Date Of Production
March 25 1985
Q: [You were saying...] Frankie and Johnny is an almost perfect ballet.
A: For what it is. It's not a "ballet" ballet, but it's a character ballet, I suppose you'd call it. I don't know what you'd call it. It's very well put together, I think.
Q: Everything works.
A: Everything works. That's right. The music is just right; that's really what pulls it together is the music.
A: The set is excellent. Clive Rickabaugh did that set.
A: Yes, excellent. Everything about that ballet is just right. Sometimes that happens. We never changed anything.
A: From the time we did it, nothing has ever been changed in that ballet.
Q: And the characters, Ruth; it has wonderful characters in it. Where did the ideas come from?
A: Well, it's so obvious from the song what the characters were like.
Q: Not the "Saving Susies."
A: No, that was something different. I don't know how we got that idea. I don't remember. They're very good, though, and I love the way they drink beer at the end.
Q: The tap dance with the coffin.
A: Yes, that's amusing, too, I think. I think that's very amusing. It's sad, and it's funny at the same time.
Q: It is. It's very irreverent.
A: It certainly is. Yes, very.
Q: And fun.
A: It is fun, and I love it when Nellie Bly and Frankie throw their arms around each other, with that lily wreath. I think that's very amusing.
Q: It's a delight, really. When you watch it today, it looks like it was fun creating it.
A: It was. It was lots of fun.
Q: And that's a very juicy part, your role.
A: Oh, yes. I made that for me! But everybody else who's done it has been good in it, I think. It's a sure-fire; it's an easy role to make successful.
Q: It's a ballet that has an enormous amount of dance, with an enormous amount of flair to it, you know, and audiences liked it from the beginning. Nobody gasped in shock?
A: Well, they were very shocked in Paris by it. It took a long time for it to catch on over there, because they had never seen a ballet that was not "a ballet." What is this? This isn't a ballet! Who was it? It was Larionov and Gontcharova who first recognized how amusing [it was], what fun, what a really wonderful ballet it was. And they put it over. They really told everybody. And that helped me an awful lot. When we first started, nobody came, and it was awful.
Q: Opening night, when you opened with it in Paris, the audience really must have been a shock for you.
A: Yes. They booed and hissed. It was wonderful! To create a scandal in Paris is not easy! And we did it without even thinking!
Q: Who would have thought that Paris would be scandalized by what was really sort of an American ballet, though it was a bit bawdy?
A: It was American, and you see, they had never seen anything American before. Well, people didn't do American things in those days. I was about the first one, I think, maybe.
Q: It's a very forthright statement. All the relationships, they are perfectly clear in that ballet.
A: Yes, they certainly are.
Q: And it's shocking. You get involved with the characters. I mean, when that gun goes off . . . .
A: It's very exciting.
Q: It is.
A: "Frankie, don't shoot!" Then, when he comes down the bannister on his stomach and lands on his head, that's amusing, too! How did Bentley Stone feel about it? Did he love the role?
Q: Oh, yes. Sure. Nobody did it as well as he did. Greg Begley did it very well in the film, but he was too small. He danced it beautifully, but it takes a taller man. It should be a bigger man -- more important. Greg doesn't dance any more, unfortunately. Something happened to him. I don't know what. He was a marvelous dancer, marvelous. But he was very small. So the film of it isn't as good as it should be, really. I think it would have been better if you had been dancing it in the film.
A: Yes, but I was too old to dance it.
Q: Oh, I know. But I would imagine your interpretation of the role . . . . It's interesting that you should say, "Bentley danced Frankie, er, Johnny better than anybody ever danced it. But everyone else who's ever danced Frankie has done it just as well as I have."
A: Well, it's true.
Q: Oh, Ruth.
A: I think so. They've all been good. That girl from Cincinnati, Cynthia Ann Roses, did it very well. And Ruthanna Boris did it very well. She did it in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and she did it very well. She understood exactly what I wanted. I thought she was fine in it.
Q: When I see pictures of you and Bentley Stone in the costumes from Frankie and Johnny, and other pictures I've seen of you and Bentley together, it seems that he was really the ideal partner for you at this point.
A: He was. But we were so used to each other. We just melted together. He was a marvelous partner for me. I adored dancing with Bentley.
Q: He was certainly different from your other partners . . . . I mean your partner immediately preceding Bentley . . . the one you'd done a good deal of dancing with was Harald Kreutzberg. They hardly could have been more different.
A: Kreutzberg was sort of an interlude in there. After Bentley and in between.
Q: Bentley. What was there about him?
A: Well, we'd always worked together. That was the reason. He was here; I was here. He taught here. He had a ballet class every day. He was a very good teacher. We just got used to each other, you know.
Q: Have you ever thought about teaching ballet, Ruth?
A: I would love to teach ballet, but my teachers at my school are all so good. And they don't want their jobs taken away from them, so I don't dare teach! I would love to teach. I'd like to be just a ballet teacher. I'd love it! But that's the reason I don't. I mean that, seriously. They're all my old dancers that are too old to dance, and they wouldn't have a job if I didn't give them that school. So I can't take that away from them. It's a simple as that. Maybe I wouldn't like it if I had to do it. Maybe I wouldn't. But I think I would. I can think of nothing else better.
Q: In a way, when you work with a ballet company choreographing something, isn't that a little like being a teacher.
A: Yes, of course.
Q: So, you've had experience with that and you like that?
A: Oh, yes, of course. I can't dance anymore, you know, on account of my hip, so it's very hard for me to put on any of my ballets now. Somebody else has to do it because I can't show the steps, which is very frustrating. I know how they should be done, but I can't do them and show them. So that is frustrating.
Q: That's traditionally the way it goes, isn't it, that the choreographer shows.
A: Yes, but now Balanchine's ballets, he's got about 14 or 15 dancers who know them and can go around and stage them. He doesn't go and stage them. He puts them on at the beginning, and then his pupils or whoever is in the company takes them over and learn them from him. So, they say that they are all good at putting on his ballets because they've worked with him.
Q: To a certain extent, Larry Long . . . .
A: Larry knows a lot of my ballets. He puts on The Merry Widow beautifully.
Q: He can do that for you?
A: Yes. He doesn't know Frankie and Johnny, unfortunately. Freddie Franklin knows it. He's danced in it a lot. He could do that one. Larry's going to learn Fledermaus. We're going to put that on soon, this fall. He learned it from a film. He danced in that.
Q: Now, when you go to restage that with Larry, you'll have Larry and you'll have the film. What role will you play, Ruth, when you do Fledermaus? You'll sit and you'll watch . . . .
A: Oh, I don't go until he gets it on. Then I'll go and see what's wrong, tell them how to dance -- tell them, I can't show them, but I can say. You know, this is a strange ballet, Fledermaus. It's sort of a little bit tongue in cheek, you know. So is The Merry Widow. So, sometimes you have to explain. Sometimes, dancers bring so much, it's helpful, but usually you have to tell them. Alicia Markova was a marvelous Merry Widow, and I didn't have to tell her a thing. She just naturally [did it]. I think she was the best of all of them.
Q: But she was not your first choice for the role [sic]?
A: I don't remember who did it first. I think it was Sonia Arova did that. I'm not sure.
Q: I think so.
A: Sonia was marvelous in it. Everybody who's done it has been good at it, but I think my favorite was Alicia Markova, because it was so unexpected for her to do a thing like that.
Q: That's what I mean. She actually did dance it first, Ruth. Your memory's right.
A: Did she dance it the first time?
Q: Yes, I think so. She was the first one. She came to St. Tropez, and you created it, and she refused to practice.
A: She scared me to death. Well, she was certainly very, very talented. I didn't think she was the first one. Maybe she was.
Q: She's an unlikely choice, you said, for the role?
A: Yes, she certainly was. Nureyev danced it also. He danced it with Sonia Arova. That was the way it was. When he first came over here, that was the first thing he danced.
Q: Those are terrific roles.
A: Oh, yes. You'd be an idiot if you couldn't make a success of those roles!
Q: In the same way, the roles in Frankie and Johnny are terrific roles.
A: Yes, they are. They're very good for anybody who wants to dance them. Wonderful roles.
Q: Totally different, of course, from The Merry Widow.
A: Oh, yes.
Q: Harder. Which is harder, Frankie and Johnny or The Merry Widow -- not technically, but for a dancer to interpret?
A: Oh, I don't know. I have no idea. I think The Merry Widow is harder.
Q: Because it's technically harder?
A: No. It's so simple. It's simple, and the hardest thing in the world [is] to be simple. You can make wonderful choreography, millions of steps, and people can do them, but to do something and have it right, it has to be simple, and that's the hardest thing in the world -- to be simple and right. That's what you've got to be.
Q: Simple and right.
A: Don't you think it's about time for the birthday cake? . . . [Discussion of cake.]
Q: I would like to hear more anecdotes about Frankie and Johnny and the people who danced it and the response to it after the initial performance, Ruth.
A: Where did we do it first, the Great Northern Theatre?
Q: It was the WPA, and you did it at the Great Northern Theatre in Chicago, June 19, 1938.
A: 1938. Well, Bentley and I always danced it. Nobody else ever danced it then, except us.
Q: You danced it all over the world.
Q: What is there in it that everyone responds to, forgetting that one unusual thing in Paris?
A: Oh, I think it's because it's simple, and they can understand it, and the music is good. The scenery is good. The costumes are all right; they're what they should be. Nellie Bly is a hard role to do because she has to be matter-of-fact. That's sometimes hard to do. Frankie is just very emotional and just acts out her feelings. But Nellie Bly [is very matter-of-fact], and it's very amusing. I don't know if people get the idea at the end where she goes up the steps to her room with the policeman. That's very naughty. Nellie Bly was just an ordinary prostitute, you see. And Frankie was a prostitute, too, but she was a prostitute who had feeling. She loved only one man, but she was still a prostitute. That's a very naughty ballet, I guess!
Q: It's naughty and it's wonderful -- "he was her man . . . "
A: "He was her man, but he done her wrong." It's very sad. It's really a very sad story.
Q: It strikes me that that was, in its way, the perfect role for you to dance.
A: I loved dancing it. I adored dancing it. I never liked doing classical roles very much. I didn't do any, I don't think. I can't think of any that I ever did, did I? You know a lot about me. Love Song, that was classical.
Q: You did some white ballets.
A: Oh, in the Music Box Revue, I did a straight, what I call a pure technical white dance in a tutu.
Q: "Under the Chandelier."
A: It was nothing but a straight dance. I had a corps de ballet around me, and I did a solo, a toe solo. That's what it was. I can't think of anything else, classical thing that I did.
Q: But Frankie is a character . . . .
A: Yes, a marvelous character.
Q: . . . is tempestuous. Frankie strikes me as more a projection of Ruth Page -- not in terms of her life . . . .
A: You think I'm a prostitute? [Laughter]
Q: No, Ruth, I think you're a woman of strong feelings.
Q: If you contrast the heroine of American Pattern with Frankie, which one is more like you?
A: I don't know. I don't know what I'm like.
Q: Well, in verve and style.
A: Cake . . . .
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Cassette Tape ➜ Betacam SP ➜ 20 min.