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Kenneth Johnson No. 07 [April 3, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0593
Run Time
0h 20m 25s
Date Produced
April 3 1987
Q: The intensity and drive that Ruth has -- where do you think it comes from?
A: Vitamins. Ruth's brother was a heart specialist, and I'm sure he possibly gave her diets or suggested things, but Ruth ate well. She had this energy, and she certainly had the love for it, and her mind was constantly going. She would read, get books and come in and say, "Now, this is how death should be." And she would have these Spanish books with figures, and you would get the feeling that she always had backup material for whatever she did. It was never just anything completely out of the top of her head. She would go away and you would go, "Oh, I hate this section of this choreography." She would come back the next day and do the most unusual things. You'd say, "Ruth, where did that come from? You made that up." That's what I would say. By God, she would come out and there it was, just fantastic.
Q: How would you evaluate Ruth as a choreographer?
A: Well, to me, Ruth's choreography was difficult to describe because I enjoyed it. It was a way I saw Romeo and Juliet, Carmen, or José. It was my life. You could get involved in it. Where I could not say that if I went to see a Balanchine piece, you would get involved. The earlier works were more like Ruth did -- like La Sonnambula or something, but the later works were completely a physical thing. In Ruth's, you could be almost a bad dancer and come off well, because of the way she used you and the costumes and everything. Some people, I would imagine, maybe didn't like Ruth as a choreographer, but I would rate her as one of the really top. She and Agnes de Mille and Tudor and . . . . Well, now they're doing Ruth's ballets all over the place. They're redoing. They just brought out a new Merry Widow. When they did it with the Australian Ballet [choreography by Peter Darrell] before, it was a big flop, and they had Margot Fonteyn in it. They had big stars, and it was an elaborate production, but they didn't have the heart that Ruth's had. They didn't have the story detail in it. It was more frivolous. You were looking at a review rather than the actual meat of what this was.
     I think that's why Ruth's things will hold up. I did Ruth's ballet in Tulsa -- I staged it down there, and they were fantastic in it. You do each little detail, and they picked it up right away. In fact, it was funny because the boy was a very good partner, and they had all of these unusual lifts where you lift them on the hips and things like that. I would take the girl and do it, and he couldn't. Here I am throwing the girl around and doing these different things. He said, "If you can do it, I'm going to do it." By God, he killed himself -- crippled coming in, but he did it because he liked it; he liked the way it looked and that, and he was going to do it. Where, as I say, a lot of your big stars that came in would say, "Well, forget that, I'll do this in place of it," and it was not the same. It did not have the same look that Ruth had. Suddenly, it became like the nucleus. It was a good group. I would rate her quite high as a choreographer. I know she's going to last. It'll be like Massine's Gaité [Parisiènne] and the different choreographers that have the masterpieces.
Q: If there's a single quality that's identifiable in Page's work, what would it be? Heart?
A: Ruth's ballets do have heart and soul because she always had figures in them; where there was comedy -- you actually laughed at it. So many times you watch comedy in ballet and don't laugh. It's not like television, but in her works you actually do laugh. The situations are funny and how she evolves them. She would give it to you, and you would come out and do it.
     When I left Ballet Theatre and went to Chicago and danced Barber of Seville, I used to hate to rehearse it because I had a comedy piece where I had to deliver a letter and was supposed to be drunk. And every time Bentley was there, I knew Bentley hated it and hated me. He'd say, "Ruth, cut this; it's so boring and so dull." I would do it that way. I would do it dull and just mock it. Ruth would say, "Well, maybe we'll cut it, or maybe we'll do this or that." Anyway, we went out for the performance at Mandel Hall. I hit that scene and was so drunk and outlandish in it because I didn't care. The audience screamed and applauded. I finished with this pirouette and fell flat on the floor. Ruth ran over and said, "You were just wonderful! Bentley probably hates you." I just looked up and said, "Keep dancing, Ruth." It was just wonderful to do.
Q: So Bentley was jealous of you?
A: I don't know, he could have been, but not necessarily of me, but of the fact that I was still dancing. I was new. In a sense, if I were involved in the same thing and wanted to dance today and saw somebody doing my place. It's possible.
Q: You keep talking about as a family, the company being together like a family. Was she the mother, the big sister, or what?
A: Well, Ruth was everything. I think she was the mother, she was the sister, the lover -- she was everything in the company. You could put the blame on her for what was wrong, like you yell at your mother and do this and that. She was like a sister and oversaw everything. She had her own particular faults as far as we were concerned, but she was there. When anything went wrong, we would call Ruth and complain. She always said dancers were complaining, but at least, we were like her children. We wanted to be petted and told we danced nice. Plus, the fact that we all stayed with Ruth. Some of corps left, but the majority stayed with Ruth, and all of her soloists are still with her -- Dolores, Larry, Orrin -- we're all still there.
Q: Do you love her?
A: Oh, sure. It's . . . . Another situation was that Ruth always said I was her favorite teacher outside of Bolm and those people from earlier days. She always said I was her favorite teacher, and I'd say that she was my favorite pupil because if somebody didn't want to do one of my steps or something, they either didn't do it or they said, "Well, I don't want to do this" -- occasionally. Ruth always did it. Whatever I said going across the floor, she always did it. I'd say, "You're the best, Ruth," and she'd perk up.
     When she did her book on classes and had each teacher come in and do it, she never asked me to do it. She sent me a book and inside the book, the inscription is: "From your favorite pupil to my favorite teacher."
Q: How do you explain that?
A: I can't. I'm just saying that it's strange because I'm not there. When I moved to New York, I'm sure it was like out of sight, out of mind. I was still there and she could call me back, but I wasn't there daily. There was nothing for me to do. The little bit that there was -- The Nutcracker and that. When I came here, I always pushed for Ruth's ballets, because I wanted them to do them here. So we did Carmina Burana and Concertino pour trois, and these things here, and they were big successes.
Q: Why do you think audiences like her ballets so much?
A: They're entertaining. Good production. They're entertaining, and you don't see it anymore. I keep going back to Balanchine or people like that, a spin-off from it. You can just see so many of those. Especially in the Midwest -- I think that's one reason that Balanchine never really toured that much. It would have been expensive, but I don't think the people liked it, except in the big cities or in Europe. That's where the audiences go to see that. In New York now, they go to see the theaters. You go to the Met to see the Met, then you find out what's playing. You wouldn't see those people if they were in a small dinky place in the [Greenwich] Village or something, but you go to the tourist attractions.
Q: What do you think has been Ruth's major influence on the American ballet?
A: I think Ruth's greatest influence was at the beginning because she took subjects that were of the day. She took like Billy Sunday and Frankie and Johnny and Hear Ye! Hear Ye! They were all up-to-date pieces. I think she was a pioneer . . . just like Agnes de Mille was searching, and these different people were searching for things in their period. She brought it a little further and a little further, then it sort of stopped. That's when all of the physical and tricks and this and that. So Ruth put in tricks and that, but they were done in a subtle way. That's the difference between Russian dancers and the American dancers. Like Marjorie Tallchief said, we have to come out very simply, walk correctly and lift the girl like it was nothing. Where the Russians come and hoist and bring the house down. We have to be just so subtle and do something maybe [a] one arm [lift], but it's not done the same way. If we did it, they'd say we were corny or showing off or exhibitionists.
Q: You had a brilliant career with Ruth. Have you ever been sorry that you didn't pick up and leave earlier?
A: I started ballet when I was late, so when I met Ruth, I was never really sorry. I had the opportunity to go with different companies, and I might have done more, but I was never really that interested in going into completely classical roles where you just stood there and partnered and that. I was more into the romance and the feeling -- the comedy, which I eventually went into. I wanted to be, I suppose, another Hollywood star or in Broadway, and that, Ruth, in a way, was the closest to it because she gave me the glamour. That's exactly what Ruth was. She was glamorous in America, because the companies outside of Ballet Russe or a European company did not have this. It was sterile.
     It was strange because the parties were glamorous and the conversation was glamorous. It was exciting. When I went to Europe with Ruth for a summer . . . that's where we did Carmen. And I went to St. Tropez and there was Brigitte Bardot, and you went to England and there was Vivien Leigh. You saw all of these people and saw how Ruth fit in. When she came back, she was not what I would call a native Chicagoan. She was glamour. She was a society lady and I think a lot of people resented that. I'm not knocking Chicago, but I mean Ruth brought glamour to it. When you went to a party or something, she would stimulate you. She would bubble when she talked, and it rubbed off.
Q: Do you think she works at being glamorous?
A: I think Ruth works a little bit at being glamorous only in the fact that she dresses well, gets designer clothes, but she'll say herself that she doesn't spend much money on designer clothes, because she'll go to Paris and gets them off the rack at designers because she was that size. So Margot Fonteyn did that and different people did that. Not that she hasn't had others, but she always had a name like Chanel or something like that. She always had the season dress -- she had this sari dress which was like a hankie practically, but it was something new and inventive.
     Dolores Lipinski adored Ruth's clothes and half the time when Ruth was through, she would give them to Dolores and they were still updated, but Dolores loved them, and Patricia.
Q: Have you ever seen Ruth sad?
A: Oh, yes. I saw Ruth sad. When she fell in the orchestra pit, she was pretty sad. I saw her in the hospital when she was mugged . . . . My mother watched rehearsal one day, and when the rehearsal was over and she left, Ruth said, "You know, she reminds me so much of my mother." I was surprised. She felt very nostalgic, her mother was dead and that my mother had a mother quality. I thought, "Gee, that's a side of Ruth I've never seen." She didn't talk that much about it. They were more like professional people. She would say so-and-so played the piano, and my mother did this, or they were involved in that. Her mother started the symphony in Indiana. She would just talk almost abstractly about these people, so you didn't know her true feelings.
     I think Ruth just had her mind to where she wanted to go and she got there. She might have wanted more, maybe to be established in New York or somewhere, but she did what she wanted to do. She created the ballets, and they were successful. She was surrounded by artists. They would go to Europe and buy paintings of famous artists, before they were famous artists. They had beliefs, and they had the talent to see talent. Tom was very good about that, so he would make very good deals for things. I think she had a very good life.
Q: Did you ever see her angry?
A: Oh, many times. Ruth would get angry many times about different things. If something didn't go right, but it was always for the moment though, a superficial anger. We might make her angry, and she would walk out or something, but it was only momentary. I've never seen her angry for a great period of time.
Q: Did you ever see her cry?
A: Probably, but I don't know that it was over anything. She might have had tears of joy or sadness. I don't even remember, even when she was sick. I don't think she ever was really . . . she took care of herself. I don't remember her ever being upset that much that she cried.
Q: What do you miss most about her? After you left the company and were not with Ruth every day, what did you miss most about her?
A: When the company folded, I think that I wanted her to come here, which she did do for quite a while. But I think the only thing I could say was that I would have been more involved with the school or something, because I would rather have stayed in Chicago. But there was no offer from Ruth at all, in that sense. She probably felt that I was content here and that I didn't want it or something. I think that is the only thing that I would have been involved, because I loved Chicago and would have been involved with her.
Q: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about that you would like to tell me about?
A: I think I've mentioned about everything with Ruth Page. I think everything else would be like a repetition of other fun things about Ruth and things that have happened. You would get to know a little more about Ruth, but I think it would all be repetition. Like her ballets, she would do certain things over again that were identifiable. You would know that this was a Ruth Page ballet because you knew there would be good pas de deux, dramatic or funny. You'd say, "This is a Ruth Page ballet." It had to be. The glamour of the sets and that.
Q: Most of the people who are going to be watching this television program may possibly have heard Ruth's name only dimly. If there was one thing that you could say to the people who will be watching it, what would it be? One quality you wanted to pick out about Ruth; one message that you, Ken, wanted them to know about Ruth?
A: I would think if I wanted anybody to know something about Ruth, to get to know this woman -- outside of all of the qualities that I have mentioned, I would go back to that she's Auntie Ruth; she's your Auntie Ruth -- the fun lady that came with the candy and the gifts and the fun and the love when you were a child. That's Ruth Page.
Q: Thank you.
Related Place
Pittsburgh (production location of)