for the Bournonville Festival celebrating the 100th anniversary of the great Danish choreographer, August Bournonville, and Ruth was there. I've always met her in a lobby or at an intermission because I think she continues to be interested. I've seen her in Chicago as well.
Q: Before you met her, you must have heard some things about her personally and possibly about her work and her place in American dance. To what degree did she sort of live up to the expectations you had?
A: Ruth Page is a historical figure. In a way, because she did live in Chicago, although certainly her work has been seen internationally, especially in Europe, Ruth Page is a name that you hear about and much talked about, but her work isn't always seen. Therefore, you always wonder what is it that she really did, if you didn't belong to her generation. What you really realize about Ruth Page is that she was very much a dance pioneer and an American pioneer.
     When you read up on the early activities in the '20s and '30s, she was very much ahead of her time, knew where the artistic currents were going, and, in fact, had been invited, I think, several times by other people who were trying to start ballet companies in America. The interesting thing is that when you look back at what other people did, she was there first. She worked with Isamu Noguchi before Martha Graham did. Martha Graham's very interesting and crucial solo, Lamentation, is performed in a costume which is very similar to the one Noguchi designed for Ruth Page at the same time. Also, Lincoln Kirstein certainly, if not George Balanchine, founded what was a precursor to the New York City Ballet at a time when they were thinking about inviting Ruth Page in to participate at some point.
     Also, it shouldn't be forgotten that before anybody even heard of Balanchine, Ruth Page was in Europe and had commissioned -- in the sense that you can commission Balanchine to do anything -- she "asked" him to choreograph something for her. Unlike many people who lived in this dance wasteland which really was the United States in the '20s, through her own interests and encouragement her parents gave her, I think she was aware of what dance in America could be.
Q: In what ways do you think that she is different personally, and in her career path, from other American dance pioneers?
A: Ruth Page chose to stay in what I suppose we should call the Midwest. I don't really know how personal a decision that was, but as a result and because New York became the center of dance activity, which is not surprising, her work was not as familiar to anyone. On the other hand, I feel that she was working along the currents that other people were, but in her own way.
     I'm really struck by the fact that in the '30s she did two ballets that today sound very modern. One was Hear Ye! Hear Ye! with a commissioned score by Aaron Copland. I think perhaps she was very much the first choreographer to commission Copland to do a dance for her, and of course, it was later that he did Billy the Kid and that he did Appalachian Spring for Martha Graham. What she did at that time was the kind of thing that you'd say that you don't deal with that kind of theme in American ballet or ballet in general, which was that she staged a courtroom drama.
     Another ballet that I, of course, haven't seen but have heard about was called American Pattern, which is very feminist in tone in which an American housewife rebels. It's a ballet in which an American housewife rebels against being a housewife. In a way, it was very much in tune with the social currents of that time in the '20s and particularly the '30s, where you had Sinclair Lewis writing about Babbitt: the idea that American midwestern life was very provincial and narrow and was full of conformity. Here was Ruth Page, in the middle of the Midwest, saying that women shouldn't be housewives. The point about Ruth Page is that she was a non-conformist.
Q: Is there anything in the ballets of hers that you've seen that has a non-conformist kind of quality, or maybe you could talk in general about the ballets that you have seen and the qualities that you see in them?
A: Two of the ballets that certainly still stand out and are revived occasionally are Frankie and Johnny and Billy Sunday and of course, some the ballets that she made on opera librettos. In other words, she would take the plot of an opera and redo it. Those are the ones that people tend to revive because they're entertaining. Some people say that there's not much substance in that.
     I don't think that she was after high drama in most of those ballets, and she was out to entertain. After all, the words are missing in these opera ballets, and they are not a substitute for the opera, and I think that she knew that. What was interesting was that she would give a twist, her own interpretation, to these opera scenarios. In her own way, she was ahead of what a lot of opera directors are now doing. In fact, a lot of opera directors are criticized for taking Carmen and updating it and putting it in, say, the Spanish Civil War period, which was recently done in New York. That's exactly what she did. She took Carmen and put it in the context of the Spanish Civil War, and this has been done in opera only forty years later. It's been done so much later. Ruth Page did take opera scenarios and update them, and opera directors are now doing that.
     I think that Frankie and Johnny is one of the best ballets of its genre. It has to have that special funky period of the '40s, and that's very hard for dancers today to transmit, but when it comes across, I think it works very well. It's extremely funny and it's also poignant, and she co-choreographed that with Bentley Stone. The flavor is what counts, but the structure is there, and the whole idea of taking a well-known ballad and then using it to show sort of American lowlife was also an original idea, I think.
Q: To what extent do you think her work has been an influence on American dance?
A: Ruth Page is rather an eclectic figure in American dance. She studied ballet and that was her background. She is a classical dancer. However, she chose at some point, when she became Harald Kreutzberg's partner, to be a modern dancer. If you want to say again, she might have been ahead of her time in that she fused modern dance and ballet in her own performances. She did it her own special way, and that is being done today in a different way. When you are an eclectic figure and you really don't necessarily make clear what vocabulary you want, you don't always tend to influence choreography.
     What her legacy is, is really in the terms of ideas and in terms of what she chose to express through her ballets. I don't think she left some sort of specific choreographic style, but I think that she opened up a lot of doors, and she told people out there in the audience that dance didn't have to be one thing. I think she chose a variety of themes. Deep down, I think she remained a ballet choreographer.
Q: Her company . . . at one point, she had a company for seventeen years that toured the United States. The length of its tour was second only to that of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo that was always on tour, practically, it seemed like. They were dancing in places like Beeville, Texas, and Leadville, Oklahoma [Colorado] where the last company that had been there -- they would find posters -- was Pavlova. Looking at sort of all of America rather than what the dance establishment . . . what kind of effect do you think that had, if any, on bringing dance to a wide audience of America before the days of television that never would have seen it?
A: Ruth Page herself was never a provincial figure, but she came from a background of wealth that allowed her to go to South America and Europe when she was still a teenager. So she had seen the world and the art in that world, and I think, what she realized was that a lot of people didn't have the opportunity to do that. There was no question that building up the audience in America owes a debt . . . people who now attend dance in America to some extent owe a debt to companies like the Ruth Page Ballet which toured the United States and showed them what dance could be, and also built up an audience.
     Of course, Ruth Page was not the only one who did that. One of the companies that toured most was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It was at that time as well that, I think, her company toured. Her company, if you want to put it that way, was more American. It showed another side of the coin, and that was very useful.
Q: She also did some touring in Europe. Frankie and Johnny scandalized Paris in 1950, a big cause célèbre. and some performances in New York. Basically, her reputation was sort of, as you said before, internationally based. Is that unusual?
A: As I said, Ruth Page is not a provincial figure. She always turned to painters who were maybe not internationally known but had international experience, and some of them were internationally known; and the composers were on that level. And actually, she was one of the first to commission certain American composers, and was right to do so. Her sights were never to be just a choreographer who was known to the small community. I think that she always thought big. I think one of the problems was the funding sources at that time were not what they are now.
Q: When you think about Ruth Page, is there one thing or a couple of things where you say to yourself, I wish that this had been true rather than that?
A: Well, in a way, I wish that Ruth's company had kept on going because, today, I think, certain of her ballets from what I have seen and heard would be much more successful. I do think she was ahead of her time in many cases. People didn't quite understand everything she was doing, and her ideas did seep into the dance world through some form of osmosis. Therefore, what was then considered unusual is now taken for granted. As I said, whenever I see Frankie and Johnny, I really do think that had she had her own company and had her company kept going, then there would be this repertoire of Page ballets and we would be able to appreciate them.
     On the other hand, there's no question -- this is true of any choreographer -- some works don't stand the test of time, and that's the risk that her company would have taken. In a way, and as I said, I wish perhaps she had been a little stronger in the kind of choreographic language that she wished to use. Because when you see a Page ballet, the few that are still given, you're not quite sure of what really marks her choreographic style. You see the ideas, you see the structure, you see the ingeniousness and the originality of it, but what is the way that she really wants to use a language in dance? That's not entirely clear.
Q: Where would you rank her if you had to make a rank? Where is her place in the history of American dance? Where does she stand?
A: Ruth Page is definitely one of the pioneers of American dance: (A) she started a company before everyone else did, and (B) she did certain things that are now taken for granted.
Q: When you think of her, what kinds of qualities in her personality do you think might have affected her work in some way?
A: I haven't seen enough of her work really to answer that. I do want to say that Ruth Page is what you would call an American original. As a person, she's extremely vivacious. If you think it's strange to see a woman in the eighties lift her leg up on the table in the living room to show that she can still do her ballet barre work, you might think that's strange, but she doesn't. She always seems to have a sense of humor, and I also think she's an extremely democratic person, which is unusual in ballet. It's less so in modern dance. How that affects her work directly isn't really clear. You don't necessarily see it in the work, but you just see that this is somebody that enjoyed her life and dance.
Q: You say democratic. What do you mean by democratic?
A: A lot of ballet directors want to be called "Mr." Joffrey and "Mr." Balanchine. They're not called Martha like Martha Graham. I've always heard Ruth Page described as Ruth. I've never heard her described as "Miss" Page. Also, I suspect that there wasn't a huge distance between herself and her dancers.
Q: You mentioned something once before that's been kind of a source of problems to me and that's kind of bothered me. Where is . . . in this dance world, is there a notion that Ruth Page came from a very rich family? That she had a very rich husband and that, by and large, she could just sort of support her activities out of family money? She went to South America on a tour with Pavlova when she was eighteen. She went to Japan to dance at the coronation of Emperor Hirohito in 1927 . . . that's a long time ago, but she was invited to dance. Her family was . . . her father was a doctor; her family was what was in those days considered sort of fancy middle-class. Her husband made a great deal of money from one major law suit that he won in 1955 [sic]. Before that -- and that was truly an awesome amount of money, as I understand it -- however, before that, he worked as a lawyer and was a strange sort of man. Did you ever meet Tom Fisher, by the way?
A: No.
Q: He was a strange sort of man and was sort of, so you've heard, sort of totally focused on this one big case. Do you think that there's a certain amount of prejudice against Ruth because of this notion that she was a rich, Rebekah Harkness person? I know it's different for Harkness . . . .
A: There is the idea that American ballet more than American modern dance has, to some extent, grown out of the fact that certain women who inherited wealth or married into wealth, such as Lucia Chase, Ruth Page, Rebekah Harkness, tended to use that wealth to set up companies that were vanity companies for themselves. The test of time, of course, deals with that. What you can do with that wealth is, of course, to try and educate yourself and then hire the people who will do the work for you. The problem is that do you use that company as a showcase for yourself? There's no question that Ruth Page did use it as a showcase for her choreography and her dancing. However, what she produced is what matters, and the thing there is that the ballets that exist beyond her company are still being produced.
     I have to really look at it in terms of what the situation was when Lucia Chase joined Mordkin's Ballet. There were no permanent ballet companies in America. In fact, Ruth Page was trying to set one up at that time, actually before Ballet Theatre got going. The thing is that who else was going to do it? This was not exactly a dance-conscious country. The puritan heritage in this country is very, very strong. And to this day, I really defy anybody who can find a father who wants all of his sons to be ballet dancers.
     Who was it that was interested in ballet? Maybe you could say they were dilettantes, but at least, they were interested dilettantes. And it took money to set things up. Later on, you got the civic fathers to set up companies. Now, you have the Cleveland Ballet and the Dallas Ballet. I mean cities are attached to names. That wasn't true in the old days. You really had to have a creative figure or a wealthy patron to do that, and Ruth Page tried to be both a creative figure and a wealthy patron. I think that among all of the other women in ballet . . . .
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New York (production location of)