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Orrin Kayan No. 03 [July 3, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0596
Run Time
0h 19m 13s
Date Produced
July 3 1985
Q: Orrin, tell me about the first time you met Ruth Page.
A: I met Ruth Page when I was twelve years old through my brother, who at that time was her musical director and accompanist. And I'd seen the lady for years and years before I ever decided to dance myself, which happened when I turned about seventeen. I thought, "This stuff looks like a lot of fun and I'm gonna see if I can do it." And I took classes with Charlie Bockman, here in Chicago. And he came to me afterwards and he said, "You know, you have a lot of talent," and so I studied very hard with him and a few other people. I auditioned for Ruth when I was 21 years old and have been with her ever since.
Q: Tell me about that first time you went out on the road.
A: 1956. That year, oh, now they know how old I am. Well, let's see, it was my first tour. It was my first big professional experience, and I loved it. I just loved it. I started in the corps de ballet. And she was marvelous, just marvelous to work with. She was so much fun. She was so vibrant. She was just marvelous. She laughed and she screamed and she hollered at us. At the time we were doing the Opera season, too, so while we were doing the operas, we were learning the ballets that we were going to take on the road -- which at that time was the Merry Widow and Revenge. I was lucky, I got some little, sort of featured [corps] parts from the very beginning, which was marvelous. And that was the first tour. And it was three months long, and we did one-night stands. Heaven knows how many cities we were in.
Q: Did you have the sense that you were bringing ballet to people who had not seen it before?
A: You know, at that time I think I was so stupid. I was just doing it for me. I just loved it. It's so marvelous to dance every night, to do these ballets. And they were marvelous to dance, very fun and "up" and dancey. And Revenge, of course, was very dramatic, and then it contrasted beautifully with the Merry Widow. And, of course, at that time we had these wonderful guest stars. I think it was Skibine and Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief. And they were wonderful. Who else? We had somebody else. Sonia Arova, I think was on the first tour. And Job Sanders.
Q: And then later you had Melissa Hayden and Kirsten Simone.
A: Henning Kronstam.
Q: Henning Kronstam.
A: Erik Bruhn. We had everybody. The greatest.
Q: Now, I've always wondered how you were dancing the principal roles and then a guest would come in and take away your role. Can you talk about how that felt? You know, start and make it a complete sentence.
A: Okay. When the guest stars came in, I never felt that it was taking anything away from me. I always felt it was an addition to my knowledge, to get to see them doing the same parts that I was doing. I never felt that -- I'm kind of surprised even that the question would come up. It just . . . to have them there enhanced the company so much, I think, by their stature, and which in turn, of course, if the company was enhanced, I felt enhanced. Okay, so, maybe the way she cast the ballets -- if they did one of the roles that I was doing, I would have something else, maybe not as big a ballet to dance but a trio, pas de trois, or pas de deux, or something equally good. So I really never, never did feel that too much.
Q: Do you think that Ruth did that on purpose, make sure that her own featured dancers always had an important part of the program?
A: Yes. She would have to make sure that we were shown doing good things, because always we would scream and jump up and down and be obnoxious.
Q: Really?
A: Yes, really. We had our fights, as any professional group of people does. I shouldn't have said "fights," I should have said "disagreements." Naaaaw, they were fights, good down-and-out fights.
Q: What were they about mostly?
A: Almost anything. Almost anything. We were . . . you know, I think we were a very difficult group of people.
Q: Why?
A: Because, I hate to say this, but most artists are slightly temperamental, and some of us were a little more temperamental than others. And I have some memories that I'm not too proud of and said things that I probably shouldn't have said. But I'm famous for my honesty. And whatever happens comes right out of my face -- boy, my mouth opens and out it comes. And Ruth is the same way. Ruth is . . . if it passes into her brain, it comes out of her mouth. And a lot of us say things unthinkingly. And there were times that Ruth and I did go at it, about if she wanted something some certain way. I'll never forget, there was one time we were doing . . . it was one of my first "Snow" pas de deux in the Nutcracker. And I will not mention the girl, who was just one of the guests that sort of came in and out. And Ruth said to me, "You know, you're not lifting her high enough in that overhead lift." And I said, "But, Ruth, that's as high as I go." And the girl was up there in this god-awful position, and Ruth said, "She doesn't look right." And I said, "Well, tell her, don't tell me." And we got into this big fight. It was funny, funny, funny.
Q: While you were standing . . . .
A: No, no, no, this was afterwards. She told me afterwards, "You just didn't get her high enough," and I said, "Well, I think she was used to a taller boy." And I just didn't look that tall and the girl didn't go that high, you know?
Q: After you had these fights, how did you make up?
A: Kissed.
Q: And that was the end of it?
A: Yes, almost always. She . . . I've never known her to hold a grudge particularly. And I never did. Well, we grumped around a lot, too.
Q: Life on the road was hard.
A: It was hard. Life on the road is hard because you're with this same group constantly. You know, you're on the bus together, you eat together, you dance together, sometimes sleep together[.] So, you know, you just really are tied up with that group of people for three months. And you can't get away. There's no place to go to get away.
Q: Now Ruth would travel with the company and then she'd leave and then come back again. She wasn't with the company all the time.
A: Ruth traveled with us for the most part. She only went away for short periods of time. And personally, I always thought we were better when she was there.
Q: Why?
A: It was . . . she gave . . . she would come back and say the most awful things -- another reason for some of the fights. She'd come back and say, "Oh, darling, you were just awful in that. You didn't do this and you didn't do that." And we'd scream, you know. But then we would try to do it the way she wanted. And she, most of the time, was right.
Q: Talk about some of the roles that you danced, Orrin. And what were you favorites and the differences among them.
A: Whoa. I did . . . my favorite, my absolute favorite of all of them was Danilo in The Merry Widow. Merry Widow I did . . . I started out doing the corps. I graduated to Jolidon, which was lots of fun, good part. I then finally got to do Danilo. And I just loved it. I just didn't know anything could feel that wonderful. And that was really one of my favorite roles. I also did the Jester in Revenge, which I had a lot of disasters on that one. Things would happen to me.
     I'll never forget one of the first performances. It was done what they call "in one," which means in front of the [curtain]. It's supposed to be a beautiful backdrop, and some of the [times] we couldn't hang our scenery. So it was done in front of a regular curtain. And somebody opened a door backstage and the curtain billowed. And I was doing what they call "turns in second," where your leg is out to the side and you're hopping around, and my foot hit that curtain and I went "flliiit." And I was standing back looking at all the other dancers backstage. And I thought what am I doing back here, it's my solo. And I just thought, Oh, and jumped out, because I ended up looking straight into Ken Johnson's face 'cause they were already for the next scene. And he said, "Orri," and I said, "Ken." Flew back up, finished the dance. Ruth came back afterwards and she said, "Darling, you're never going to be able to do those turns." Needless to say that was one of our fights. So funny. Oh, needless to say, I did do those turns.
     And then I graduated from there and did end up doing Manrico, which was fun. That was a good part, too. That was real dramatic. Danilo was just sort of romantic prince, without too much depth of character. But Manrico had all kinds of things. And most of the principal roles in her ballets are based on operas. And somehow the opera stars aren't quite such "boobs" as most of the classical ballet princes. We say "boobs." There's not a lot of depth in most of those characters. I mean, Ruth gave you some good meaty parts to sink your teeth in. Another favorite that wasn't a ballet of Ruth's was . . . she brought Flemming Flindt's The Lesson to us. And he chose me to do it. And that was marvelous because that's Ionesco and he was a murderer and he's mad. That was a good fun part.
Q: Most difficult role?
A: Most difficult role? Fledermaus. Eisenstein in Fledermaus is very hard.
Q: Why?
A: The partnering is some of her trickiest. And she's famous for her pas de deux that she worked very much with Ken Johnson. And they did some beautiful pas de deux work. And that one had some really hard stuff in it. The lifts were hard, the dancing was hard, and at the same time, you're supposed to be, you know, "hahaha." I found that one really tough. Also, Armand in Camille. But that was . . . I think that was the one role that never suited me. That one just . . . I was a mile away from. I wasn't the gushy romantic type somehow. That one was just a little bit too soft of a character for me to get my teeth into. I couldn't find him.
Q: What about a ballet called Combinations.
A: Ahhh!
Q: Tell us about Combinations.
A: Combinations was a work of love. She did that for me. And she did it, I think, for herself. There was a lot of her in that ballet. There was a lot of personal things that she was saying in that ballet. And we used to have -- boy, talk about fights -- we had a lot of fights on that one. She had some wildly zany ideas, which some of them worked and some of them we just couldn't get to go. She had a number based on the telephone, where I was supposed to get all tangled up in the phone cords, and it was her statement of being constantly bugged by the telephone. You know, her phone never stopped ringing. It was always interrupting her and interrupting her train of thought and interrupting her work. And she really was trying to take out this frustration on this number. And I, as we were rehearsing, I was getting choked by these phone cords, and the kids were tripping all over me and over the phone cords and it was like, "Help, Ruth, this isn't going to work." "Oh, of course it will, darling."
Q: Did it?
A: Eventually, we got it to work. I don't know how. And there were some marvelous things in that ballet. It was done to that nursery rhyme theme, "Twinkle, twinkle little star," and she had some very cute stuff in there and some really hard dancing. That was a good one.
Q: It was a different kind of ballet for her.
A: Very unusual ballet. It didn't so much have a story as these episodes. And each episode somehow tied together -- boy, you know this is so long ago I can hardly remember Combinations. It did just sort of go from one episode to another, and I was the tying theme, going through it. And things would happen, dancers would run off and I'd be in a different costume.
Q: It was more abstract, more modem.
A: It was very modem and it was . . . the abstraction came in this episodic structure. And trying to get it tied together, that was hard. That was a tough one.
Q: There were eight variations and then there was a ninth one that finally got put in at the end. Do you remember about that? There was eight, and apparently it just got so difficult nobody wanted to do the ninth. I mean, what can you remember?
A: If there was a ninth, I don't remember which one it was.
Q: [to an assistant] Do you want to hand me the Martin book?
A: I know there was something we tried to get cut out.
Q: Right.
A: Which one was that? That was the . . . .
Q: There was something called . . . here are the things. There are the variations, Orrin. I think nine was but. . .
A: Why don't I remember? I do not remember.
Q: . . . only that it was extremely difficult.
A: I know there was something, but we didn't feel it was working, and we tried to get her to cut that particular section, and she just didn't want to. What was that? I can't remember, sorry.
Q: Was she ever . . . were other times when you would try to get her to . . . . And there are other times that you can remember when . . . what kinds of anecdotes can you remember about trying to get things changed or trying to suggest changes and what happened?
A: Usually when Ruth was staging something . . . . For instance, when she did Escamillo for me in Carmen, which was another of my favorite roles, she had a wonderful idea and started the dance. And because she wasn't a man and because she didn't jump the way a man jumps, she would sketch out the steps. She would say, "Do entrechat-six, or something." And I would say, "But that's gonna be too fast for me. I will not be able to get all that in that fast." And so she would say, "Well, how does it feel comfortable getting the same steps?" And I would say, "Well, if you cut maybe one "six" and let me do something landing one foot then I can go into the other side." And so we tried that, and she said, "Now that does work, that's exactly what I had in mind."
     So that way we would work together. Then she had a wonderful step in there [groan]. She had this mental picture of a bull fighter doing a handstand on the bull, going over the horns. And so she gave me a handstand on the floor, and I had to do what we call a cabriole, where you beat your legs together. Well, by standing on my hands, my legs were up there, and every time I beat them together I went into a walkover and fell on my back. And I kept saying, "Ruth, I can't do this." It started to terrify me. I got a real block about it. And she wouldn't take it out. She said, "No, that's what I want, that's what it has to be." And I said, "Wonderful, that's what it has to be." And I was up there one night, and she kept coming backstage saying, "You're getting lower and lower." I was standing on my hands but my legs were down here someplace, instead of getting them up over my head. So finally she said, "Well, you do it so badly I'm gonna have to change it." And I said, "Well, thank God." So she did. She gave me a different step in there. She didn't love me for that one at all.
Q: What would you say was her relationship in general to those of you in the company who are her principal dancers.
A: Friendship bordering on love. Those of us that were her nucleus worked with her almost constantly, year round. We would rehearse off-season, so she could get her ideas sketched out on bodies. And those were marvelous times. That was up on 1100 Lake Shore. And we would come in, do class in the morning, and do some rehearsing stuff and have lunch. Go back, rehearse a little more, and that was a wonderful time. Those were . . . she got some beautiful things done in those rehearsals. And we all were pretty friendly, particularly Ken Johnson, Patty Klekovic, my brother, and myself were a clique, call it a clique, closer than some of the others. And we were around her a lot and had a lot of fun with her.
Q: Talk about the parties at 1100.
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Chicago (production location of)