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Kenneth Johnson No. 05 [April 3, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0591
Run Time
0h 20m 1s
Date Produced
April 3 1987
Q: We were at the Oleg Briansky injury story. That was about to happen.
A: Well, the following year after the Skibine incident, she brought in Oleg Briansky, and Briansky injured himself the first day; he hurt his foot. The second day . . . because he was the one I said that was doing, "Fah, fah," and that's what he did in the Don Q pas de deux. And the second day, because he was injured, he toned the whole thing down and danced magnificently. He really did, but he was out the third day. . . .
     So Ruth decided the third day that she was going to rehearse the company. But I had to go on in Don Q that night, which I didn't know; didn't know whether I could even get through it. So she said, "Darling, go in the corner with Slavenska and learn it." And learn it? I mean you just do not learn a pas de deux and go on. I said, "What about the music?" She said, "Darling, I have to have the music for the company" -- because they were so bad that night. So she took the music for the piano, and I went in a corner and Slavenska talked me through it. She said, "Now, you do double turn." I said, "I don't know if I can jump up and do double turn."
     So, I did the first ballet and that night I went on into the pas de deux. The funny thing was I tried to double turn and made one and a half. Instead of looking wrong, I finished with my back to the audience and turned. I went like that and turned. Everybody kept saying, "That's so unusual. I've never seen a double turn like that before." When we took a cab to go into town to a restaurant, the cab driver had seen the first act, and he was amazed at how we did. He didn't know anything about. . . but he said it was just wonderful.
     After that, I started doing the pas de deux with Mia plus the other ballets. Then Ruth decided the program was too long, and I had to do the pas de deux without an intermission. I said, "How do I get dressed?" She said, "Well, darling, underdress." So I wore, in those days, because you could see through the tights, I wore two pair of white tights and the Manrico gypsy tights. I had so many suspenders on, the first thing I had to do was kneel. I came out, and my knees wouldn't bend. I finally got down on the floor. But the ballet ended, and they closed the curtains. And they undid the back of my jacket and I went out and bowed, stepped through the curtain, they yanked this off, yanked my tights off -- Orrin and Mia Slavenska -- and I put on my shoes. They put this jacket on and zipped it. It took 45 seconds, and I was standing there going to do the pas de deux, and the curtain opened and the audience gasped because I was all in black, and in 45 seconds I was standing there in white, panting. I thought, "Oh, boy, if I couldn't get through it before, I'm not going to get through it now." Every night I had to do the same thing. Then I had fifteen minutes and did Merry Widow. And if you don't think that was a full evening, we then traveled 300 miles. This was my life.
     Then the next year Skibine came back, and there was another accident, and I went back in. The next year, Skibine was back again and was out again. So, for all of my parts, she would say, "No," and I would sort of say my good fairy . . . or whatever it was, looked after me, I'll tell you that. It was really remarkable.
     She really gave me a lot because she brought in my first partner. It was Patricia Wilde at the opera. We did Traviata together. Ruth took Miss Wilde out after the performance, and Miss Wilde told me the next day. She said, "Do you know what Ruth told me?" I said, "What?" "Ruth said, 'Please don't take Ken with you.'" She thought Miss Wilde was going to take me because I was such a good partner, and that she would take me back to New York with her. Ruth, in a way, knew what she wanted, and it was not always for your good, but she kept me there, and it was wonderful.
     Another story on that vein was that Ruth was going to Europe, and I said, "Ruth, what will I do for the summer?" She said, "Darling, if anything comes up, talk to Bentley Stone," who was her ex-partner. "Whatever Bentley says, listen to him because he'll know what to do." I said, "All right, Ruth." So, I got a phone call about a week later from Ballet Theatre, from Lucia Chase, and she asked me to join the company because there was another injury. I thought about it and said, "I'll let you know." She said, "Well, you will have to know by Monday." I said, "Well, all right. I'll let you know by Monday." I called Bentley and said, "Bentley, what should I do?" He said, "Go. Don't even think about it. It's a wonderful opportunity. You're going to be with the American Ballet Theatre. Don't even think about it, just go."
     Lucia called, and I went. That day, I drove 300 miles to Davenport, Iowa. They kept saying, "You're dancing tonight." I laughed and said, "What? I know we're on the road for three weeks, and then we're going to New York to the Met. Dancing what? I thought I would have three weeks of rehearsal." So, we went and sure enough, I got off the bus at five o'clock and they said, "Rehearsal at six, in the ballroom." We couldn't get in the theater because they had movies until six. So they taught me Aurora's Wedding. They came in and said, "Now, you do step A. You do step B, step A, you do step C. Is that clear?" And I said, "Yeah, but what's step A? What is this?"
     The kids had been on tour, and this was the end of the tour, and they were tired. They said, "The girl you're going to dance with, you can't have because she's on overtime. So, learn it with this girl." So, I learned it with this girl, then I learned Aurora's Wedding. I went out there, and all the girls came on. They had their hair down with a bow in their hair and a dress. When they turned their backs, they all looked alike. We had to do a chair dance where you follow the girls and then you put them down and they sit, and I said, "Please let me have it under one of those girls." I thought, Somebody's going to fall, and I'd go, "Oh, you're the partner," because I didn't even know who I was dancing with. Well, I didn't make any mistakes. The next day I went into Giselle. I went into all of these parts.
     Anyway, Ruth came back from Europe, and I was in New York dancing with them. She called me up and said, "Darling, what are you do doing in the American Ballet Theatre?" I said, "Well, you told me to call Bentley, and he said to go." And she said, "Well, you know that you should never listen to Bentley; he's so jealous of you." I said, "Oh, my God!" She said, "Well, darling, I'm doing a performance of Susanna and the Barber in Chicago" -- it was the premiere. She said, "If you want to do it, I'll get you out of the company. Otherwise, I'll hire Oleg Briansky." I thought, "You only have a few days!" He could never learn the part because he was a little slow at learning, but very good at performing. I said, "Well, if you can get me out," and by God, she got me out of the company, and I went back. But do you think she would give me the lead? No. I had to wait for another one to conk out, and then I was doing all of the leads.
     So, not to change the subject, but I came here with Pittsburgh Ballet. The last thing I did for them was Carmina Catulli, which was a Ruth Page ballet. She brought in Edward Villella. She never thought I could do Carmina Catulli. I was never up, but I was supposed to do the Sunday matinee because Villella couldn't do it. He kept rehearsing and rehearsing, and I said, "Eddie, you're going to hurt yourself, you're going to hurt yourself." He said, "No, no. Let's just do it once more." And I said, "Well, we can make some cuts," because we were dancing too much. I said, "Let's cut this step." He said, "No, I like this step. Let's cut that step." So, in his version, he cut one step, and I cut the other step.
     So, he was going to a press interview with Ruth. He got out of bed and went over to the sink and started to shave and couldn't straighten up. His back was gone. So they called me in to the office and said, "Ken, you have to do the dress rehearsal and the filming because he'll be in New York with his masseur, and he'll come back for the opening." So, then I got a phone call. I did that -- and this was like at midnight. We did the whole thing, and then did the filming. After that, it was the next day and they said, "You have to do the opening." They put up a sign and everything and put in, "If you want a refund . . . ." Well, I believe two people went, and I thought it probably was our bosses or something.
     Anyway, there I was. I went out and did the performance. The reviews came out, and they said, "Who needs Villella?" That was the headline, and it said in it that I was not an understudy -- I was an alternate because I was doing it Sunday. Loved the ballet because it was a big, big, big success here. That was funny.
Q: I get the feeling that you've been lucky for her too, I get the feeling.
A: I was, in a sense, because a lot of times Ruth would bring in a guest star, and they were not adaptable because they would learn absolutely the classical dancing -- like you would do two pirouettes, they would support two pirouettes. If you did two and went off balance or did something like that, they weren't used to that, and so they would cut it. So, a lot of the magic that was in the ballet wasn't. That's why if I danced with somebody (Ruth would bring in Maria or somebody), I knew enough that I could partner them. It was extremely more important for the boy rather than the girl, because if you knew what you were doing, you could do it with anybody. But it was very difficult for a boy if the girl leans out, the boy goes with her. It was that kind of thing. I had an innate feeling for it, and that's why Ruth and I got along, because she adored partnering things, and most of the things I worked out with Ruth. I would lift her or she would crawl over me or something, and we would get it on. I would say, "That's unusual, Ruth." But it always worked.
Q: Tell me about Bentley Stone. Did you know him well?
A: I knew Bentley. I studied with him for a while, and we would go out for a beer and eggs after class or something once in a while. At the time I knew him, he was an extremely nervous type of person, but very creative. I saw things that he had choreographed and saw a couple of performances that Ruth did with Bentley. But I think he was a very nervous performer. He didn't perform often enough, that you get a certain freedom. I suppose confidence is the word for it, but he was extremely nervous, and I had to dress with him in the rooms, and he was like this before we would go on. Ruth would have to come back and pacify him. She would come back and say, "Bentley, you were wonderful! Oh, you couldn't have been better, darling!" I'd be behind the door, and she would turn and say, "Oh, you were good, too," and turn and walk out. I would say, "What was that?"
Q: Why did the Page-Stone Ballet break up?
A: Well, I don't know exactly, but I would guess that there weren't enough performances, and Bentley and Walter Camryn had the school, and so he was not that free to go back and forth. So he would do certain performances locally, and Ruth wanted to do more. I don't think Bentley wanted to get involved with it, because he wasn't performing. And getting older, I suppose, he didn't want to do that sort of thing. He encouraged it and encouraged his dancers to do it, but Ruth had the opera and that. She did more than he did at that time.
Q: In reading about it, it seems that they had a very, very productive and creative relationship -- like Frankie and Johnny -- in all the years that he was her partner.
A: Yes, but it was like a period in her life. When it ended, she went on into these other things and became involved in other people, and it worked for her. Just like she wasn't dancing that much any more. She was doing Herodias in Salomé and Azucena. Second roles or interesting character roles is what she was basically going into.
Q: When you were working with the company, how much in evidence was Tom Fisher in terms of -- you said that he was like management -- personally? How much of a role did he have in terms of the daily, ongoing life of the company?
A: Tom Fisher's involvement with the company, I think, was completely management. I think that he handled all of the contracts, the negotiations with Columbia or the Lyric Opera, and made sure that Ruth was treated well. Although I'm sure she did a great deal for nothing, because she was very dedicated, and if anybody got money, she wanted the dancers to have it. He would come around and inquire, but he kept pretty much to himself.
     It was just primarily management, because we were doing a lecture one day and Tom drove us. Ruth kept saying, "Don't come, Tom. I don't want you to see it. Find a room, do your business and everything, and when it's over, we'll leave." He said, "All right, Ruth." We did the lecture, and it was absolutely wonderful. When it was over, Ruth said, "Well, Tom, how did you like it?" He said, "I didn't see it." She said, "What do you mean, you didn't see it?" He said, "Well, you told me to go in the other room." She said, "Well, I didn't mean it; you could have snuck in and seen it!" That only was because it went well, but I mean he just kept himself away from a lot of it.
Q: Creatively, do you think he influenced her at all?
A: I think he helped surround Ruth with creative people like Delfau or Isaac Van Grove. He knew of these people, and I am sure he encouraged Ruth to use them. I'm sure he offered many, many suggestions, but it was primarily the background. Ruth did all of the choreography and all of that. I don't think Tom, maybe he did privately, but I don't think he ever criticized Ruth or her work; like he accepted that as Ruth's thing and they were all good. If it was her's, it was good.
Q: Who ran that relationship, Ruth or Tom?
A: Well, I think both, because I think Ruth ran it during the day when she did the company, but at night she was all Tom's. If there was a party that he wanted to go to and she was tired, she got dressed and she went to the party. He wanted to go to Europe, so we didn't rehearse that summer she was in Europe. She didn't like to go sometimes; she really wanted to stay and rehearse, but she would go. He had the final say on almost everything. Yet, I'm sure she got her way with a lot of things. She used to say, "If Tom wins this case, we'll have a new ballet." He would use the money or put it in investments, so that we could use the interest on it or whatever. They were both for the company, and both enjoyed it.
Q: They had kind of an open marriage. Were you aware of that?
A: I would think so, sure. He was either out of town a lot on business, or she was out of town on a tour. I don't think too many people knew much about Ruth's personal life, because she never really said that much. Every once in a while she would joke about something, but you never really knew. I think she could have married [Harvey] Firestone or something. She mentioned something. If it wasn't he, it was somebody in that category, but I think it was. She said he proposed and that, but she said she was too busy.
Q: Did you notice a difference in her after Tom died?
A: Well, the basic difference was that she gave up the company because he died, and the wages for the stage hands and that were so outrageous. They were paid like $600 a week and so many at that time. It was a lot of money. The musicians were getting a lot of money. It was only us that weren't getting that much. Even Ruth commented about that. They would go to Florida for tans and we would stay in Chicago and get white. It was ridiculous, but that was one of the big reasons. Plus she had Nutcracker -- that was her yearly thing.
     Then when Mr. Petrov came and brought her here, it was like a second home. It started all over again, and she loved it here. She had the company, she didn't have to worry about a union. Whatever she wanted was here, and she adored coming here. So, we came here quite often. Then, there was talk about the merging, which was ahead of its time, and that's what the companies are doing now. We could have had a Chicago/Pittsburgh Company. She could have used the dancers here plus our nucleus, and they could have done Nutcracker and the whole thing. I don't believe Tom was alive then, but she just got scared. If somebody pushed her, she would have agreed, but when she reverted, it was like, "No, it's safer not to do this." But still, we did her ballets. We did Alice in Wonderland. I said I did Carmen here, and then Patty and I went up to Jacob's Pillow.
     We were doing Alice in Wonderland up there or a section of it. Mrs. Falk, who was on the board, and her secretary drove up and saw the performance. When it was over, she offered Patty and me a contract. They wanted me to be the ballet master and the principal dancer, and then they would bring Patty in when they got more money. I agreed to do it, and they drove back. The president said, "Well, if you're going to bring Patricia, bring her now, because it's silly. We'll get the money."
     So we both came in, and from then on we were doing ballets. But we were doing a lot of Ruth's things. As I said, Mr. Petrov was doing Walpurgis Night, which Ruth had done, but he did his version, and it was the same sort of repertoire. Then we were getting a chance to go to Puerto Rico, and Nicholas had no basic repertoire. We had Pas de Dix [Balanchine], and Patty and I really didn't enjoy doing Pas de Dix, but we had Dagmar Kessler and Alexander Filipov, who was a Russian defector. We had a quite a few stars in there. So, Patricia and I had to put together in two weeks Ruth's Romeo and Juliet and Bolero, and we did the dream scene from Carmen, and we had a couple of our pas de deux that we did. We went down to Puerto Rico and the big hit of the evening were the Ruth Page things. We did the Alice in Wonderland pas de deux. We did three nights of different repertoire.
     We got a phone call from a teacher down there who had a company, and they asked Patty and me to come down in the summertime. We went down and did several ballets and taught for two summers. They wanted the young students not to come to New York and those places and wander around. They thought it was better to pay teachers to come down there. We got that all through Ruth's ballets.
Related Place
Pittsburgh (production location of)