loschastaireGeorge Jackson ist Tanzkritiker in Washington. Aufgrund seiner österreichischen Abstammung war er immer besonders am Ballett in Wien interessiert. Seine Begegnungen mit drei legendären Wiener Tänzerinnen - Gusti Pichler, Riki Raab and Tilly Losch - die er hier beschreibt, sind ein seltenes Beispiel von erfahrener und gelebter Tanzgeschichte.

They danced together as members of the same company before their paths diverged. To their fans, and in printed programs and reviews, they were known by nicknames. Their full first names can be found readily only in the official ballet register of their company – the Vienna Opera. In order of age they were Gusti (Auguste) Pichler, Riki (Friderike) Raab and Tilly (Otillie Ethel Leopoldine) Losch. I met them separately, long after each had left the stage.

Gusti Pichler (1893 – 1978)

The hundredth anniversary of the Vienna Opera House was being celebrated in the spring of 1969, attracting visitors from around the world. Among them, as one of the occasion’s official guests, was the Opera’s prima ballerina of the years 1925-1935, Gusti Pichler. Married to an Englishman, a Mr. Short, she had repaired with him to London following her retirement. I was in Vienna too in the spring of ‘69, travelling with a New York friend, the dance critic Hope Sheridan. We must have learned of Gusti Pichler’s presence from either Gerhard Brunner (the Austrian lawyer and dance critic who was to become director of the Opera’s ballet company) or Linda (Gerlinde) Zamponi (one of the company’s former dancers who had turned into a critic). I very much wanted to meet this ballerina from once upon a time and Hope was interested too, being skeptical about the abilities of any classical dancer from early in the 20th Century who wasn’t Russian, French or Danish. Gusti Pichler graciously consented to see us. It was arranged that the three of us would rendezvous at noon one day at the Opera’s stage door.

It was a bright day in late spring. Hope and I were waiting just outside the stage entrance, under the Opera’s arcade, when I spotted a lady with silver hair, wearing a dark blue tailored skirt suit and carrying herself erectly. A bit of turn-out showed in her steps. Surely this woman had been a ballet dancer. As she approached, her features were unmistakably those in photographs from Gusti Pichler’s career, although of course it was an older face now. Following greetings and introductions, the three of us repaired to the restaurant Mme. Pichler habitually had patronized after performances – the Goesserstube. Its head waiter recognized her instantly. She ordered Tafelspitz as her main course and when it arrived sent back that first serving as being overdone.

Conversation did not lag. Mme. Pichler told us about her training. It had all been at the Vienna Opera’s ballet school, which she entered in 1903. The faculty consisted of current and former soloists, both native and foreign dancers at the Opera. It was the custom, and not only in Vienna, to send the most promising of the younger generation to Milan in order to “perfect” them in La Scala’s advanced classes. These arrangements extended to St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Ballet as late as the generation of Pavlova, Karsavina and Trefilova who received “polishing” and “strengthening” from such Italian pedagogues as ballerina emerita Caterina Beretta. Gusti Pichler, too, was picked for tuition at La Scala but resisted going because, still quite young, she was afraid of becoming homesick. At home, however, she had the example of Cecilia Cerri, a Blasis pupil from La Scala who was Vienna’s prima ballerina 1907 – 1919 and concurrently a teacher at the ballet school.

Joining the Vienna company towards the end of 1908, Gusti Pichler was promoted to soloist at the end of 1913. She was named prima ballerina at the beginning of 1925, only the second Austrian to hold that title since its establishment; Italians such as Guglielma Salvioni from 1870 to 1873, Luigia Cerale from 1879 to 1892, Irene Sironi from 1892 to 1905, Josefine Gandini from 1905 to 1907 and then Cerri had been the prima until finally an Austrian, Else Strohl von Strohlendorf, attained that rank after World War 1, from 1919 -1924. For reasons I’ve not fully unraveled, Mme. Pichler considered herself and not Strohlendorf the first Austrian to hold that title truly and she was going to insist that she be so designated on her grave.

Living in London since before World War 2, Mme. Pichler of course went to see dance performances there but complained to Hope and me that they were forever putting on old pieces, like Giselle. She generally didn’t care for yesterday’s ballets. When I asked her about some of the ballets she had danced, whether they could be revived and would be worth seeing today, she nodded and then shook her head. Yes, she recalled a lot and likely could restage her big roles. She doubted, though, that her solos or pas de deux would be effective out of context of the total ballets. There was, for example, her favorite Hassreiter variation which she remembered in perfect detail. However, it ought to be seen against a background of military cadets doing their drill. Where to get a whole squadron of them these days? (In Petersburg, Petipa too on occasion used imperial cadets for military maneuvers in ballets.) Class, Mme. Pichler said, was much the same in her day and today, in Vienna and London. As the conversation proceeded, I had the impression of Hope mentally adding a Viennese ballerina to her list of approved dancers.

Gusti Pichler had been filmed during her dancing days. There was a clip of her in a classical Hassreiter waltz, but the Vienna Film Archive hasn’t been able to locate it recently. It had been seen by the dance historian Alfred Oberzaucher, who found Pichler’s performance “imposant” (impressive, imposing)*. Available to me was a silent feature film about Franz Schubert’s love life. The dancing role in it called for ballroom slippers, not pointe shoes. A young and very pretty Gusti Pichler darted about on screen delightfully, with impetuous freshness. Ballerina caliber I’d call her dancing (nor was her acting negligible). My guess, though, was that in a classical part on stage she’d be closer to Danish than Russian style.

A family friend of mine, the Viennese poet and sculptor Hedwig Peitlschmidt, had known Gusti Pichler when they were girls in the same primary school class. My friend said that Gusti came from very poor circumstances. Their teacher used to ask for donations of clothing from those in the class who could afford to give; Gusti had been a recipient. One would never have guessed it about the elegant lady with whom Hope and I were dining. Ballet served not only as her art but also as the staircase in life on which she had ascended. No question but that Gusti Pichler, ballerina, had achieved style and class. She spent her last days not in London but again in Vienna.

*Postscript. A little of Gusti Pichler’s dancing recently became available when British Pathe posted its newsreels archive on the Internet. The film clip shows her, a male partner and a female corps in a few moments of a Blue Danube ballet. Possibly this is what Oberzaucher saw and commented on. According to Viennese dance historian Andrea Amort, the partner is probably Willy Fraenzl and the choreography is either by Josef Hassreiter or by Fraenzl after Hassreiter. The performance may have been Pichler’s farewell in 1935. The first shot shows her and the female corps doing small changements that culminate in a forward kick. It is a finely nuanced sequence rhythmically. Then, when Pichler is partnered in arabesques, attitudes and pirouettes, she seems tight in the upper torso. Her best passage is unfurling from a forward bend while gliding backwards in bourrees. The climax is a big leap into her partner’s arms during which Gusti Pichler keeps her posture neatly.

raabRiki Raab (1899 – 1997)

To have lived in three centuries was Riki Raab’s big wish in her final years. She had no desire to live long into her third century but wanted that experience for the record. The last time I met her (1996 perhaps), she had invited me to her memento crammed little suite in a comfortable Viennese retirement home, and it was the year 2000 to which she was looking forward. I had brought along a small gift which she protested accepting because there was no spare space in her place. Only on condition that I take away one of her books did she relent, accepting the Japanese silk handkerchief which was my offering. Besides waiting for the year 2000, Frau Riki also expected the newly appointed director of the Vienna Opera’s ballet, Renato Zanella, to pay her a courtesy call. Most of all, though, she was looking forward to the next performances of Josef Hassreiter’s Die Puppenfee, which she had helped to restore to authenticity. When I mentioned that she would have to live into 2001 in order to claim three centuries, she seemed annoyed to have to give life extra time – even just a year.

Riki Raab didn’t give up dance when she retired from the stage in 1933. Trained in the school of the Vienna Opera’s ballet, she had joined the company in 1910 and been named soloist in 1921, also dancing principal roles. She had, too, appeared in a film – the silent 1925 one of Der Rosenkavalier. Teaching ballet at Vienna’s Music Academy from 1938 to 1952, Frau Riki added lecturing and writing on Vienna’s dance past to her activities. Her reputation as a dance historian would equal her fame as a performer. Also, she became a patron of dance, a rare thing for a private citizen in the state supported arts environment of Austria. She established an award - the Fanny Elssler ring – to be given to an Austrian dancer of ballerina caliber; a new presentation could be made only when the current wearer retired. To date, the award has been given to Edeltraud Brexner, Jolantha Seyfried and is currently on Dagmar Kronberger’s finger.

Frau Riki wouldn’t hear of the Viennese ballet having fallen behind, about it not being world class – at least not as long as her “master”, Josef Hassreiter (1845 - 1940), was in charge. (He was pushed into retirement in 1919/1920, but his ballets and opera divertissements remained in the repertory for quite some time after that.) In 1983 Frau Riki had proved to be essential in restoring Die Puppenfee (The Fairy Doll) to what Hassreiter had made in 1888. Working alongside the much younger Gerlinde Dill (Brunner’s official ballet mistress), she not only put women’s variations (such as the Chinese Doll’s) that had been elevated to pointe back to demipointe, but made the Fairy Doll herself a pure walking role again (a subsequent ballet master had given this character a twirling solo on pointe). I remember Frau Riki instructing the women how to hold themselves – very upright in the torso because “we wore corsets when we danced”. Puppenfee emerged simpler but superior to what it had become after 1920. The original choreographer, Hassreiter, had known best – compared even to the Maryinsky version (1903 by the brothers Legat, but based on the Hassreiter and now danced in Konstantin Sergeyev’s revision). The only part en pointe in 1888 had been the Drum Majorette’s solo, which really made it stand out as a ballerina role. Puppenfee has been in Vienna’s repertory almost constantly since its premiere and at one time was much copied or imitated by other ballet companies the world over.

Just one other Hassreiter choreography that I know of was restaged by Frau Riki. It is a brief combination which the master apparently regarded fondly and gave often when he taught class. Shown at Vienna’s Theater Akzent on 10 December 1995 in a matinee performance celebrating what would have been Hassreiter’s 150th birthday (actually on Dec. 30), its brush steps and beats look rather Danish (i.e., Bournonville). There is a video of the 1995 event.

Biographical work about Austrian dancers kept Riki Raab active until the moment she died – which happened unexpectedly as she was returning to her suite following breakfast one morning in 1997. She left behind not only photos and film of herself as a performer, her publications and a widely scattered family but fond memories of vivaciousness personified.

Tilly Losch (1903 – 1975)

The Wanderer is the title of the Franz Schubert piano fantasy George Balanchine picked as music for one of the ballets he made for Tilly Losch in 1933. That designation, sometimes in a French transposition as Errante, was kept by Balanchine as the ballet’s name too. It also suits the choreography’s main character and that character’s interpreter – Losch herself. She was on the go for much of her life – from Vienna to Berlin, Salzburg, London, New York, Hollywood and often in her heyday back and forth among these places. I met her in New York, in the 1960s. She had come with a friend, dance historian Parmenia Miguel Eckstrom (1908-1989), to the first American screening of Die Puppenfee (presented by Susan Braun’s Dance Films Association, it was the Wien Film production, shot prior to the ballet’s 1983 authentic restoration). Either the editor of Dance News, Anatole Chujoy (1894 – 1969), or critic Walter Sorell (1905 – 1997) had alerted Losch to the event. She had appeared in this ballet as a child and her first solo as a member of the Vienna company had been the Chinese lady doll’s variation. My name had been mentioned to her as having a hand in arranging the film showing and as someone interested in the Vienna ballet. I introduced myself to her after the screening. Her comment on the movie was, yes, “they dance well in Vienna these days but we - we were so beautiful”. Wanting to chat more about Viennese ballet, she gave me her New York telephone number (LE-5-9020) with the admonition that it was best to call between noon and 1 PM. I wondered whether she slept late habitually.

The next time we met was at Barnard College. Sorell had invited me to moderate a round table there for his dance history class and I suggested that Tilly Losch be one of the participants. The others were dancer-choreographer Eleo Pomare (1937 – 2008), critic Marcia Siegel and dance teacher Jeanette Roosevelt. (There is a photo of the panel by Costas which appeared in Dance News.) The impression Losch made on the gathering was that of a sophisticate, at home in many places but somewhat world weary - particularly when she absented herself from the room during a showing of footage from a Soviet La Bayadere film with Dudinskaya and Chabukiani. Her comment was that she knew Russian classicism all too well and no longer found it interesting. Getting up, she left the impression that she was going out to have a smoke. When she returned, she challenged Pomare. He was talking about having studied in Europe with Mary Wigman and her questioning him about his wanting lessons in German modern dance. Pomare interpreted Wigman’s attitude as prejudiced. He was, after all, a Black American and she didn’t seem to be interrogating her White American pupils about taking the very same lessons. Losch had known Wigman and, although a ballet dancer, had once interrupted her career in order to study with her. She believed Wigman was making a comment about the vitality and worth of African American dance traditions and wondering why Pomare wasn’t busy doing his own thing rather than saying that he was unsuited for her form of art. During the course of the round table, Losch also mentioned her admiration for Jerome Robbins’ ballets and discussed what she believed to be her own ability as a performer – mentally to step outside her own role and visualize the work as a whole.

I visited Tilly in her elegant, modernistic apartment (20 East 68th Street), where our conversations continued. We were on a first names basis by then. She began to tape record our sessions because she was contemplating writing an autobiography and claimed that my questions made her remember things she had long forgotten. One thing was how Hassreiter, who as the emperor’s ballet master at the Vienna Opera, could never walk down the building’s corridors without being surrounded by a swarm then suddenly became a figure avoided when Austria’s post-World War 1 social democratic government decided to retire him. Tilly’s memory is supported by a document shown in the Opera’s 100th anniversary exhibit. It is a letter, dated 8 November 1919, consisting of a few typed lines from the Opera’s new codirector, conductor Franz Schalk, thanking Hassreiter for his past service which would no longer be needed. After his decades in the house, first as a principal dancer, then teacher, choreographer and finally as foremost ballet master, that was all.

Tilly, when in New York, attended New York City Ballet performances often. Lincoln Kirstein had asked her to donate to the company’s Stravinsky festival in 1972 but she replied that for a Richard Strauss festival she certainly would. “He meant something to me”. Strauss had indeed. It was Strauss, in his capacity as co-director with Schalk of the Vienna Opera in the early 1920s, who had promoted her to soloist. Undoubtedly it was Heinrich Kroeller, the ballet master Strauss enlisted to replace Hassreiter, who had initiated the action and called Strauss’s attention to Losch. Unlike other opera directors, Strauss was actively involved with the dance part of his company and seems to have been a true balletomane (according to the book Wayne Heisler Jr. wrote about him).

What was Tilly’s dancing like? “Losch joined our classes. Although beautiful and holding a powerful fascination for men, she obviously could in no way be considered a classical dancer. … she walked feet firmly planted on the floor, threw her body about in jerky, violent movements, and used her hands fussily, not classically at all” recalls (1) Tamara Tchinarova Finch, who had been a young Ballet Russe dancer in the corps of Balanchine’s Les Ballets 1933 troupe.

Concerning the performances, Finch writes “The choreography (of Errante) suited Tilly superbly, as she wrung her hands and threw her body into desperate searching, fighting. Balanchine’s ability to arrange for anyone came to the fore again”. And, “The Seven Deadly Sins was another creation for Losch. … Again it was all for Tilly: no technique, but charm, sex appeal and beauty …”.

Tilly had been trained in Vienna, where ballet at the Opera consisted of a softened version of the bravura Italian schooling. It differed from Russian classical technique, which served as Finch’s standard. Tilly’s first solo, that of the Chinese Lady Doll in Puppenfee, although not on pointe (it uses a high demipointe) did call for a classical execution. She was, presumably, at minimum a competent classicist in the Viennese manner. However, as other roles came to her they usually were character parts, exotic or dramatic ones, or even untypical - things rather new. Her boss, Kroeller, said of her performance in the title role of his The Alluring Phantom that “What and how, for example, Tilly Losch dances has nothing to do with ballet although she executes ballet steps. Her dancing is artistic expressivity stemming from a loosened, pliant body. She delivers a stretch and tensions that could not be achieved with the bravura of pointe work” (2).

By the time Tilly joined Les Ballets 1933, her dancing had likely changed from her initial training due to the predominance of non-classical roles in the repertory she was assigned, the modern dance classes she took with Wigman, and then her leaving the Vienna Opera to dance and choreograph for Max Reinhardt’s theater productions and C.B. Cochran’s revues. George Balanchine she met in Berlin shortly after he abandoned Russia in 1924, prior to his joining Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It seems she became his guide to Berlin’s modern dance scene and he her mentor in choreography. Les Ballets 1933 and its patron Edward James were Tilly’s gifts to Balanchine (not, as often told, the other way round in which the company and its choreographer were James’ gift to Tilly). Contact between Tilly and Balanchine persisted after the demise of Les Ballets 1933 and whenever both were in New York she took class with him until she retired from the stage to pursue painting. Alas, no full biography of Tilly Losch is in print, the late Ann Marie Koller’s manuscript remains unpublished.

There is film of how Tilly Losch danced, not from her initial career in Vienna but from the 1930s and ‘40s. The earliest footage is her Hand Dance (1930 – 1933?). This solo for the hands, arms and upper body was originally co-choreographed with her Vienna colleague Hedy (Hedwig) Pfundmayr. Both rehearsal and performance takes of it are on the Internet, the former showing more of her entire body in motion. Tilly’s hands in it are expressive but not fussy. I find it a quite original solo. There is a hard quality in the dancing she does for two of her Hollywood movies (also on the Internet) – Garden of Allah and Duel in the Sun, but in both Tilly plays tough characters. None of these dances dispense with skill, although the technique is not a classical ballet one. Certainly, Tilly’s backbends are impressive. On the evidence of Hand Dance, I’d call her a distinctive modern dancer; from just the visual data of the two movie numbers, a strong character dancer. Of her dancing on pointe, we only have still shots of Tilly doing balletic ballroom with Fred Astaire – which was successful on Broadway. The list of choreographers who made work for Tilly is impressive – Kroeller, Balanchine, Leonide Massine, Antony Tudor and Astaire. I doubt whether they were attracted to her just because of her wealthy suitors and husbands. Balanchine liked dancers who were always ready, those who even at rest looked as if they were about to be in motion. That quality Tilly had. She was forever a wanderer.

(1) Tamara Finch, “My Dancing Years, Part Two”. 2004. Dance Chronicle 27 (2): 235-273.

(2) “Interview with Heinrich Kroeller”. 1927. Die Buehne 119.

Courtesy: DanceView 28 (4), Autumn 2011

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