In an effort to add to an understanding of dance in Rhode Island from its historical, social, technical, and even personal perspectives, riDANCE will periodically publish interviews of dancers and people who have worked, studied, or moved in the Rhode Island dance world.
Catherine (Kay) Moynihan was arguably in the Providence ballet scene longer than anyone else. As she played the piano for several generations of young ballet students, she watched Rhode Island develop from a ballet backwater into a thriving dance community. In addition, her own development into a musician and accompanist is interesting for what it says about how people change-aided by their family and friends, effected by expectations, and influenced by sheer happenstance.
Until last November when she became ill, she routinely accompanied dance classes at Festival Ballet and played for the occasional performance at other schools.
The majority of this interview was done on 15 June 2000 at her
friend Onni Sironen's home
DN: So you were born in Massachusetts, and you moved to New London when you were an
KM: Yes, I was married in 1930. I moved to Connecticut. I lived in New London. And see, I didn't do anything with playing or anything when I moved down there. I didn't do anything until I came up back here again. I was teaching music before... now you just want to know about dance don't you?
DN: Oh no! I want to know as much as I can get.
KM: All right I was teaching music before I moved to Connecticut then I stopped, I gave one more recital and then I stopped. And I didn't do anything with it down there at all except play the piano at a friend's house every once in a while. And then when we moved up here[to RI] in 1940 and I was sitting around and my sister-in-law said to me "You know you always played the piano, used to play for dancing school and you taught music. What's the matter, why don't you start in again doing things?" And I said "well I don't know", but then the two of us got together. She really prodded me on- my sister-in-law. And the first job that I did was at Mary Wheeler school. They had an ad in the paper for an accompanist for their dance classes twice a week and I played for a man by the name of..I think his name is spelled J A N S-Jans Veen, and he taught sort of like Erja [Fischer] does..Modern dance sort of. And it was at Mary Wheeler School and I did that and I played for concert once a year and they had it in the courtyard and I played for that and then the next year the headmistress called..she was a lovely person..Miss van Norman and she called and she said "Mrs. Moynihan, we've been ordered to use someone who's a music teacher in the school on account of finances". And I felt really bad. I felt terrible about it. But my sister-in-law was there again and she said "You're not stopping now, you're not stopping now". So the next person that I played for was Miss Conolon at one of those schools that teaches everything,you know, tap, jazz, and ballet. She had a room in the Biltmore Hotel where she taught. And then, now let me see, then a friend of mine, her daughter was taking ballet (and when I say ballet I really do mean ballet) from Lydia Pettine at the Rhode Island Ballet Center. And she had 3 girls..3 students who were going to dance - do a beautiful dance - at Roger Williams Park at the Temple to Music. On a Sunday. On a Sunday in the Park. [The three were Christine Hennessey, Carmen Alvarez, and Jean Millard.] She needed a pianist to play for them that Sunday, because Lydia's pianist-it was her birthday and her family insisted on giving her a big party, so she couldn't play. So this friend of mine whose daughter studied there, suggested me, and I went..I did play that Sunday. And so at that ..I can tell you this..you don't have to put it down if you don't want to..but my whole family came over from Massachusetts, and my husband was there and my son and everything so Lydia came over to my husband and she said these very words "I have to have her". (Laughs) And my husband said "Well its up to her. What ever she wants to do". And so Lydia and I went out to lunch together and talked and talked it over and I started working for her in 1950. And I played for all her concerts, classes, and for everybody who came - guest teachers who came from all over the world practically. And I played for everybody, yes, for hang on a minute now, it was a long long time. I was still playing for her when Christine Hennessey started Festival Ballet which was a good 23 years ago. Christine started Festival Ballet. And I was playing for Lydia and also for Christine. So I was the pianist for the Festival Ballet Company for at least 23-24 years at least.
DN: How did you meet Christine Hennessey?
KM: Christine had been a student of Lydia's from the time she was a little girl. Then she became a famous ballerina. I have a clipping at my house that I had framed. I have the original clipping from the paper and I had copies made for all the students at Festival. She won a Gold Medal in Paris in..wait a minute..I think it was 1959 [27Jan59 Providence Journal]. She was a beautiful ballerina..beautiful dancer absolutely beautiful that's how I knew her because she had been a student of Lydia's. So then of course I played for Festival. So I played for Festival all these years. But every time a guest teacher would come, I would also play for that person Also I have to say this that I learned the true meaning of ballet from Lydia Pettine, she was absolutely the greatest, and of course Chris was her student, and became one of the greatest too, and a marvelous teacher, and Festival Ballet is still going on.
DN: Do you remember some of the guest teachers or any of the teachers you worked with?
KM: That I had played for over the years? Well let me see, I played for Melissa Hayden. I played for her at a dance camp at URI one summer. It wasn't the whole summer but part of the summer anyway. And then I played for George Zoritch. Oh my god, I can't think of all the people. Lydia had started American Festival Ballet, and our Artistic Director was Renzo Raiss. He was from Germany. I played for him.
DN: What does an artistic director do?
KM: He is a teacher and a choreographer and runs the company and does the casting and everything. That was Renzo. He was American Festival Ballet with Lydia.
DN: So Lydia actually started the original?
KM: She really did because that was the name of that first ballet company, and then when Christine started hers, it was just Festival Ballet.
DN: Was she taking it over?
KM: No she didn't take over, no I wouldn't say that, no. She started her own
DN: So, what happened to American Festival Ballet?
KM: I guess you could say it just died out. When Chris started, American Festival was already gone.
DN:Where did Lydia come from?
KM: No, she was a Providence person. Her teacher was Madame Swoboda - not here of course but in New York. And she was the wife of Judge Pettine. She died about..must be ten years ago, I'm not sure of that. I said Festival started about 23-24 years ago; so Lydia had just retired and she was teaching one class a week up at Christine's up at Festival. And then she became ill and then she died and then you know we really missed her something terrible, I had known her since 1950. And she was a very good friend of mine. Christine of course was teaching at her own school in North Providence... The Dance Center in North Providence. And you knew Christine died didn't you?
DN: Yes only because...
KM: Died about three years ago.
DN: She wasn't that old?
KM: 62, and I knew her from the time she was 15.
DN: What was she like?
KM: She was a beautiful person you know a happy person and a beautiful dancer of course and a wonderful teacher absolutely wonderful.
DN: How did you meet your friend-Onni?
KM: Marilyn Smayda introduced me to Erja [Fischer], and we became friends when I was playing at Eva's school downtown
DN: Eva Marie Pacheco-Providence Ballet?
KM: Eva Marie Pacheco-her married name was Barney and I was friends with her, and once in a while Erja would come down and take a class with her and when she did I would ride home with her. Eva would pick me up and I would ride back with Erja sometimes. Erja was taking me home one day and she said "Do you have to get right home?" And I said "No not really, why?" and she said "could I kidnap you?" Doesn't that sound like her? And I said "Sure, what do you want to do?" and she said "I thought we'd go to lunch" and I said "fine ok where?" "Oh down my way someplace" She was living in Narragansett at that time. So I said "Great fine". She said that she had to stop at her studio first. And so we drove up to DanceArt Forum and over here was this white pickup truck with this man leaning against it very nonchalantly. (Laughs)..ohhh..she had it in her mind all the time to introduce us. So she brought us to the house.
DN: How long ago would you say?
KM: Easily 3 years ago. I think it will be 4 years in July.[She and Onni Sironen have been together ever since.] I love Erja, I really do.
DN: Now what town in Massachusetts were you born in?
DN: How did you get interested in dance or music or both?
KM: When I was 7 my dad gave me a piano for my birthday-a complete surprise and I started taking lessons immediately and by the time I was 11, I was playing with an orchestra in Taunton.
DN: Why did your father get you the piano?.
KM:The neighbor upstairs [Mrs Ann Barlow] had a piano, and Alice was her daughter. She was about sixteen or seventeen and she played the piano and she had these beautiful hands and I can see this ring on her finger. It looked like an emerald and I don't suppose it was but I'm not sure, but it looked like an emerald and I used to watch her hands moving on the piano like that(she demonstrates) and then I used to go like that after her. So I really learned about piano from her, She didn't teach me piano, but I watched her play and so she was the one who inspired me. I don't ever remember saying to my dad that I wanted a piano, but he used to hear me playing upstairs.
DN: Tell me about getting the piano.
KM:Mrs.Barlow (her husband was a captain in the fire department), said "Do you want to come upstairs Catherine?" and I said "ok". I went upstairs with her, and fiddled around with her piano, so I didn't hear what was going on downstairs. Later on maybe an hour or so, she said, "Do you want to go back down", so we both went back downstairs, and we went into my living room and there was my piano.I had a complete surprise cuz my dad had not said he was going to get me one. I went in there and my dad said "Happy Birthday!", and that was it. The following week I started lessons with the nuns at St Mary's convent[in Taunton Massachusetts]. I studied with the nuns from the time I was 7 until I was 11. I played for a dancing school in Taunton and then when they had their recital they would have an orchestra and I would play with the orchestra. And I was only 11 when I started that.
DN: Do you remember the name of the dance school?
KM: Miss Gegan, she was from Brockton and she used to come over twice a week and teach. She called it Miss Gegan's Dance School and so I played for her and then I would play with the orchestra when she would have her recitals. And then at that same age I started taking piano lesson in Boston. Miss Gegan said that I should take classes with a teacher in Boston that she knew, and so she spoke to my mother about it and my mother said "ok". So I went every Saturday all by myself on the train. That teacher was Edith Noyes Greene. I studied with her and she wanted to ..here's how she said it, and you can use the same words if you want to..she wanted to groom me as a concert pianist, and as young as I was, Deborah, I knew what a hard job it would be. I would have to practice hours every day. It was too much. I said "no" because I knew how hard a job it would be. She tried and tried, and then she said "how would you like to be a teacher", and I said "I would like that". And she taught me what is called pedagogy and taught me how to teach in other words and then I started teaching so I taught right up til the time I got married.
DN: From what age to what age?
KM: Oh, I was about 12 through 21 - until 1930. Edith Greene traces back to a famous musician. Her teacher was Everett McDowell and in turn he studied with Franz Liszt. So she said to me..Madame said to me "you are Franz Liszt's musical great great granddaughter"**. And of course as a little girl I thought it was just wonderful. She gave me a piece which was To a Wild Rose from the Woodland Sketches that McDowell wrote and she said "It was written by Everett McDowell-he was my teacher" that's how she started telling me about that.
** "Although Mr.Cliburn became known as a pupil of Rosina Lhevinne, the famous Russian pianist and Juilliard teacher, she came along late in his development. His mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan, a gifted player, made him what he was at the keyboard before he arrived at Juilliard School. And she, in turn, had studied with Arthur Friedheim, who studied with Anton Rubinstein and Liszt, so Mr.Cliburn is, among other things, a straight descendant of the two great figures of 19th- century pianism." from Playing What he Wants, and Remembering-an article about Van Cliburn by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times Arts & Leisure July 30,2000.
DN: And you had to learn that?
KM: I play it to this day and I taught it to all my students and I sometimes play it for adagio at class.
DN: Now didn't I hear you say that you had danced?
KM: Yes, the first teacher that I played for- Miss Gegan- I studied with her. I learned ballet, tap and also she taught elocution. I used to do readings and stuff like that. I used to do show dancing with her..high kicks and all that stuff..I had a terrific extension right up like that. I'd say to one of the girls who stands near me in class[at Festival Ballet]..I'd say "Jennifer, would you ever believe I have an extension like you?" (Laughs) I did Spanish dancing. I never learned real true ballet until Lydia. And I didn't really take class from Lydia but I learned. I could do different steps, but I was never in a concert with her-nothing like that.
DN: It was just because you were playing in the classes that you picked stuff up, or did you actually take some of the classes?
KM: With Lydia I didn't take classes. She would teach me different things, you know what I mean, it wasn't really classes and I learned so much from her, really. When I play I improvise (I can improvise), I've memorized so much ballet music that I've got it right in my head- Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty- all those things I can play from all those things. But I can also improvise so that when I see someone..when the teacher gives a step, she doesn't have to tell me what that step is or anything, I know what it is to begin with and I, please I'm not bragging about this, its just I know immediately what the tempo should be and I play something out of my head. I just make something up on the spot, even our artistic director for Festival Ballet now-we call him Misha its really Mikalo but everyone calls him Misha-Misha and his last name is Djuric. He's from what's now Kosovo where his mother lives. He will come over to the piano and he's say "make something up-make something up". And I'll say "alright" and he'll go "Good-Good"
DN: How long had you been playing before you were able to improvise?
KM: I don't know, practically right away.
DN: So do you think that's maybe it is something you are born with?
KM: I think so. This doesn't include improvisation, but my father had a beautiful baritone voice so he was a singer and my mother had been in those days what they call a prize waltzer. In those days people would go to a dance and have a competition and my mother won practically all the waltz things. She was a beautiful dancerSo I think that's where I picked it up probably.