Interviewed by Lawrence Merritt
What inspired you to become a dancer?
My mother took me to dance class at four years old instead of kindergarten, because I knew my alphabet and all that stuff and she always wanted to be a dancer, so taking me to class she sort of lived through me. She took me to a really good teacher (in Alabama) and to New York at the age of 11. There were three years at the School of American Ballet during the summers at the age of 11, 12 and 13 -- my ballet teacher gave me an hour and a half point class every morning at 8:30 AM: no music, no air conditioning, in August in New York! In one exercise she had me stand up on point against the wall with the bent leg and slowly straighten up without letting go of the wall.
At 13 I was with the Birmingham Civic ballet. I met Igor Stravinsky, because Firebird was the ballet we did, and of course, he had composed it. It was the first ballet that I did and I fell in love with It. There was a guest conductor at the dress rehearsal who was obviously somebody. After the performance that night we all went to a party and I rode in a Cadillac, which was really crowded, so I just sat on this man's lap. I remembered him as the guy who conducted the dress rehearsal. Well, I found out years later that this man was -- Igor Stravinsky! I just thought he was a nice man that talked funny and had bony knees!
Who was the most influential person in your career?
Without a doubt Bob Fosse. When I first saw Sweet Charity I just knew that I had to do it. When I got to do the movies of Charity AND Cabaret and assist Fosse, it was almost too much to talk about. It was extraordinary. It changed my life, it changed my career. I got to do the best work with the best people in the world. It was the kind of work that you can't learn in class.
The first show I did with Bob Fosse was Sweet Charity, the original, and then the movie, and then the movie Cabaret, in which I was the dancer Helga. I also was one of the “Two Ladies” in the trio with Joel Grey and the gorilla in the duet with Joel. When I came back to America, I assisted Bob on Liza with a Z., and then Pippin. Because movies take so much time to put together, it happened that Cabaret, Liza with a Z. and Pippin were all nominated the same year for an Emmy, Tony and an Oscar, and he won all three of them. And I'm the only living person who worked on all three. Ralph Burns, the arranger, who died not too long ago, was the only other person who worked on all three. Gwen Verdon worked on everything he did, but she did not work in Liza with a Z. On Cabaret, she flew to New York, got the gorilla mask and flew back to Germany with it on her lap!
Louise as the gorilla in the movie Cabaret
Gwen always worked behind the scenes, and was very influential with costumes and makeup. She brought in a book by George Grosch, cartoon drawings of characters of the 30s in Germany. That's where I got my makeup look from. Before there was mascara you would take a spoon and melt a black Crayola over a candle. Then you took a tiny brush and applied it to your eyelashes. Not too good for your eyes, because it was hot wax. Then Gwen had me wear false eyelashes and got a yellow-green Crayola and I made little round balls on the tips of the eyelashes. It was a little subliminal, against the dark blue eye shadow, but it was good.
Of course I could hardly keep my eyes open. Needless to say I did not wear them under the gorilla mask. I couldn't see out of the mouth, but there were two holes in the gorilla's nostrils. They were blocked by something connecting the jaw, but if I jutted my chin forward and pressed down real hard it would release the jaw, making “me” smile, also releasing the part that was covering the nostril holes and I could see through those.
After we did Pippin in New York, I went and staged the London company and the national company of Pippin. And I worked on that famous commercial. It was the first time a dance was featured in a Broadway TV commercial. It was the Manson Trio, with Ben Vereen, Pam Sousa and Candy Brown. We also did the opening number for the Tony awards that year. Then I worked with Bobby on Liza with a Z at the Winter Garden and reproduced it with Liza in London. I also worked with Bob again on the movie the Little Prince.
What was your most memorable dance experience?
That's really difficult, because at different points of your life different things mean different things. It’s harder to evaluate them than to compare them. I do know that when I was 13 and had that solo in Firebird, it was short -- about 32 bars -- and that was unbelievable, so that certainly stands out. That did light a fire, because I was going to be a ballerina!
Later, I was living in California (because we had finished filming Sweet Charity) and got to do Sweet Charity “live” there with Chita Rivera, who played Charity and Elaine Cancilla (Orbach) who played Nikki. I played Helene. Doing the number Something Better than This was the hardest thing I've ever done. Doing that number with those two ladies after not having been in dance class for a year or two was unbelievable. I didn't feel any competition because there was none. I was just trying to keep up and not make an idiot of myself. I never thought I was any good.
And the fun and enjoyment, for the most part, was taken over by the fear of making mistakes and whatever notes I was going to get. Going onstage was the fun part but coming off, I would think, what did I do wrong? But sometimes rehearsing the numbers was better than sex! Just being on stage. Just walking onto a stage and that's where I belong.
Do you have a most frightening moment in your career?
I should have been frightened when I was at the Kennedy Center with the tryouts for Pippin. But I wasn't, especially. There is a story that when Ben Vereen stuck his head into the rehearsal room and said there was a bomb scare, Bob said to the cast, “One more time!” It's not true, but it makes a great story.
What experience or legacy would you like to pass on to the next generation?
It's important to find out who you are, what you want to say and how you want to say it. The only person you have to compete with is yourself. Be a sponge. Absorb everything that is going on because it all comes through you and out into whatever you're creating. Whether it’s a dance or whatever, it’s part of you, that's why you're doing it. It’s not jumping higher or spinning faster or being in the bigger show with the flashiest lights and the biggest sets – it’s so you can find out that you are the best you can be. Because you want to connect on a level that's deeper than superficial, it's about giving or taking.
That's what a sponge does. Keep open. Tunnel vision or a straight line is the fastest way to a point. You can only find out if something works if you try it, and if that doesn't work, it doesn't work. You have to find out on your own otherwise you won't know. Remember the lower your lows are, the higher your highs will be. And, after the age of 18 -- get out of the house and find your own world!
Janice Painchaud Herbert
Interviewed by Lois Silk
What inspired you to be a dancer?
I lived in a movie house from the age of three because that was the only thing you could do in Biddeford, Maine. I especially loved the musicals and so, by the age of ten I taught myself how to tap dance. Not only that but I was performing as a tap dancer - making it up as I went along. My destiny was sealed!
Who was the most influential person in your career?
Mr. Vladimir Kostenko, formerly of the Ballet Russe, came to Portland, Maine and once a week on Saturdays at the age of seventeen I made the journey to Portland and so began my introduction into the world of ballet. Two Saturdays later he put me on pointe! Shortly after, to my dismay, Mr. Kostenko left Portland and moved to San Francisco. I had only studied with him for about four glorious months. It didn't take me long to pack my bags and, at his invitation, I joined him there. All I had was just enough money for a one-way fare and my young dream of being a dancer.
What was your most memorable moment in your career?
My greatest moment in the theatre was in "Take Me Along." Walter Pidgeon, co-starring with Jackie Gleason, chose me as his waltzing partner which we did behind the opening curtain. It was beyond my wildest dreams to be in the arms of this handsome leading man and me being only a little chorus girl.
What was the most frightening moment you experienced?
As a novice to the Radio City Music Hall Corps de Ballet, I started out as a replacement dancer. We rehearsed in a studio and never went onstage until the actual performance. I learned my part by remembering to follow the redhead when we peeled off which was crucial as there were 28 dancers in the corps. Then time for the performance and my first shock was the incredible size of the stage and the incredible size of the audience. My second shock was where was my redhead? We all looked alike in long white tutus and white wigs! I FROZE. Luckily the girls understood my dilemma and whispered go right Janice, now
move to the left - and so I got through my debut at the Radio City Music Hall.
Tell me your experience with the next generation of dancers and what your legacy to them will be?
Through Dancers Over 40, I moderated a panel of former Radio City Music Hall Corps de Ballet dancers who spoke of their unique experiences of doing four shows a day for seven days a week with rehearsals in between. We were given only one pair of pointe shoes a week and no ballet tights, which is unheard of in today’s ballet companies. My experience lasted for only three years from 1953-1956; however, no tights and bare legs lasted for thirty years between 1932-1962. Finally, dancers got tights! Our legacy, thanks to Dancers Over 40, is that our memories, both video and audio, are donated to the Library at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and can be seen there.