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Kenneth Johnson No. 04 [April 3, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0590
Run Time
0h 18m 45s
Date Produced
April 3 1987
A: When Ruth was here for Carmen, Mr. Petrov asked her to give a guest class for the week. Ruth said, "Of course, darling. I'd love to do it. What do you want me to teach?" He said, "A lab course." "What is that?" He said, "Anything." I had to give a course, too, and said, "Nicholas, what's anything?" He said, "Anything you want." I said, "Well, what's anything? You just don't walk into a class and do anything." I thought about it and decided to teach the people how to waltz, because that's the worst thing that people do. So, I taught different kinds of waltzes: fast, slow, made do-si-dos, and all these things.
     I was wondering what Ruth was doing downstairs in the other studio. I finished my class and went downstairs, and here are these people holding guns in pantomime and that. They're stalking each other, and I watched and thought, What's she doing? I couldn't believe it. Finally, I said, "Ruth, what are you doing?" She said, "It's the Civil War, darling." I said, "What?" Here she was -- there were the soldiers stalking, the slaves going across, she was doing the whole thing. There were medium-sized children, probably nine or twelve, but she had this whole group enthralled. They loved her and applauded after class and that, but she had talked them into it. I went to Mr. Petrov and said, "You have to give her the advanced class. You can't hide her downstairs like that." He wasn't "hiding" her, but he gave her this class to do. So, I said, "Ruth, they're going to move you upstairs with the advanced class." She said, "No way, darling." She absolutely loved working with them, and they had completed the whole war by the end of the week. I don't know who won, but she was very good at that. She was very believable in what she wanted and what she did, and she was very demanding.
     To show you how demanding she was, if a ballet was an hour and we had to do forty or forty-five minutes, she would have to make cuts and would drive the orchestra, Mr. Kayan at the time, nuts. She would try to cut out a measure or two measures out of a piece of music, and in that way, if she cut enough of them out, it looked like Swiss cheese, but she would have a couple of minutes to shorten the ballet. And they would say, "Cut a whole piece out. Cut out sixteen bars, Ruth." No matter what you cut, it was her favorite stuff. You could say the forty-eighth step in a pas de deux or something like that, that was her favorite step. One step she adored was [gesture] like that, and we couldn't cut it, even though it didn't mean anything, but it had to be in and it was in. You cut out something else but not that.
Q: Was she stubborn in pursuing the things that she wanted, do you think?
A: Well, I would say partly stubborn. In a way, I felt Ruth was sort of spoiled in her family -- I don't know whether it's true or not -- or by her husband. I think they sort of babied her or worshipped her or protected her. Underneath this, I think she had her own way a lot. She might have given in, but by giving in, she was still having her own way. I think this influenced her a great deal in her opinions and . . . in the way she approached dance. She got what she wanted, even if you made a change. If I made a suggestion and she said "absolutely not," she might come the next day and say, "I just thought of a new thing." And there was my suggestion, but it had to be from her, that it was her idea for a lot of things, and maybe she thought it was. A little birdie told her or something.
Q: Was she a leader?
A: She was a leader, but I think her husband, Tom, had a strong influence on her. Sometimes we would be paid for rehearsals; this was when we were just putting ballets together, and you would get a check for a few dollars or something. She would say, "Darling, don't cash it until Monday because our interest didn't come through." It was always through investments. She would say, "Now, darling, if Tom wins this case, we have a new ballet." That's how the money came in. We would never know about things like that. We always knew we got paid; she was very good about that, but he had a great influence on her.
Q: What kind of man was he?
A: Well, he was a lawyer and what you might think of as a lawyer. To me, he didn't have that much of a sense of humor. He might have with Ruth, but he was very staunch, very social in his way, but it was like Ruth went her way and he went his, and they met. If she went home and was tired and there was a party to go to, she went. She was always willing to do what Tom wanted. If Tom wanted to go to Europe, we didn't rehearse that summer. She went to Europe. She was very good. But, when it came that time for September and the opera and that, he left her completely alone. She did what she wanted to do, so it was a give-and-take relationship which really worked very well for her.
Q: Was that an unusual kind of marriage for that time?
A: I would think so. I think Ruth was an unusual woman for that time. She was very up-to-date. She would have been in bikinis and all that before anybody else was. She had no qualms about nudity or things like that. In fact, a funny story, if you want to hear the "bare" facts about Ruth, is the fact that she had a suite of the nineteenth floor which had a big terrace. She would go out on the terrace and sunbathe. She'd have these briefs on and a little bra. A few minutes later, the bra would come off. On the twentieth floor were the dance students, and one would look out the window and go, "Oh, my God!" and call up the rest of the dancers, and they would be hanging out the window looking at Ruth. I'm sure she just waved at them one day and said, "Hello, darling." Everybody got to know the "bare" facts about Ruth; it was the "naked" truth, I'll tell you. She was wonderful about it. There was no embarrassment, which is like today.
Q: There are stories about her walking around naked backstage a lot.
A: Not backstage. You might knock at her dressing room door and always assumed that she took her clothes off and said, "Come in." She would always hold something against her. In fact, I was up in the rehearsal room and walked in. She said, "Oh!" and held something up, but she was standing behind this full mirror, so you got an eyeful. I still don't quite know what she was trying to hide, but she was wonderful that way.
     One day, Orrin was doing something and the top of the costume came off and the bottom hadn't, and he was only in a dance belt -- a supporter -- doing this dance. I said, "Orrin, what are you doing?" He said, "Ruth made me do this." Here he was dancing in just a supporter and shirt and hat. He had a hat on, so he was well-dressed. But it was things that I would never do. I've danced in briefs and things, and she always said, "Darling, you look better naked than in costume."
Q: Talk a little more about Tom and his influence on the company and on her. Did you like him? I get the sense that a lot of people were afraid of him or put off.
A: I don't think Tom ever really tried to make real friends. He was always sort of aloof, like management. I would say he was more like management. He would come to my house for dinner, and we would have wonderful social times with Ruth and that, but there was still a distance between the two of you. I think it was good for him, because you couldn't slap him on the back and say, "How about a raise?" or something like that. You just didn't do that with Tom. But he was fun to be with socially and that, but Ruth was always the charmer. She really was.
     She would do crazy things. We were in a restaurant one time, and suddenly she turned to Patricia and said, "Darling, were you a virgin when you got married?" We all waited, going, "Well, yes or no?" Orrin turned to Ruth and said, "Ruth, were you a virgin when you got married?" She said, "Heavens, no, darling." "Was it Tom?" She said, "Oh, it was another lawyer." Whether it was true or not, you didn't know, but it was funny. She would just say anything.
Q: Then, in a sense, would you say that she was ahead of her time?
A: Of course. Ruth was way ahead of her time in just the way she dressed and did things. We would do lecture demonstrations. One year she wore a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, which was really like George Washington because she used to have a white wig (those powdered wigs) and she'd have the nickers and the little frill and black velvet and all that. She would come out and the kids in the schools would be shocked, not horrified, but shocked to see her come out like that. She would start speaking, and then all of a sudden one of the girls would raise her hand and say, "Could I buy that somewhere?" She'd say, "Well, I don't know if Goldblatt's has it or not, but you could try." Naturally, it was made in Europe or somewhere for her, but she would do wonderful things and so many other people lectured. The people literally threw things on the stage. They didn't like the classical, dry approach, and Ruth came on like gangbusters and would say these things. We would do women's clubs, and suddenly Ruth would have a dress up and doing all of these steps, show her legs or something, and everybody would gasp -- legs which were quite beautiful. She would go ahead and do it, and everybody adored her.
Q: Were you with her when she stopped dancing? Do you remember when she stopped dancing?
A: Yes, we were playing in Los Angeles and were doing Susanna and the Barber. Ruth and Bentley Stone were the talkers; it was like a play, and we were the silent lovers and that. It was really at the end of Ruth's career, dance-wise. She could still go on, but she was not that well received by it. They [the critics] weren't that interested in that kind of thing. Plus, we played a very large house, which would have been better here in Pittsburgh because we have the Playhouse or Goodman Theatre in Chicago; it would have been wonderful in those places. I think it bothered Ruth, and she just stopped after that. She just didn't dance after that. She could still dance and that, but I think it just bothered her.
Q: Did you notice any change in her?
A: Very little, if there was. I think she always wanted to go on but lived through Patricia and I. Patty would perform with the same believability. The only difference was that Ruth adored to hop on pointe and Patty was a big girl, and usually big girls don't like to hop on pointe because they have more weight than a little bitty girl on pointe. Ruth would hop, hop, hop. Patty would try to cover it, or I would say, "Patty, if you hop this way . . . ." She'd say, "Oh, if I change my legs," and it was much easier. So, we got the same results, but Ruth adored to do things like that. She loved to put fouetté turns in, which are multiple turns and that. I don't think Ruth really did them in her career, but she adored them. She put them in everything. She had certain tricks that she loved to do. She loved me because I was always off balance. I was always swinging this way or doing arabesque turns that way and this. In her book, she even says it, that she adored them. Eventually, I really came out in Ruth's company and learned to express myself and become an acting dancer. I learned how to move an audience and to do these different roles. I got a kick out of it. I really lived these people night after night.
Q: Talk about what life was like on the road, the company traveling.
A: One funny story was that our first bus was not waterproof. We had very bad weather and it rained. I had the third seat on the bus, and Ruth's was the first seat. The water came through like a waterfall. It came down the window, and you couldn't sit there. I kept saying, "Ruth, I'm getting wet back here." We would scream or yell or something like that, and finally she'd say, "Oh, sit up here." So, we switched seats. She took her mink coat, jammed it in the window and was sitting there saying, "I don't know what he's complaining about." I heard her and said, "Well, give me the mink and I'll sit back there."
     Then we had a bus driver that must have been 80 years old, and he would want to stop all the time, or he was just cranky about everything, so the first tour was really hectic. It was 17 weeks and we did four weeks, came back for Christmas, and then did ten weeks or twelve, whatever it was.
     Anyway, it was an interesting story because my career was based on injuries. I was Ruth's second dancer, and the first dancer we had was George Skibine and his wife, Marjorie Tallchief. We were going to play Cleveland, which was my home town, and Ruth promised me that I was going to do the lead in one of the ballets. George was wonderful; he'd let me do it or a pas de deux. The first few days out we didn't have a chance to rehearse or anything. I believe it was in Appleton, Pennsylvania, I believe it was, anyway, in Pennsylvania the night before, we arrived late at 6:00. We could not have an orchestra rehearsal. We were going to do Ruth's Sylvia pas de deux, which was Barbara Steele and myself and two cupids. We finished the first ballet, changed, ran on stage . . . . Well, everything went wrong. It was a disaster. Barbara lost her headdress the first thing. It was laying on the floor; the two cupids kept bumping into each other; it was a disaster. Ruth came backstage and said, "You can't do it in Cleveland. You'll have to do your part." "But you said I could dance one of the leads," I said. She said, "Well, darling, nobody can replace you, and my brother, Irvine, who's the famous heart surgeon, is going to be there. You have to do it."
     Well, the next ballet was The Merry Widow, and I was furious. I thought, "All right, Ruth." I said, "My family's going to be there, and I'm just going to do the second leads," which was wonderful, but I wanted to be the star in Cleveland. So, out I went on as Jolidon. I danced like I had so much energy in it. I was just puffing, and when I finished the first section, I was hanging on the trunk, breathing and everything. Suddenly, I see them carrying somebody, and they say, "Get the boy! Get the boy!"
     I looked and it was Skibine. He had done his variation, and he had sort of marked it and went for the last [en l'] air turn, and it was too late. He fell and cut his Achilles' tendon, and it just rolled up. So, out I went and had to do the coda. Here I was as Jolidon and was supposed to be Danilo, which I am sure . . . . I walked out on the stage, and Ruth was in the front row, and she went [slaps his forehead]. I thought, "My God, is she doing that because I'm on the stage or what?" Well, she didn't budge. She wanted to see how the performance went. She didn't care what had happened, I guess.
     I finished it and said, "Get me the shirt! Get me the shirt!" So they went to Skibine and were tearing his shirt off. I said, "Not that shirt! I want the 'Vilia' shirt for the pas de deux." It looked like I was saying, okay, I'll do the part, and was tearing his clothes off. Here he was laying there, and they're tearing his clothes off. So, they gave me the shirt, and I ran over to Marjorie Tallchief and said, "What do you do here?" because Ruth would not let me learn their version. She said, "You're the understudy for it, but you can't learn their version. I want you to do my version." I said, "But if I have to go on . . . ." But she would never allow it, and
I could never go to their rehearsals. I went up to Marjorie and said, "What did you change? Forget it, we're on." And out we went. I was very good at partnering and just waited until she did something, and then I grabbed her or lifted her. We had no problem.
     That night we got on to a bus, which was another old bus. Pittsburgh and that are known for their hills. We started to go up a hill, and the bus wouldn't make it. So, out we all got. There was Skibine on the bus with the driver. The old costume women, Edie and Mae, are walking up the hill going, "I think I'm dying," and the other one says, "I'm having a heart attack." Here they are, puffing, going up this big hill. Fortunately, at the top of the hill was a bar. The company just en masse went into the bar and Ruth's screaming, "We've got to go to the hospital." We all said, "Wait until we finish our beer."
     So we took him to the hospital. We went into town and checked in. We had a matinee the next day. I went to the orchestra rehearsal, and there I was in Cleveland, my home town, starring in both ballets. Wonderful reviews. It was fantastic. So, do you think Ruth would make me the star next year? Noooo. Next year she brought Oleg Briansky. She said, "Darling, you're the understudy for Don Q, but don't learn it. That was basically what it was. The first performance, Oleg Briansky hurt himself.
Related Place
Pittsburgh (production location of)