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Frederic Franklin No. 05 [November 25, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0586
Run Time
0h 20m 14s
Date Produced
November 25 1985
Q: We were talking about Billy Sunday and the critics response to Billy Sunday. As I recall, the church really insisted that you make changes in the ballet -- the Wise and Foolish Virgins became the Wise and Foolish Maidens; the dance when Delilah betrays Samson had to be changed, the Ku Klux Klan couldn't have crosses on their outfits [sheets] anymore.
A: That all happened. And then, you see when it was . . . the Ku Klux Klan didn't mean too much to us. Ruth had gone into all of this . . . knowing everything . . . and it was all shock value. She was very upset when all this took place, of course. But now, when I remember the performing of this ballet, the reactions were so very different wherever we went. You know, going to some of these "Bible Belt" towns, they weren't very partial to us doing this. They didn't think it was quite right. . . that there was bad speaking . . . or this baseball language. . . and then all that went on with the Wise and Foolish Virgins . . . and the strange costumes. And of course, Delilah was something else when she cut all the hair off. I mean . . . they were wonderful ideas.
     But then in all of Ruth's ballets . . . the more one sees today, the more one realizes the wonderful ideas -- theatrical, working ideas -- that were in her works. Those were really, in a way, taken for granted in those days, because we didn't have what we have now -- what they call the neo-classic ballets . . . . We were doing story ballets, a lot of them, then. So now, when Ruth's things are revived, you see the great wealth of whatever was in them. You see it now. So people who see the revival love Billy Sunday. People are amazed at the thought . . . at what had gone into it . . . what the ballet comprised . . . what it was about . . . and about this man [Billy Sunday], and that Ruth had found in his parables . . . things that could be put into a ballet. Marvelously so.
     Of course, because of the old score . . . we had a terrible difficulty with the music . . .
Q: This was when you revived it . . . ?
A: No. When we did it the first time, it was not right. And she was unhappy with it, and there was nothing we could do about it. So when this was all started again, the first thing: "Ruth," I said, "Music!" She said, "Absolutely. Absolutely." And we went from there. We had to start again from scratch, you know. But she asked me what I thought. I said, "Well, it's what we have to do to revive it. I can't do it." I just couldn't. "But," I said, "you know, I'll be directing and rehearsing and carrying on with it all." . . . Have you heard the score? For this?
Q: Yes.
A: It's wonderful. It's so right what Cannon DeLeone did, and it works absolutely. It works very well. The whole new ballet had a feeling . . . we could be in one of his funny churches. You know the place where he first started is right opposite the theatre in Cincinnati [sic]. Did you know that? It was pulled down. Where Billy Sunday started, is right opposite the theatre where we gave this Billy Sunday revival. It's gone. But it was right opposite the theatre. And it was there.
Q: What was the first score like?
A: Very -- what can I say? -- umm, reminiscent of a few of our well-known composers like Stravinsky and Hindemith and name them! Oh dear, she never liked it. She never liked it at all. But we were stuck with it, and we had to do it. Remi Gassmann was the man.
Q: Right.
A: But then you know, there was only one condition. She said, "I'll only do it with new music." And she worked very closely with Carmon, and she was very delighted because we had old hymns, which would have gone along with what I [Billy Sunday] was saying, you know. And we had a very good boy to do it, Michael Sharp. Very good, indeed. The characters were good. We had girls that looked right. Kim [Smiley] was lovely as Bathsheba, with all her hair going over . . . . And we dressed differently. You know the costumes were done things with -- the Foolish Virgins and the Wise Virgins; [the costume for] Bathsheba was new, which was much better. Of course, dear Ruth wanted it danced without anything on, and I said, "Well, we would just be locked up, so we can't do it that way!" And the devils were much better this time. It worked. It worked. The old ballet, but it worked. It got over, and they liked it. And I did a rip-roaring finale. Ruth said, "You're going to have to do the finale." And I said, "Well what have you got?" Well, we had a real jazz theme of its time . . . and I had them doing all the Broadway stuff that I'd remembered from the old days. It really worked very well. Ruth was very pleased when she saw it. Very pleased.
Q: Would you say that something like that is a revival of Billy Sunday? [BREAK IN TAPE] Okay. I was starting to ask you, the revival of Billy Sunday -- would you call it really a "revival" because it was so changed?
A: Yes. Well, in a way, no, you're right. No it wasn't a "revival" because of the new music, it all looked different. Now, what we had tried to do from the film . . . that again what we had . . . was try to copy some of the movements -- and that was a horrendous job. And I had many conversations with Ruth about this. And she would say, "Darling, that doesn't really go, try and do something with it and make it an idea of what the step was." We were very fortunate. We got a lot of the original down. But there were some things that with the new [music] it would not have worked. She came to rehearsal, and I said, "Ruth -- very calm dear. This is the first time you're seeing it. Don't go off the handle, flying!" She said, "You know, it's all right. It's so near the original. It's so near what we had." And she had the music, and it went, and we. . . . I made it fit; put it all together so it did link and it did have sense. And the major part of the choreography was all there; the major part, which was the little incidental things about an entrance. And, of course, entrances and exits had to be different. The set was so different from what we had. Beautiful set, with a big cross in the back that lit up over the top and the pulpits were all different. It really was. It's there. We're going to revive it, you know.
Q: This production was the production done for television?
A: Yes. This was done for television, of course, then went into the rep of the Cincinnati Ballet where it is still, and will be.
Q: What was it about Billy Sunday, Freddie, that made you want to do that ballet rather than another one of Ruth's?
A: Well, first of all, when you look at the company [Cincinnati Ballet], I knew we had a Billy. The first thing she said, "Do you have a Billy?" And I said, "Yes, we do." The company is young. I knew the way they would attack. I knew . . . when they saw the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the film, they were on the floor; they couldn't wait. Those girls beat each other to get the parts. You know there was an enthusiasm right there that I knew would happen with a ballet of this kind of Ruth's. The boys had good stuff always . . . with the devils and things. There was the "Come to Glory" at the end. It was timely for them to have done it, and I felt that they could. And they came and they did.
Q: Now do you think that we're seeing -- you began to mention this, talking about his -- do you think we're seeing things going in a slightly different direction now away from the neo-classic ballets? [BREAK IN TAPE] I started to ask, do you think that there's going to be a change? I mean Balanchine has been so much at the forefront, such an influence on what ballet in America has been for -- what -- the last fifteen years, twenty years?
A: More. More even.
Q: Do you see a change?
A: Yes I do. And it's, if the change is going to come about, it's going to have to start in this city [New York] because of it being what it is. Now, I have just been to the Béjart Company. They are presenting stories, of course, which is his bent. Audiences are going. They are not, funnily enough -- well not at all funny enough, they're not what we call "ballet audiences"; they are theatre people. They're going in there and, you know, I've been there two or three times . . . that this is a ballet audience . . . of the future. Sounds silly.
Q: No, not at all.
A: But what is happening now, it's you go to the City Center [sic: Lincoln Center], you know, and those glorious ballets, they are seen by a cult audience. They have become a cult audience that go there specifically for one reason -- to see the ballets that company gives: Balanchine, in particular; Robbins, now and again; Martins, maybe. Their whole viewpoint is geared to that one thing; that one aspect of dancing on the stage. That you'll have phenomenal music, whether you like it or whether you don't, and on the stage, you'll see this kind of ballet movement that Balanchine made his ballet.
     Now, a sidelight of this: I took Danilova to the ballet the other night, to Béjart. We were sitting and she said, "You know, Freditchka, I'm sick and tired of seeing ballets in leotards and the tights." I said, "Choura, but that's where you live!" She said, "I know, but," she said, "now we must have more theatre on the stage." Well now, if that's in her mind, theatre, and it's always been in my mind . . . . I'm not a neo-classicist myself, you know, seeing it all. But we are going back, and I think it's time that we did. And I think it's time if only the audiences will, and they will eventually realize.
     That's why, as I said before -- it's time for Ruth's ballets. Now you're going to do Fledermaus. You already did Merry Widow. We've done Frankie and Johnny, and we've done Billy Sunday. Why not these ballets? And it's the same, will be the same kind of performance and the same kind of value that the Cincinnati Ballet will have. That it will not only do one kind of ballet . . . . We've brought in -- we always have a Balanchine -- but we've brought in La Sylphide, we've brought in Giselle, we've brought in this, we've brought in that. We brought in Billy. And that's the way I think ballet companies should be run.
Q: But don't you think the ballet press is going to have to be re-educated in this city?
A: Well, now that's it; you've hit upon it. Yes, indeed. Now we've just been inundated with a lady by the name of Pina Bausch, who has come up with something most extraordinary, and the critics are up in arms. One writes one thing, and the other likes the other. They're all . . . but it's nonsense. Some of them say absolute nonsense: "So what's she doing here?" And others, I won't mention who, rave; see wonderful insights, see thoughts. And I would go, and I might last 'til the intermission, and I'd be out. But I can't, I can't get along with that. But in the meantime, I think it's very healthy for people like Béjart to come. Now Ivan Nagy is bringing the ballet [National Ballet of Chile]. He also, like we all are, he's not going to bring a lot of sort of abstract work. He's going to bring, you know, meat and vegetables. And I think that more and more you'll see companies going this way.
     I think eventually that's what's going to have to happen with the Balanchine company, as we still call it, because nobody can do what Mr. Balanchine did. Nobody can do that anymore. They cannot take a magnificent piece of music and make it so that the audience will think it's marvelous. There isn't anybody that can do that. So they're going to have to change their tactic. But you know that the thing is . . . the dancers are going to have to be re-educated, apart from anybody else, because they're going to have to get used to dancing other ways, not in only one style. And that's what's happening down there. People like gorgeous dancers like Suzanne Farrell and lovely Peter Martins and all those lovely people that they have . . . you couldn't put them into Swan Lake. If you did, you'd have to train them. They'd have to go into serious training for two or three years to do a ballet like Giselle or to do a ballet like Swan Lake, even if they wished, and half the time they don't, because they're so indoctrinated in the one aspect, and that was Mr. Balanchine's idea. Like the famous lines, "Don't bother about the expression, just do the steps." And there you are. But I think it's changing, and I hope it is.
Q: It's true. To what degree would you say, Freddie, do you think Ruth's contributions to American choreography are under-appreciated?
A: Well, you know . . . .
Q: Where would you place her?
A: Well, let's put it this way. She's one of the important ladies. She . . . like the early days . . . . she, Agnes [de Mille], Hanya Holm, all those people. Oh my goodness yes, indeed. Unlike, well, not with Agnes, but like Hanya Holm or Doris Humphrey, remember, they only worked on one aspect of dancing.
     Now Ruth was classically trained but also had the facilities to do other things and also had the mind to go with it, which is a big, big plus. So that she was not hidebound by any kind of "modem" so-called dance. She could perform it, she could do it; she would bring it into her productions. But she was a theatrical lady more than those ladies.
     Now Agnes came along, and Agnes was a theatrical lady, and Agnes grew; she grew with the choreography, she grew, she did the ballet, she grew. Ruth was already there. Ruth was a better dancer than Agnes . . . which shows and has always been that way with her. So that with Ruth Page, when she came, she came into the ballet for an outlet, because her works would fit, whereas some of the other stuff the other people did would not have fitted in. But remember, it was also a difficult time, a difficult time of putting on or getting ballets like this. As I said, we were surrounded by them.
     Now if we'd had a bit more of Mr. Balanchine at that time, they, all those ballets, Agnes's [Ruth's?], they would have been thought of as being very different from what they were thought of then. But still you look at them, you see them, we all knew what they were, we all waited for Ruth to come and do those ballets. Well, she was a renowned lady -- still is, of course. But she was, she is a renowned choreographer, and really as somebody called her, an "American treasure" or something, but she is and we've always thought of her like this. I couldn't, you see, I couldn't have gone to management, could I, and said, "Look, we're going to do a Ruth Page ballet." They'd have gone, "Who's that?" They'd say right away, "What do we do? Frankie? Marvelous." When I said to David McLain and David Blackburn, the artistic directors in Cincinnati, I said, "You know, we could do Frankie and Johnny here." They said, "What?" I said, "Ooooh, very good for your company and very good for your dancers." They said, "Do you think so?" I said, "I know so." Of course, Cynthia Ann Roses was there. Cynthia Ann was a natural. So in comes Ruth and they were delighted. Delighted!
Q: Do you think that if Ruth had lived in New York her work would have been different?
A: Yes.
Q: In what way?
A: Well, first of all as I said, we've always said, Ruth . . . it's a strange thing -- a parallel, if you would, if you can say that. . . there is a parallel, of Ruth's career and my career. She wasn't a hothouse ballet dancer, no more than I was. I was brought up in the theatre, as I have explained before. So was she. She'd have been, if she had been here -- she already danced in the reviews at the Music Box -- she'd already have been more called upon, rather called upon to do more Broadway shows, as well as doing her own stuff. And she told me, you know, she said, "There's only [one] thing Tom and I didn't agree about, and that was when I asked him if we could go live in New York and he said, 'No, we have to live here.'" And I don't think she ever quite forgave him for that. But she often has said to me, "Oh I wish I had lived in New York!" Her life would have been very different.
     And yet, when you think that she in Chicago is an absolute landmark there, with what she did not only for the ballet, but for the opera. I mean, you know one can't be "Ah, but. . ." about this. You can't be like that. It's happening. I'm one of those fatalistic people. I believe it all happens for the best, and I believe everything's right, and it's all going that way. The bad things happen to you as well as the good things. I believe in that very, very strongly. That's carried me through a lot of things. And my career, lots of people said [they believed in me]. Billy Sunday came along, she [Ruth] believed in me -- Frankie [Billy], with a midwestem accent, preaching from a pulpit -- she knew I could do it. No one thought I could do Stanley [in] Streetcar [Named Desire] -- it was one of the best things I ever did in my career. But Valerie Bettis did. I've had such trust and faith in these people, and I've worked 'til I've dropped, and, you know, [I've] come out right, knowing that they've put the trust in me.
Q: Proved them right . . . .
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New York (production location of)