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Maria Tallchief No. 02 [April 28, 1987]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0602
Run Time
0h 18m 8s
Date Produced
April 28 1987
Q: I have been told that when you first came to Chicago, that you and your husband lived in Ruth and Tom Fisher's house in Hubbard Woods.
A: Well, we used to take Ruth and Tom's house in Hubbard Woods -- charming, little old, like railroad place -- for the summer. Our daughter was very small, and having lived in New York where, of course, every weekend one went to Long Island or Connecticut, I couldn't imagine staying in Chicago all during the week. So Ruth and Tom were very nice and let us open their house while they would be in St. Tropez, and then they would come back and we would leave. So it was a nice weekend house, and we stayed in it for a while.
Q: Had you known Ruth long before you came to Chicago?
A: I had met Ruth Page when I was, I think, eighteen years old. I was with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Sergei Denham, who was the director of the company, was a very astute man, especially as far as raising money was concerned. He would go with us on tour. And he invited Ruth to come and choreograph I think it was the Edgar Allan Poe The Bells, in which she also danced, and Frankie and Johnny. So that's when I met her. It was many, many years ago.
Q: Did you dance in The Bells or in Frankie and Johnny?
A: No. Actually, I didn't, no. I remember Ruth dancing in The Bells. Frankie and Johnny, in which she also appeared, first with Bentley Stone and later with Frederic Franklin. I was one of the Salvation Army girls who sang. You see, I have perfect pitch. I can't sing, but I could get them started. And then I played either a drum or a tambourine or something. But it was very funny, and we had big pillows, and they took the three thinnest girls and had us in our Salvation Army outfits sort of singing "Frankie and Johnny" as they performed.
Q: And then after that you went to the New York City Ballet.
A: I was with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for five years. Then, I was married to Balanchine in 1946. We went to Paris at the Paris Opera in 1947, we came back from that in August of '47, and that's when he really began Ballet Society, which he had already started a little bit, which he began really in earnest, and Ballet Society was a forerunner of the New York City Ballet. That's how it all came about, with lots of hard work later.
Q: It must have been difficult for you after you left New York and came to Chicago. You were considered a great, great ballerina, a great Balanchine ballerina, and there you were in the middle of New York, and here you were in Chicago. I guess one of the first things you did was dance in La Giaconda at the Lyric in 1957.
A: I don't remember what year, but I imagine it was 1957. I was here -- we had some time off from the New York City Ballet -- so Ruth, always very aware of everything going on in the ballet world asked, "Maria, wouldn't you like to come and dance in La Giaconda." I think I only danced one performance, because then I had to get back to the company. But I was here, I was Mrs. Henry Paschen, and we were very good friends of Tom and Ruth's. It was a great pleasure to go down to the opera house, that was when Carol Fox was there . . . I'm trying to remember. I danced in Giaconda and I also later danced in the Orphee that Ruth choreographed, and I think both times with Kenneth Johnson, who by the way was a wonderful partner. And not only was he a wonderful partner, but he had a wonderful sense of humor, which I think he probably still does. I love Ken Johnson. So I have very pleasant memories. She provided me with a superlative partner, I must say, and of course, a background of dancing at the opera house was like going home for me, because I had danced there for so many years with the Ballet Russe and with the New York City Ballet.
Q: Now, it must have been obvious that Ruth's choreographic approach and style were very different from George Balanchine. How was it working with her? Was it a difficult adjustment in any way? How would you characterize it?
Q: Ruth was very interesting. The first reaction one has to Ruth is that she is so absolutely dedicated. She loves dance. This is her whole world, is dance. One feels this when one is with her. This is all she talks about. She and Tom and Buzzy and I would sit for hours and talk about the dancers here or the painters and musicians, but all having to do with the dance. So, of course, when I danced, I think she tried to do for me what I could do best. But I remember one time -- and Ken Johnson loved this -- it was in Giaconda, and it was a certain kind of pirouette, and it was very difficult for me because it was on plié with my knee bent. And she finally said, "Oh, well, you're just too big for that." And of course she was tiny. "You're just too big for that." Well ever afterward, Ken Johnson would say, "Well, Maria, you're just too big for that!"
Q: So you enjoyed it, working with her?
A: Yes. Yes. It was very interesting. It was, you know, a beautiful orchestra, a wonderful ambiance, so it was a great pleasure.
Q: Tell me a little bit about Tom Fisher. He was, I know, a very interesting man, and I think played a very important role in Ruth's life.
A: Well, Tom Fisher was absolutely incredible with Ruth. I've never seen anyone so devoted. The two of them. If one of them went away and then came back, the two of them would be sitting together, and he would be reading to her, or she would be reading to him, something that they had just read . . . . They were so completely devoted as a couple, and I think his whole life was to further Ruth's career, and I think that's very rare. He was, I assume, a brilliant lawyer. I don't know . . . . But he really dedicated his whole life to her. Everything he did, every thought, was toward helping Ruth in what she wanted to do, and what she wanted to do was to dance, first of all, and to choreograph. And I have to say, one had to admire Tom Fisher. He was an incredible companion for her. A brilliant man, wonderful sense of humor, but I'm sure it was very difficult for her when he passed away.
Q: Creatively, one gets the sense that he wasn't very much involved creatively. That it was on the business side and all the other arrangements where he was . . . .
A: Well, his metier obviously was not in dance or the arts, though he was a great connoisseur. So I'm sure his main support was -- financial, of course. He helped her in every way he could. But I think he went along with her life. He enjoyed the people that she attracted. I mean, you know, they went to Greece with Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton, and they had a wonderful time. I remember they brought back these marvelous pictures, posing in Greece. I think Tom . . . it was very rare to have a husband so completely devoted and dedicated to what his wife is doing. I must say I'm in very much the same position as far as my husband is concerned. But it's very rare.
Q: It is rare. You're lucky, both of you. I have a note that says that one year you came in as a guest artist on one tour of Ruth's company which at that time was called, I think, the Chicago Opera Ballet, and you danced Camille.
A: Yes. I danced for a short time on this tour of Ruth's. I think I went to Kansas City and a few other places. Again when the New York City Ballet wasn't performing. I danced in Camille. and it was very pleasant. It was dramatic and, of course, with beautiful music. It was very enjoyable -- again with Ken Johnson.
Q: The kinds of costumes, the kinds of interpretations, the kinds of storytelling, I don't mean interpretations . . . .
A: Ruth always had the most beautiful costumes and the most beautiful scenery. You were surrounded by the best. Anything Tom Fisher could afford, Ruth had. You know it's very expensive to be able to afford these kinds of scenery and costumes, but she did, and it made it very pleasant. In other words, I wasn't going and performing in just my black leotards. It was very pleasant, yes.
Q: I understand, also, you graciously gave a class for the soloists in the company when they were on the road.
A: I think I gave a class for everybody. It wasn't just the soloists. It was the whole company. We never differentiated between who was a soloist and who wasn't. We all feel we have a lot to learn. Class is always for everyone. I enjoyed that.
Q: It strikes me that it's a very democratic kind of world, in some ways, the world of dance.
A: Well, the world of dance is very democratic because it's just the one who works the hardest, finally. Of course, if the talent is there to begin with, and you have that ability to work and persevere, then those are the ones who succeed. Without the talent, of course, you only become a mediocre dancer and not the great artist that you aspire to be.
Q: But the work's important.
A: The work is the most important of all.
Q: You have been associated with the man who is, certainly, the greatest American choreographer, certainly, that we've ever had, of all time, thus far. There's no question about that. How would you rank the kinds of things -- are you familiar with Ruth's early work and her Americana ballets and sort of where she stands. What would you say Ruth Page's contribution has been to American ballet?
A: You know, it's very difficult for me to judge her contribution because when I first met her, I was very young. I was still living in a sort of a dream world. That I was there at all was a miracle to me . . . I was very young . . . . Then when I danced with her, it was through the Opera. So that had nothing to do with Americana. Now, when I read biographies of Ruth, I realize that she contributed a great deal to American dance. I think people like Agnes de Mille are very willing to accept this, to say "Yes, Ruth Page was a very integral part of American dance." But as far as my own judgment, I really can't say.
Q: Ruth is sort of famous for her personal flair. Anna Kisselgoff talks about the clothes she wears, she was never without something like her purple gloves, you know, unusual kinds of clothes and those kinds of things. Can you sort of draw a picture for us, of Ruth's personal style and flair in the early years when you first met her?
A: Well, I would mainly say . . . . Well, of course, when I first met her I was so busy trying to just keep myself together and learn everything in this Russian company. Later, when I got to know her much better, she had a great style for one thing. She lived a great deal in Paris. She dressed at Yves St. Laurent. She would be the one with the wonderful short pants and the cape and the feathers in her hair. She always had the latest clothes, much like Margot Fonteyn did. Both of them dressed at Yves St. Laurent. And I must say Ruth had an incredible flair. I always thought she could have been an incredible actress. She had this wonderful way of talking, and she was so natural. She always reminded me of an Irene Dunne or that type of woman, with big eyes and this marvelous flair. That's all one can say. There it was. She was a unique person.
Q: You said you saw her dance in Frankie and Johnny. Can you describe how she was as a dancer?
A: I don't really remember. I was very busy with my tambourine or whatever it was, so I could only see out of the corner of my eye. It was, you know, very interesting, of course. It wasn't classical ballet. She had on her high heels and her fishnet stockings, if I'm not mistaken. It was very interesting. For us, as classical dancers, it was a little different than anything we had ever seen. Then not much later, along came Agnes de Mille and did Rodeo for us, and by that time we were sort of used to it.
Q: Are there any other anecdotes about Ruth that you can remember, experiences that you've shared?
A: My sister has many more. My sister and her husband spent many years dancing with Ruth's company. Not only that, they went to St. Tropez many times and stayed with Ruth. And Marjorie has wonderful stories about [how] she and her husband went down to St. Tropez to rehearse and Ruth loved to dance so much, that rather than Marjorie rehearsing, Ruth would rehearse! Marjorie would be sort of standing there waiting, thinking, "Well, when am I going to get to rehearse?" But Ruth loved it. Here she had this strong, handsome man, my brother-in-law, George Skibine, and so off she'd fly into his arms. I don't know whether my sister will be too shy to tell the story, but I'm not.
Q: I'm glad. [Loretta asks:] Were you aware of the scandal involved with Frankie and Johnny in Paris?
A: That was later.
Q: Much later. In the fifties.
A: That was my friend. Helen Kramer was in it. In Paris. I never danced in it. I sang in it, of all things. I -- who can't carry a tune. But my friend Helen Kramer was in it -- she played Nellie Bly with the blonde wig -- in Paris.
Q: So she was there for the whole thing [when it] broke loose.
A: She was there. Oh, yes.
Q: My standard last question, then is, is there anything that I haven't asked you that you'd like to tell me about?
A: Well, what you haven't asked, is that I'm very pleased that this documentary is being done about Ruth. I think it's wonderful.
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