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Kenneth Johnson No. 03 [April 3, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0589
Run Time
0h 20m 12s
Date Produced
April 3 1987
Q: When was the first time you met Ruth Page?
A: The first time I met Ruth Page, I was in Chicago doing a pageant called Wheels A Rollin', and our conductor had worked with Ruth Page and was also her arranger. He introduced me to Ruth Page because she was doing a ballet version of The Merry Widow. I had just done The Merry Widow in Cleveland and knew the story and what we did in the dances. So, I started to work for Ruth right away and became her assistant almost immediately.
     A funny story about this is: at one of the first rehearsals, Ruth was explaining to me how she wanted this pas de deux done. We were Danilo and the Merry Widow. She said, "Darling, I want it to look like ballroom dancers. You have to be smooth, like ballroom dancers -- like Volez and Yolanda. Like ballroom dancers, darling. You've got it?" she said. "Now, let's do it." We did the first step and waltzed down, we did this and finished it. Ruth saw it and said,
"Darling, you're too much like ballroom dancers. I want you to be like ballroom dancers, but you're too much like ballroom dancers." I said, "Ruth, what do you want?" She said, "Well, you should be like ballroom dancers."
     Gradually, through understanding Ruth, I knew what she meant. She wanted the quality, but ballet in feeling. We went on from there, and I learned all of the parts. I was very adept at doing lifts, and Ruth adored lifts and that. One day we were working on the "Vilia" pas de deux and our pianist, Neal Kayan, who was also our conductor at the time, was at the piano. Ruth thought for a while and stood on the bench and said, "Ken, lift me." I said, "All right, Ruth. I'll take you by the hips and lift you off the bench." I picked her up, and she arched her back, put her feet together and said, "Neal, what do I look like?" He said, "Ruth, you look like a frog." She stopped and said, "All right." She thought for a while and said, "Ken, lift me." So, I lifted her. She bent one leg and straightened the other one and said, "Neal, what do I look like?" He looked and said, "You look like a frog with one leg straight."
     So that was what our rehearsals were like. Another time, we were on the beach, and she laid over my leg. She said, "I'm going to bend back." I had her hand, and she said, "Darling, let go of my hand." I said, "No, Ruth." She said, "No, let go . . . let go, darling." I let go and she fell on her head. We had a lot of fun, if we lived through it.
     Another funny story was that I had to do Popoff. She was setting that part. It was a comedy part, a peek-a-boo into the summer house. His wife is in there with her lover, and he is peeking and thinks it's a couple and he is going to see something. So, it's a peek-a-boo where he looks and goes, "Wow." He looks again and then dances around and sneaks back and forth. It really was not my cup of tea, but I did it. Ruth sat there and laughed and laughed and laughed. She said, "Darling, you were so funny." I felt great, and she said, "Do it again." I said, "No, Ruth. I don't want to do it again." She said, "Do it again." And I said, "All right." So I did it again. She sat there and said, "On second thought, you're not very funny at all."
     So that was my first introduction with Ruth. I think a regular person would have walked out. They would have been insulted. But with her, it was wonderful.
Q: What had you heard about her before you met her? What were you expecting?
A: I think what I really heard about her was that she was very zany, a very nice woman and everything, but you almost couldn't take her seriously. If you didn't know her and to really get to know her -- in that her outward appearance gave you the fact that she was just flighty, that she couldn't be serious, and she was. Even if she was serious, she put on sort of a "pseudo" approach to it to the average person, but when you knew Ruth, it was wonderful. With Ruth and I, it was a love affair from the beginning. It really was a love affair. One time, I was dancing somewhere, and she came to see me and said, "That face. That face. If only I had met you 20 years earlier." I thought, "What is this woman saying to me?" Then I realized that I was a good partner, and when we danced together, she loved it. We had a real close relationship.
Q: You partnered Ruth?
A: Yes, it was at Ravinia in Chicago. We did Living Pictures for Helen Garritty. Our picture was "Klee," and it showed a sailor with this girl pulling on him, and he's looking at these bathing beauties on the beach, and we came to life. They did a wonderful thing to "My Man." The music was "My Man" in that, and Ruth danced with me, and this bathing beauty who was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous -- it was [like] the White Rain girl commercials at that time -- Audrey Johnson, she walked across in a bathing suit. As a sailor, I turned and looked at her, and Ruth was clutching me like a French dancer. We finished the piece, and Helen Garritty, who was an older woman, said, "Ruth, they will never believe this. Why would he go off with that young girl when he could have you?" Ruth said, "Oh, that's true, darling, but we have to use our imagination." It was just wonderful.
Q: I should explain to you that the reason we're not laughing out loud is that it will be confusing because it would be like . . . where are all those laughs coming from? You should laugh and it sounds great . . . . You had seen Ruth dance before. Nobody has done a very good job in describing what made her special as a dancer.
A: Well, I think Ruth Page was special as a dancer because she believed in what she was doing. She could take mediocre material and bring it to life because she believed in it. She was excellent in comedy and was also very good with Beethoven, [Sonata] is what I saw her in. She did it with Bentley Stone and was very intense and dramatic in what she did in that. She had some technical difficulties at that age, at the time that I had seen her, but what she did was really phenomenal. It came across the footlights. She was an artist. You couldn't miss it. You believed it. You believed that the two of them were in love, even though it was a classical piece. She just had charisma across the lights.
Q: Was she very dramatic?
A: Extremely. She did Azucena in Revenge, which is Il Trovatore. She had lost her baby; you know it was just crazy. She did this mad scene that was unbelievable. She'd beat on people, and you knew she meant it, and she probably did. She probably would have liked to have killed several of us. She really could pull it off.
     I would have liked to have seen more. I saw videos of her doing Frankie and Johnny and it's the same thing. One girl here in Pittsburgh really is almost like an imitation of Ruth, and it was the closest to what you felt Ruth did, and it really worked. Otherwise, some of the ballets, anyone's ballets, if you have lesser people in them, they don't come alive. The ballets don't carry them. Whereas Ruth's things could make you. They could make stars, and they did out of all of us. Her work was very believable, and she loved doing it. This rubbed off. That's why Patty Klekovic and I worked very well with Ruth, and we would never stop. We would take class and then would go to Ruth's studio and work straight through, say from one to six. We might have a little lunch or something and go back to it. We really worked for Ruth. Somebody else would say, "It's cocktail time," or it's this or it's that. We'd always stay a little extra or something because we believed in it. Any fights we had -- which were numerous -- were always about the ballet. We had an interpretation this way; she had it that way, and together, we would somehow get it to come out all right.
     In fact one time, it was interesting. I was doing a ballet, Carmen, and we were at the Eighth Street Theatre. It was time for the ending, which was my solo where I am pleading with Carmen, and they had this mantilla on Carmen. It was the first time that I had done the solo, and Ruth is saying, "Wait a minute. You're taking the mantilla off wrong." I thought, "What is she doing?" There were two corps de ballet girls, and she said, "Well, maybe you should use your fingers this way. Maybe you should do this." I'm going, "Who's going to see that? Take the mantilla off. It's my solo." She said, "Wait a minute, I'm not so sure, darling." She spent so much time with them, and, finally, I had to fight with her on the stage, and she said, "You're fired. That's it. You're fired." I said, "Fine," and I went home and thought about it. Then I called her up and said that I was sorry, and she said this and that, and the next day it was fine; it was like it never happened. The fights that we had were always about the ballet.
Q: Did you often quit?
A: No, that was the only time. I didn't really quit; it was mutual, like -- if you're going to cause all of this trouble, you know -- but it was good trouble.
Q: You and Patty had a wonderfully productive, creative partnership, it seems like. Tell me a little bit about what it was in your partnership that made it special.
A: Patty was special to me as a partner because when you're on stage, Patty and I loved each other. We really did; it was a marriage on stage. This, I'm sure, conveyed itself to the audience, because people used to cry when we would do Romeo and Juliet, and they would come back. Mr. Petrov, from the college here, he cried. Even in summer stock, when we would do certain pas de deux, we did Merry Widow in stock and did a special pas de deux in it, and Patrice Munsel cried for 15 minutes, and she said, "I'm so glad I'm nowhere near you two when you do this. I wouldn't be able to sing."
     We were extremely lyrical, and when we danced, it came out. So, if we did Camille or comedy or something like that, we always had a twinkle in our eye, and it was always the two of us. It was a wonderful relationship. I mean she was a beautiful girl and she had beautiful extensions, but it was lyrical. And Patty was the kind of a ballerina that all the ballerinas loved. Maria Tallchief loved her . . . they all loved Patty because there was no competition as such because Patty was such an individual and such a wonderful woman, really just a girl at that time.
     The way we started was interesting because Patty was in the corps, with Orrin, naturally, and I was a principal by then. I was the second dancer, and Ruth said, "Darling, there are three girls I would like to do Merry Widow with, but they can only do it if you rehearse it on your own time and you dance it. I was doing all of these parts with Marjorie Tallchief or Mia Slavenska or whoever was the guest at that time. So, I was doing a double load but said, "Oh, all right." So, I spent each time with each one, and Patty, in a way, came out the best. And in our relationship after that she started doing parts and gradually filled in, and we became a team. In the summertime, we would come to Pittsburgh and dance in the civic light operas, or we would go different places and that. It was really a wonderful relationship, and she was very easy to partner. She was a tall girl, but her proportions were so that she could sit on your one hand, which we did do and always got the reviews for it, and it was wonderful. It was a family; we were Ruth's children. She nurtured us and we grew through her.
     Another funny story is that I was doing Manrico, which was a gypsy, and far from a Norwegian. So, I didn't know what to do, and Oleg Briansky used to camp; everything was like "tsah, tsah" and we would laugh. I would say, "What is he doing out there? Oh, my God, that's terrible." But he was wonderful in the role. He wore an earring in one ear, before it was popular and all of that. One day, I was doing the performance and I finished. Ruth said, "Darling, when you're on stage, frown once in a while." I said, "Where, Ruth? Where do you want me to frown?" "Oh, I don't know. Just go out and frown once in a while." So, I'd do couple of steps and frown, come back, and she said, "Oh, that was much better, dear."
     So, we were in New York and had to play the Broadway Theatre and this was an important time. I was not doing it well. I danced it well and all that, but was not doing it well. Finally, I got so mad at Ruth. She kept saying, "It's awful, darling," and all this and that. So, I went on and pretended that I was Oleg Briansky. I went "tsah, tsah." I finished and everybody applauded. Ruth said, "Darling, that's it." I said, I can't do that every time, because it was against my nature. I was "camping" it. But I learned from that and started doing it, and it became second nature. I put my own interpretation on it, but that's how I got to do it.
Q: You were the most important male dancer in her company. How did she work to get you into a role? How did she coach you in a role? Start from the beginning. What would it be like when she'd do a ballet, create on you? What was the process like?
A: Well, Ruth would start a ballet with me, and she would have a few steps, and we would learn the steps, sometimes very unusual. I mean you'd be doing things and suddenly be doing arms like this. Or she'd say, "Do the ghoul walk," or she had names for different things, or "everybody in China walks this way." And you'd think, you can't walk that way in China. Your feet would be gnarled. We'd laugh and try to figure out what she wanted.
     She would gradually do this, and then I would suggest things. I'd say, "Ruth, what about a turn here?" She'd say, "Let me see it." We would do this, and then she would say to try it this way or add this to it. I'd say, "What about this lift?" Or, she'd ask for a lift, and I'd say, "Do you want a high one or a low one." I would think about it and then do something, and she would correct Patty a little bit. That's why with Ruth and I, you never really knew where she stopped in our pas de deux and things and where I went further, because I was maybe like a dance doctor. I would take things and say they weren't quite right. I'd think about it and try it this way and subtly put things in. You didn't know what I did and what Ruth did, but between us, it was a love affair. We created something I believed in, and I loved to dance. I don't think that with Ruth there was any role I didn't enjoy dancing.
Q: Do you have a favorite role?
A: As a favorite role, I don't know, because I enjoyed Merry Widow. I enjoyed Danilo, but after you tour for 17 weeks of one-night stands, especially for a couple of years . . . . She did Carmen, and I didn't get a chance to do it because she brought in Johnny Kriza to do it. I had to dance with Melissa Hayden, and she wouldn't dance with anybody else but me once she found me. So, I had to dance with Melissa.
     One year, Melissa wasn't coming, and I said, "Fine. Ruth, I can do Carmen." She said, "Yes, darling, you can do Carmen." So, I had to do Carmen, and she brought in Maria Tallchief for a week, and I danced Camille with her, which was wonderful. There were wonderful opportunities to dance with these people; it was fantastic. Anyway, at the end of that week, Ruth said, "Darling, I have a surprise for you." I said, "What?" She said, "Guess who's coming?" I said, "Who?" She said, "Melissa." I said, "So, fine, she'll be glad to dance with your star." "No, she'll only dance with you, darling." So, what happened was that I wound up doing Camille with her, and then I would do Carmen with Patricia. I was still doing double duty. But I enjoyed it, I really did. I thrived on it.
Q: How many years were you with Ruth?
A: I would say from around 1954 or '56 until 1970 because I was still going back to do Nutcracker for Ruth. I would say I was still with Ruth until about -- well, the company ended in 1969. But I came here because Ruth brought me here to Pittsburgh to start the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and we did Carmen. Mr. Petrov adored me, and I adored Mr. Petrov because I looked at him and thought, He's a male Ruth Page, exactly. I couldn't believe it. His artistic ability was the same as Ruth's. The ballets he created were the same as Ruth's: they were dramatic and fun to do and were emotional. He was also slightly zany. It was crazy, but I understood him. He'd say, "Well, you do 32 counts this way and 24 that way." I'd say, "Nicholas, you can't. You have to do 32 and 32." He'd say, "No, take something out." As a dance doctor, I would take a couple of steps out, and it would fit. We worked beautifully together. We did Carmen here, and it was extremely successful. They adored Ruth.
Related Place
Pittsburgh (production location of)