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Kenneth Johnson No. 06 [April 3, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0592
Run Time
0h 19m 45s
Date Produced
April 3 1987
Q: You know Ruth really well and worked with her very closely. How would you describe her personally? What kind of person is Ruth Page?
A: Well, I think Ruth Page underneath it all, so to speak, is a very kind person, but also she disassociates herself with people. She doesn't want to get hurt or involved, so she might tolerate you or love you for the day, but she'll pull herself back.
     A funny story is that she wanted Patricia Klekovic to have a baby, but she didn't want to have Patty married. She would take the baby and raise the baby.
Q: Why do you think she wanted to do that?
A: She wanted to raise the baby because she wanted children, but she didn't want to have the child. She adored Patty and wanted to raise the child as her own -- maybe with Patty, too, but she wanted to be godmother for the child. She didn't want to have Patty married, to have, maybe, another influence to it. I'm not sure but I think even in Ruth's will she was leaving, at that particular time, some money to each person, and Patty might have gotten more money if, upon Ruth's death, she wasn't married. Patty got married and I said, "You goofed, Patty." I mean it was funny, the little stipulations she would have with things.
     On the whole, Ruth was, for me anyway, a wonderful woman. We had our ups and downs, but underneath it all, it was a family and a love affair. I'm sure that if Ruth would have been younger or I would have been older, the two of us would have met and danced together. We would probably have had a wonderful time together.
Q: Did you ever or do you feel now especially close to Ruth?
A: Always. I'll get a letter from her, or we'll talk on the phone, or I'll see her in passing. There's always something that will never fade. We were too close. Our lives were the dance. We had our outside life, but most of it was the dance, because it was almost like a twenty-four hour job. Even when everybody went home, we talked about ballets at home and the characterizations. This is what made it with Ruth, because we would come in the next day and would improve or would discuss things, so it became our life completely.
Q: What was Patty's response to Ruth asking her to have a baby?
A: She laughed, of course. Patty always wanted children, but was so involved in the dancing that it didn't happen. I don't know if Ruth was even serious, but I think she probably was for the moment. If it would have happened, she would maybe have been bored. I think Ruth got bored easily. She would do certain things, like you'd be talking to her and all of a sudden she would like turn you off just like she didn't want to hear any more. She would go on to something else, because her mind would be on something else.
     I don't know if you ever knew, but at night Ruth had a very difficult time sleeping. She'd have her bath water run and would take three baths a night. She'd just get out and take the baths to try and relax. She was probably always alert. She believed more in naps. She would rehearse all day and then have lunch and then lay down for five or ten minutes. She'd put one of her chic cloths across her face and still talk to you and that, but she would relax for about ten minutes and then start again.
     She'd do zany things -- like she would talk to me and say, "Darling, we're getting the costumes far too dirty. I don't want to do anything on the floor anymore. No kneeling, nothing on the floor, none of those rolls,  nothing!" She said, "Darling, I don't want to do it." So, the first day of rehearsal we started Camille. She said, "Now, Patty, you come on. Now, Ken, you kneel." I said, "Ruth, you just said . . . ." "Well, darling, you have to get on the floor sometime." I said, "The first step?" After this long talk, the first thing she says is to kneel.
     I'd go in her dressing room and ask, "What are you going to rehearse, Ruth?" She'd say, "We can't do any of my ballets, darling. We can't do Chocolate Soldier. We have to do the opera. We have to concentrate the whole day on the opera. Just tell the kids that we'll do that." I'd go out and say, "All right, we're going to start with the opera. We're not doing any other things." Ruth would come out of the dressing room two seconds later and say, "All right, let's run through Chocolate Soldier." I'd say, "Chocolate Soldier?" She'd say, "Well, we have to do it once, darling." I always looked like a fool talking to them because she would change it instantly. Or she'd say, "Take a break," and she'd go through the door, get a piece of cheese, and come out and say, "Let's start." We'd say, "Ruth, we're just leaving." She'd just have her mind going all of the time.
Q: Did she worry about money a lot?
A: Just about the union. When she didn't have the union, she was fine. She would work with us and didn't have to pay the corps half of the time. She'd have parties or something. When the union came in, boy, it changed, because it was no longer the stars and that. It was the "corps de ballet" ballet. All she saw was thirty people, or however many people it was at that time, standing there getting paid.
     Normally, we did our things before the tours or the rehearsals started, Patty and I. It was poor Orrin and those people; he had a partner and they had to do Fledermaus. They got the five minute breaks, which meant the company worked fifty-five minutes and then she'd say, "Orrin, you can dance now." He'd have five minutes, and she would stop them. If they were in a lift, he'd have to put her down and wait fifty-five more minutes. I said, "Orrin, the ballet is like fifty minutes long. How many breaks do you have? You only have twenty-five minutes." You can't sit for fifty-five minutes and then get up and do a pas de deux. You can't, but that's what he had to do. Maybe do the pas de deux, one break, a solo the next break, and she'd think nothing of it. She really wouldn't.
Q: Was she unreasonable a lot?
A: Not for her. But for us, yes. I don't think she thought she was unreasonable, but she would do things. Like I had to teach, and Larry Long would maybe teach the corps downstairs. She'd say, "Darling, you go upstairs with the stars," because they had a studio upstairs [at the Opera]. So, there I was with Nureyev, Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Johnny Kriza, you name it, they were upstairs. I have to give class without a piano. So there I was -- counting. All of my classes, except when Mr. Neal Kayan would condescend to play, which was wonderful when we had the music, I always taught speaking. I'd sing the classes along. Even now, I'm so used to it that, when I have a pianist, I'm talking through it anyway. I can't stop. I just can't.
Q: Did she give very much praise?
A: Later. Ruth would give you praise eventually, if she liked you. The best thing she ever said to me was that whenever Patty and I came out on stage, she said, "I can sit back and relax. I know what you're going to do. I just sit back and enjoy it." When anybody else came on, she said she just got tense. So when we would do "Snow" pas de deux or something which was extremely difficult, we made it seem very easy. When the guests came in, it was a different pas de deux. It really was. It wasn't just us saying it; even Ruth was . . . .
     I would run the full length of the stage and make like a figure eight with Patty in an overhead lift which was difficult. I would put her down and say, "Oh, my ankles are locked," or something like that, but Ruth wanted it and by God, I did it. You'd get somebody else, and she would be screaming at them because they couldn't make it to the Christmas tree which was halfway across the stage. She'd say, "At least make it to the tree!" and they'd just go part way and run back and come down. It was that kind of thing that kept us going because Ruth reacted. If we did a pas de deux or something, she almost had a tear in her eye if it was romantic. She related that way. She'd laugh if something was funny.
Q: How about criticism. How did she give criticism?
A: She would say things sometimes which were nasty. She might say she hates you in this part as you're going on the stage, but she'd always say like, "This is the most important performance in you life!" and we'd be playing in some small town. She'd say that so and so's out front or you'd go, "Who?" Somebody you never heard of, but she said, "They're very important, darling. They're with Columbia." You'd go out and be nervous again, because it was like every night was like an opening night with Ruth, and she didn't realize that she was saying it.
Q: That's interesting: that notion of every night being like an opening night.
A: It was with her.
Q: You danced in an awful lot of small places, and people have said to me that wherever you were, you danced the same way whether you were dancing in Paris, New York, Chicago, or Beeville, Texas. Can you talk about that for me?
A: Well, I think that with Patty and myself especially, every night was an opening night. We loved what we were doing and went out there. We always had adrenalin going and it was important for us -- the music and our belief in the ballets. And that really pulled us through a lot of terrible times. The theaters were cold or the stages were like glass, and we tried everything on the floors, but we'd go out there and do our best.
     Another funny story was the fact that we went to several places and the floor was slippery. Quite a few of the dancers complained, and rosin wouldn't take on the floors. They were like gym floors, and it just wouldn't. They would even say, "We waxed the floor for you," which is death, you know. Ruth called Columbia and they said that if we hit another slippery floor, don't dance. That's unheard of for Columbia, because that means no money.
     The next place we played was Tampa, and we had a new theater. It was brand new, and we walked in and knew something was wrong. We heard noises on the stage and Ruth was sort of doing barre by the trunk. We walked up to Ruth and said, "Ruth, is everything all right?" She said, "Well, darling, you can do it barefoot." We went, "Uh-oh." We looked at the stage, and they had linseed oil on this brand new floor, which was sopping in linseed oil. They had these huge sanders going over the floor. It was putting on oil. There was just no way you could stand up on that stage.
     The first ballet was Carmen. We tried to do a barre. We tried to find another place to do barre and that. Carmen was done on pointe. She said, "Do it barefoot. If you want to do it, do it barefoot." That was ridiculous. I wasn't going to dance barefoot, and Sonia Arova said, "It's on pointe." We somehow got through it and nobody slipped. The kids made such a stink about it afterwards that they weren't going to do Merry Widow. I was flying out right afterward and did the first ballet. Flew out, didn't know what was happening, and the kids were striking. Sonia said, "If we could do this, you can do this."
     We got out to the airport and the middle ballet Orrin was in, and he flew out to the airport. There was fog and we didn't know whether we were going to get out or not, and the next plane left. Finally, a cab arrived and here's Ruth. The last plane out she finally made. The kids never made it. A few of them fell down, but we never canceled. She would not allow us to cancel. Even if they made a statement like, "Don't dance," they didn't mean it.
Q: What did she do to keep you all up and going on the grueling weeks of that tour?
A: Well, she wasn't always with us. One time, we were having a lot of trouble with the manager, and certain theaters were bad, and Orrin called Ruth, and she came back. The minute Ruth comes back, the company is a little different, because the management was there. When Ruth wasn't there, we were a little freer about what we did. We still did the performances, but you felt a little different.
     I don't know whether I told you or not, but I would sit out front with Ruth. She'd be on the side and say, "Everyone's off center." I'd say, "Well, Ruth, we're sitting on the side." She'd say, "No, they're off center, darling." So she'd have a rehearsal and move them. Then that night we'd sit in the center, and she'd say, "Well, they're all sort of over there." I'd say, "That's because you moved them over there, Ruth," and this would go on. Finally it got to the point that when Ruth stood in the wings, which is the worst place to watch, we would literally take the whole ballet and turn it to where she was standing. If you did something straight front, you'd sort of cheat and go on a angle. We never destroyed the performance because nobody would know, but we would know that you finished a little bit more this way than to let her see your rear end sticking out or something like that. We were always aware of where she was.
Q: How did you talk about her when she wasn't around? Did you have nicknames for her or . . . .
A: Well, she had several nicknames. She had "Rootie toot-toot." They used to call her "Rootie" because of Frankie and Johnny, because there was the gun and they'd have to go, "rootie toot-toot." Tom had a nickname and called her Peter Pan. "Auntie Ruth" because she was like Auntie Mame. She was just all over the place. I have nothing but praise for Ruth, because I understand her, and she was wonderful in her own way. It may not have been on a daily basis, but there was always something, and there was always the opportunity. My God, they brought Carla Fracci to America, and I danced her American debut. She didn't have to dance with me. She probably never even heard of me, but we did Giaconda and we did the "Dance of the Hours." Later, they called me, and the following season, I believe they were doing Le Rossignol, which was a big ballet with the music on the sides, and I danced with Carla. It was fantastic. I did her American debut, but it was because Ruth arranged it . . . or with Maria Tallchief. All of these big people -- Markova in New York at the Broadway Theatre. It was just unbelievable. I couldn't believe it. Even now, I sort of say, "Was that me?" It's just unreal.
Q: So she did a lot for you?
A: Oh, yes, absolutely. I wanted to be a Broadway dancer. I didn't want to go into ballet. I went to Chicago. I wanted to be another Fred Astaire or something like that. I was singing and dancing and that. They kept saying, "Ballet." I said, "Ballet?"
     I started in service when I was nineteen. At nineteen, I was dancing with a WAC at our service club, and one day an act didn't show up, and they said, "You have to do a number." I said, "Do a number? What's a number?" She said, "Sure." Because she had done a little bit of nightclub dancing. We went in the back room, and she said that we'd do this jitterbug number thing, just dance and she'd show me a lift. I said, "How do we get into it?" She said, "Squeeze my hand." She taught me another lift and I said, "Do I squeeze your hand?" She said, "Yes, when we're ready, squeeze my hand." So we went out and danced. I squeezed her hand and she said, "Ouch!" and we did the lift. Then we did a little further, and I squeezed her hand and she'd go, "Ouch!" and we did the next lift. At the end, I would trip her and go to pick her up and she would throw me in a somersault and we'd chase each other off. Well, the house came down. They loved it. It was in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and from then on, we'd come in and do a number. Every week we would do something. One time a woman came to visit her husband from New York and she was a tap teacher, and he couldn't ballroom dance. At that time, I was teaching the paratroopers how to ballroom dance in the back room. She said that if I taught her husband, she would teach me tap. She taught me some tap which I was terrible at, but at least it got me interested.
     When I got discharged, I got a job spraying elevators in Cleveland, and I hated it. I could do it in a half an hour, and the other people could do it in an hour. I was always standing around. So through mutual agreement, I left and looked in the phone book and there, on the GI bill under dance, it said you could take voice and ballet and all of this stuff. I said, "Ballet?" I went there and said that I didn't want ballet but wanted to put in that many hours. I thought, "What's a ballet?" So we put on bathing suits, and there were three of us would go in and do forty-five minutes of ballet. You can imagine what it looked like, but they had pas de deux. They had how to do partnering and lifts. When three months went by, they had an audition for the Cleveland 500, which was civic light opera. I went down there, the last auditioned . . . with this girl that I'd auditioned with her mother, and she said, "Go find out, see if they need a boy." I said, "No, what can I do in three months?" "Stand up!" So I went and said, "Excuse me, do you need a boy?" And she said, "Why don't you audition?" She said, "Come in on Monday and I'll look at you."
     Over the weekend I went to the school, and they taught me combinations fast. They taught me a character and a ballet thing and this and that. I went in on Monday, and she said, "Just follow what the other boys do," and so I did. She wasn't going to hire me because I was really terrible, but she said, "Now lift the girl to the shoulder." I was the only boy that could do it, and she hired me. That was my first job -- was in The Merry Widow.
     That's why I said this was the background for Ruth. The conductor was Isaac Van Grove, who was her conductor and arranger. He introduced me to Ruth after that. So, I met Ruth within three years of my training. That's how I got into ballet. And then Ann Barzel, the critic, was doing shows there at the Eighth Street Theatre, and Richard Ellis, who was with the Royal Ballet, was supposed to do The Nutcracker pas de deux and he backed out. They got me to do it. I said, "What's a Nutcracker pas de deux?" So I learned it and had thought ballet was absolutely straight-faced. You didn't smile or do anything like that. Out I went, and I had a jacket that somebody had made for me -- a classical jacket but on a woman's pattern. I kept saying, "What are these things in the front?" I couldn't imagine why it was puffed out. I thought that maybe I was built wrong and needed steroids or something. Anyway, I came out for the coda and everything went pretty well. I got up from the coda; I went like this, and it ripped. I thought, "I'm sure they think I have strange arms." That was my first initiation doing that pas de deux and have been doing Nutcracker ever since.
Related Place
Pittsburgh (production location of)