Ballet is not often associated with politics or social movements, yet the arts can be a profound way to change how people think. If a dancer is willing to take risks, they can cross boundaries of style, of nations, and of social expectations. Ruth Page crossed several boundaries in the 20th century.
When Ruth Page was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 22, 1899, her parents, Dr. Lafayette Page and Marian Heinly Page, encouraged her to follow her mother into the musical pursuits of dance and piano. Her mother was not a stranger to the limelight as a pianist, as she was well enough known during her lifetime to be included in the Musical Blue Book of America, which listed “leading musicians” around the nation. Ruth Page studied with several famous ballet masters, and it was clear that she loved dance more than piano.
With her mother’s fame, the Page house attracted celebrity guests, including Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Pavlova met Ruth Page at her parents’ home and was impressed by her. That same year, Page joined Pavlova’s dance company for a performance and then joined their tour of South America in 1918.
Back in the United States, Page worked with ballet master Adolph Bolm in Chicago for several years, though not continuously. Page’s first performance of Bolm’s choreography was in a poetic piece as part of the Herbert and Kern Miss 1917, a musical revue. Next Bolm choreographed "The Birthday of the Infanta" for Page in 1919, using one of the first American compositions in ballet. In 1922, the couple danced in the first-ever dance-film, called Danse Macabre. Check it out here! The pair teamed up again for the world premiere of Stravinsky's "Apollo," in 1928, with Page taking the role of Terpsichore, one of three muses who visit the god in the ballet.
Bolm was not the only choreographer and ballet master to be inspired by Page’s talents and eager to use her skills in new ways. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe signed her in 1925, making her the first American to ever perform with his world-renowned company. That spring, she was the first American to commission George Balanchine to create a work for her, Polka Melancolique, and later he created Etude; both were his first works for Americans.
Page danced not only classical ballet but also modern dance, opera ballet, and popular revue during her 40+ years a dancer. She was the Première Danseuse of Irving Berlin’s successful Music Box Revues on Broadway from 1922-23 and then during the show’s US tour from 1923-24.
From 1926-1928, Page was the Ballet Director for the Ravinia Opera in Chicago. She continued as principal choreographer and dancer for the Ravinia until 1931. Even when she had a steady position, Page still traveled widely to study and perform. Page performed for royalty in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, sometimes as the first American they had seen on the stage.
By 1930, Page had become enamored by modern dance. Page traveled a great deal even when she had an official position for a theater or company. In 1931, she studied at the German expressionistic dance school of Mary Wigman. Back in Chicago, Page pulled together an all African-American cast for La Guiablesse, a ballet based on a West Indies legend, and starred in it as the only white cast member. The success of La Guiablesse in 1933 helped advance the careers of Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty. Later that year, Page returned to modern dance and toured with one of Wigman’s disciples, Harald Kreutzberg. Page would continue to dance and choreograph for a worldwide audience.
Page tackled social issues and current events in several of her projects, focusing on issues of gender and violence. She commissioned Aaron Copeland to write Hear Ye, Hear Ye in 1934, a jazz ballet that looked critically at a murder trial in Chicago. American Patterns, co-choreographed with Bentley Stone in 1937, was the first feminist ballet; it looks at the restrictions placed on women when they become wives and mothers.
Page was co-director of the Chicago Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Dance Project (FDP) from 1938-1939. The group performed shows that spoke to the struggles of the masses, part of the goals of the project, even though theaters were supposed to be restricted from taking sides on controversial issues. Nevertheless, several productions did just that. Page and Stone’s 1938 Frankie and Johnny used the popular song but cast Johnny as a pimp with two prostitutes under his thumb, Frankie and Nelly Bly, framing the control of women by men as sexual slavery. The following year they put on Guns and Castanets, which retold Bizet’s Carmen set during the Spanish Civil War. Also in 1939, their Scrapbook offered the audience a glimpse into the world of dance through 7 pieces.
Prior to and after the WPA, Page continued to commission and choreograph unique ballets. Just creating American ballets was groundbreaking, but Page’s subjects were also unusual. Her 1926 ballets The Flapper and The Quarterback looked at popular cultural figures, a subject that several of her subsequent shows continued. Chicago audiences were not the only ones interested in these socially and politically relevant creations. In 1945, the Ballet Russe performed Frankie and Johnny in several American cities. Perhaps her most controversial work, 1948’s Billy Sunday, turned sermons from the famous American baseball player turned evangelist of the early 20th century into amusing dance numbers.
By the 1950s, Page transitioned to choreographer and ballet master, as many leading dancers do. She began transforming opera into ballet with Revanche, a ballet version of Il Trovatore, in 1951 and Vilia, an adaptation of The Merry Widow, in 1953. These were so successful that in 1956 she founded the Chicago Opera Ballet, which toured these opera ballets along with others, such as Die Fledermaus in 1958. Later her famous name allowed her to re-found it as the Ruth Page International Ballet. Her choreography of The Nutcracker was performed annually in Chicago from 1965 to 1997; pieces of it are still produced today during the winter holiday season.
Ruth Page continued to educate, talk, and appear into the late 1980s. She died of respiratory failure in Chicago on April 7, 1991, at the age of 92, but her legacy lives on through performances and studies of her dance and choreography. Today the Ruth Page Center for the Arts continues her commitment to dance and innovation though education and performance. The Dance Community of Chicago honors her with an annual award to one of their own.