What happened to you when you left Carmelita (ca. 1940)?
I had signed with a company in NY but nothing ever came out of it so I took on some work performing in nightclubs, supper clubs they were called. I was a bit leery of that at first but Eugene Loring‘s company was on hiatus. So I took their offer and performed flamenco solos in front of elegant dinner guests. I improvised the performance, I didn't have time for anything else other than figuring out how I was gonna get onto the stage and exit…but each night I got more into it and got into a pattern. Fortunately my mother had made me a wonderful thing for class that I wore for the performances. It had a square neck, just straps, very tight all the way to the knees and at the back it had the fishtails and it was all lined with a fuchsia color fabric. I think I had earrings and flowers in my hair. After that I came back to Hollywood because my mother was writing “…you keep getting calls from the studio, you can get work out here”. And they paid better than Broadway. And that’s when I started working as a studio dancer. I generally got on pictures with ballet scenes. Lester Horton was doing choreography for films at that time. Minor films, B-pictures…Universal studio. Lester Horton respected Maracci students, we respected each other. He would call me over, while we were doing a picture…he’d say Could we do this on pointe? I mean, he was wonderful, he came up with these wonderful twists and turns, but he didn’t have the experience of what could be done on pointe. And I would put on my pointe shoes and say "Like this?". And he would be delighted. He would work with me on the pointe stuff. He was a dear man, so gentle and sweet. And the choreography he did was good. I did five pictures for him, three of them were on pointe. Phantom of the Opera (1943), Climax (1944) and Salome Where She Danced (1945), the other two are White Savage (1943) and Shady Lady (1945) .
Would you do a warm up class with what is known as the Lester Horton technique?
Oh yes, we would do it every morning before rehearsal. Bella Lewitzky, his lead dancer would give it and Lester was there of course, but Bella would lead the class. We did all the isolations, it was great…things that I had never done before. The only modern I had ever had was a summer course with a member from Martha Graham’s. So I really enjoyed working with Bella.
Did the exercises feel strange for you coming from classical ballet?
It wasn’t strange to me, because when Carmelita did Flamenco..we did incredible things..we’d do heel work and do a great backbend and suddenly come forward, throw the weight in opposite directions so I was used to using my torso. Lester was such nice man, I was so sorry to lose him (Lester died of a heart attack in 1953). He was always sweet and understanding. Very gentle. SHE (Carmelita) was never gentle.
Do you remember your first job you got as a Hollywood chorus girl?
One of the first jobs I got was in “Hello Frisco”(1943). It was a a period film, I had to wear fishnets and the hair was chic, piled up high on the top of the head. On the last day of shooting, word went around there was gonna be an audition over at Paramount. We got off early enough, all piled in, everybody shared rides, got into the car and got there in time. Don Loper was the choreographer and this was his first picture. Don Loper had been a well known ballroom team dancer: Barrat and Loper. They played at the very best supper clubs in their day. They were known because she was always so chic. She had the greatest gown, the most beautiful coiffure. They were known for their grooming and they danced well. And now they had broken up and he was now gonna choreograph this picture with Ginger Rogers “Lady in the Dark” (1944). So we all came to rehearse in slacks, hair down, and he looked at us and said “How in the hell did I hire you?” Because he had hired us when we came in with the make-up on from the other film and the hairdo..he loved up-does. And here we were and we looked like frumps. But he laughed and said “I guess you will do”. And he turned out to be a very fun person to the work for. Ginger Rogers on the other hand...she cut our number where we wore these beautiful, custom made, glass spun headpieces. She only wanted male dancers in her number.
How would an audition normally go when you worked as studio dancer?
Sometimes they would give us a piece of choreography from the movie, depends on the choreographer. It depended too on how extensive the job would be on how much dance they needed. A lot of choreographers would say “Give me a time step, give me chaînés and give me a tour jeté.” They want to see how you get those legs up. With Bob Alton we always gave something out of the choreography.
What was your strength as a dancer?
Adage. I always loved long lines, extensions, arms going on forever. I managed 4 turns on pointe maybe 5 but I couldn’t depend on it. But I was a good beater. I could do entrechats sixes like it was nothing. In fact, my friend Donald Saddler (American dancer, choreographer and theater director) who also was a student at Carmelita’s, we would do this friendly competition after class and do 64 entrechats sixes. I could just go on and on. I had very strong, high arched feet. My pointe shoes had to be reinforced with a steel shank otherwise they wouldn’t last long at all. People took photographs of my feet. I never wore padding in my pointe shoes. Neither did Carmelita.
What kind of pointe shoes did you wear?
When I first started I used Freed’s and to this day I love a Freed but it’s such a delicate light shoe, it’s a performance shoe. It’s not good for class day in and day out. You're buying a pair every few days. And with a price of shoes nowadays! I always tell beginners if you want to feel good get a Freed because you’re not doing that much, just enough to get warm, feel the floor, feel the foot and it will last you a long time. But later you’ll need a strong shoe. Anyway, there was a man at the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Gower Street who had a theatrical shoe store upstairs over that corner building and he fit me into a shoe called Barney’s. And it was very popular in it’s day but I haven’t heard of them in years so I don’t know what happened to them. But even when I was in the films I would tell the wardrobe person I wore Barney’s. And it had a very strong shank which I broke at about second wearing and we would put a steel shank in, because I had these big arches and strong feet.
Can you talk about your role as a chorus girl in An American in Paris (1951)?
I made the audition as a ballet dancer. Leslie Caron was a ballet dancer so there had to be ballet sequences in it. And we were in the sequence were we wore black and red tutus, gorgeous costume..the whole thing was beautiful, the costume and scenery was wonderful. And we were on the carousel and danced maybe 24 bars, not much because the camera kept moving. So in the end when I saw the picture there was nothing but a swirl of colors and smoke, I couldn’t find myself (laughs)...but it was a job at the time, and it was fun. Gene Kelly was very nice to work with. He was the kind of person whom everybody called “Gene”. When you worked on Fred Astaire movies you’d say “Mr. Astaire”.
How did you meet Balanchine and when did you start working for him?
I met him here in Hollywood. I wasn’t a professional studio dancer yet. This was in 1939. He came out here to do a film. He was married to Vera Zorina at the time and she was the star of the Warner Brothers film “On your Toes”. So he brought four dancers with him from NY, one of them was my husband, that is how I met my husband. There was André Eglevsky, my husband Ray Weamer, Lew Christensen and William Dollar. Then Balanchine hired the rest of the dancers out here. And he hired all of the Maracci girls.
In the musical there is a ballet called “Slaughter on 10th Ave”, do you remember which part you danced?
“Slaughter” was more of a jazz ballet. And Zorina did the part that Tamara Geva originally had done in the Broadway show. She had long extensions and did things with a backbend. She was up on a table or platform and we were doing accent movements around her. In the film there is also a ballet called “Zenoiba”, based on the story of Shehrezade. We wore harem pants and danced on pointe. We rehearsed about 4 weeks, shooting took about a week. Balanchine never gave us a class to warm up, I guess no one really did a class except for us Maracci girls because we were trained that way. He was very nice to work for. Not demanding at all in those days, very pleasant. He was mainly focused on his wife. She was a good dancer, for her day. For the audition he gave a very simple combination on pointe and chaînés. We finally did a lot of chaînés in front of the camera for the background credits. As the credit run we did chaînés across, from stage left to stage right . We would run around behind the camera, skip over the cables and start again so it was a constant line of turning bodies. At the end of the shoot he said to three of us “If you come to New York, look me up, I could use you”. I never thought of it again until I left Carmelita and went to NY. So I went to Muriel, she taught for Balanchine and she reconnected me with him. So I rehearsed with him and the company, we worked on two or three ballets but the only one I ever performed was Serenade.
When did you perform Serenade?
It was in the early 1940ies, I wasn’t part of the premier production of 1931. I was too young, but I knew a lot of the girls that were a part of it from the beginning because they had studied with Maracci or came in the summer to study with her. Leyda Anchutina, Daphne Vain, Elise Reiman, Holly Howard…Kathryn Mullowny, was in the original. I think Leyda is the one that fell in class and Balanchine decided to keep the fall in the choreography.
Do you remember the costumes?
Ours were pale blue, long tutus. I think they always have worn that costume. It was such soft blue, just a hint. It was lovely.
“Serenade” is a plotless ballet. Do you remember any direction Mr. B may have given you during rehearsal that could help you perform this piece?
I remember him giving us individual corrections. I can’t say he set it on us because it was already set but he would make changes according to each dancer. If you did something well he liked it and kept it. He liked my long lines and so he utilized that. When I see the ballet performed now I can’t find my part. So many have done it and things have changed. Musically it’s there. My part happened after the fall (laughs), I remember that. And there were a group of four or five girls who turned to their right and went upstage and I crossed in a bourré and went downstage. I remember the feel of it, the stretching of the arms reaching...
What do you think Balanchine wanted to express?
He didn’t start off with a theme or anything, he started with steps and then it evolved. He never said you must feel this and do that…as opposed to, say Anthony Tudor who was very precise in what you were thinking and doing. But Balanchine just let it flow musically. If he saw something that you did well he’d like it and he’d let you play with it. He would use each dancer’s skill and unique ability to an advantage.
I worked with Tamara Geeva, Balanchine's first wife. This is years and years later…she was gonna choreograph a sequence in a film, and she knew Bob Alton, NY theater people they all know each other, and he connected me with her. She did a ballroom dance for "President's Lady (1953)". I rehearsed Charlton Heston and Ray, my husband, rehearsed Susan Hayward. They had this little court dance to do, like a minouette, and they did fine. Until they had to add dialogue. Then they couldn't think of the steps and turns anymore. So Tamara said to me and Ray " You have to do it in front of them when the camera rolls" and she talked to the director who sent us into make -up and costume. So in the film you can actually see Charlton and Susan looking at us at times.