The première danseuse Albertina Rasch, married to Dimitri Tiomkin from 1926 until her death in 1967, had a prolific career as a ballerina and choreographer. As a teen, she wowed concert hall audiences throughout her native Austria with her classical ballet performances. She went on to become a renowned dance director in the United States, where she embraced vaudeville, the stage, and motion pictures. A leading practitioner and creator of the style known as American ballet, her influence on the art of dance both on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals came largely through her signature choreography and her dance troupe, the Albertina Rasch Girls.
Born in 1891 in Vienna to a Polish (probably Jewish) mother and a Russian father—according to an interview she gave in the 1920s—Rasch first studied piano, but it was in ballet that she excelled. She was about seven years old when she enrolled at Vienna’s Imperial Ballet. As a teenager, she debuted in the sentimental comic ballet Coppelia, with music by Delibes.
Vaudeville and the Concert Hall (1909–1932)
In 1909, while scouting for talent in Europe, Robert H. Burnside, stage director of New York City’s Hippodrome Theatre, attended a Rasch performance at the Vienna State Opera. Impressed by the eighteen-year-old dancer, he booked passage for her on the S.S. Bluecher. Rasch proved to be a quick student: less than three weeks after her arrival in New York on August 18, she was leading seventy other dancers in a performance of the glittering Ballet of Jewels at the Hippodrome. The spectacle, featuring two tableaux staged by Burnside with music by Manuel Klein, enjoyed a run through the following May. Billed as the largest playhouse in the world, the Hippodrome could seat more than 5,000 and was known for its lavish productions. A dazzling circus shared the same bill as the Ballet of Jewels, and the finale featured a silver-clad army of men and women who magically seemed to vanish as they marched toward the audience (a feat accomplished with the help of a water tank hidden beneath the stage).
Now under contract to the Hippodrome, Rasch’s career continued to grow. From September 1910 through May 1911 she headlined the Burnside-staged Ballet of Niagara. Prior to the rehearsals for that show, Rasch spent two months in Europe. Within a month after returning to New York, she wed August Schneider, an assistant manager at the tony Astor Hotel, located in the heart of the city’s theater district. The marriage was kept under wraps until the morning of October 15, 1910, when the New York Times announced the couple had tied the knot in August. In the article, “Hippodrome Has Romance,” Schneider explained his objection to his wife’s appearance onstage, hence their decision to keep the marriage secret until the expiration of her contract. The plan was exposed when one of the dancer’s associates found a wedding ring in Rasch’s dressing room—or so the story goes, most likely embellished by a press agent or publicist for dramatic effect.
Rasch, however, did not wish to give up her rising career. From 1911 to 1913 she appeared in performances at the Schubert Winter Garden, the B. F. Keith Union Square Theatre, and Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. Returning to her classical ballet roots, she then signed with the Century Opera House in 1913, performing in New York and Chicago with the latter’s Grand Opera Company. Rasch would dance solo in short ballets that served as interludes in operas such as Hansel and Gretel. One performance succeeded in raising some eyebrows when a member of the New York Sabbath Committee complained that the ballerina had violated the city’s Sunday theater law. On the same program as the “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda, Rasch and the Russian dancer Edmund Makalif appeared in “The Evolution of the Dance,” which was promptly decried by the secretary of the Sabbath Committee as “an illustration of saloon dances of all nations.” Apparently, dancing in operas or other “high art” was permissible on Sundays; however, the Rasch–Makalif performance may have offended some patrons by allegedly desecrating the Sabbath. Police and an inspector from the Sabbath Committee attended a subsequent performance to ensure the law would be observed.
In addition to dealing with the fallout, Rasch was experiencing financial hardship. She had been sending most of her money home to support her extended family, a customary practice for immigrants, and was now in debt. By the end of 1913, divorced from Schneider, she filed for personal bankruptcy. About a year later, soon after her debt of $600 was discharged, the Century Opera declared bankruptcy, owing Rasch more than $1,500 in back pay which she may never have collected.
Perhaps looking to start anew, she left New York for Los Angeles in early 1915. In July she was prima ballerina in Horatio Parker’s opera Fairyland, today remembered more for winning a $10,000 prize than for its music. Rasch dabbled in film—she appeared in a 1916 Selig short-subject dance film—and continued to concertize during the war years before returning to vaudeville. Her subsequent four-year association with the Keith-Albee Circuit from 1919 to 1922 took her to both coasts for performances at the Orpheum in Los Angeles in 1919 and 1921 and at the Capitol in New York. Los Angeles Times writer Grace Kingsley, who specialized in documenting the home life of Hollywood stars, provided a close-up look into the ballerina’s life offstage, based on an interview with Rasch in late 1919. At twenty-eight, Kingsley wrote, the dancer preferred driving around town to indulging in “ice cream soda orgies,” as was the favorite pastime of some Hollywood starlets.
In the early 1920s, Rasch spent two years touring and studying in Europe, ending up in Paris in the fall of 1922. She announced the formation of a production company for her dance films. Nothing came of it, and she returned to the States in August 1923. Eager to impart her experience and knowledge to teachers, other dancers, and children, she settled in New York and opened the Albertina Rasch Dance Studio in October 1923. With its inspiring view of the Hudson River, the studio offered private and group lessons in ballet and interpretative dance. Rasch’s strict regimen, including body alignment and breathing exercises based on her own European training, set her dancers apart from the typical chorus-line girls who populated the New York stage. The rigorous training program gave Rasch’s dancers the stamina necessary to endure long vaudeville days and nights and, later, filming that required take after take.
Although Rasch founded her school to prepare dancers to accompany her in her own routines, interest grew so rapidly that she soon had more qualified dancers than were needed; by 1925, enrollment had swelled to three hundred. When it became apparent that sending out her trained pupils could be financially rewarding, Rasch did just that. As early as 1924, she had begun advertising her studio as a one-stop shop, providing music arrangements, choreography, and dancers for performances during the prologues at moving-picture theaters via the Exhibitor’s Service Bureau. To meet the demand, the Albertina Rasch dancers ensemble was created. Eventually it became the umbrella for several traveling troupes known variously as the Albertina Rasch Girls or the Albertina Rasch Dancers. By 1925, 150 dancers were performing under her banner on vaudeville stages across the country.
Around this time a new style of dance had begun to emerge, crafted by Rasch herself, which she first dubbed the New World Ballet, later American Ballet. It was a hybrid created by combining various traits found in ballets set to classical music with movements and rhythms associated with modern American dance music, primarily jazz and syncopated popular music. This unique combination of American idiom and European ballet tradition became Rasch’s signature. She later wrote that “instead of traditional realism, [Americans] prefer dynamic surprises, accentuated action and syncopated sensations.” At Boston’s B. F. Keith Theatre in 1926, the Albertina Rasch Girls, “Terpsichore’s Best,” tapped, kicked, pirouetted, and burlesqued to Spanish and Russian folk tunes. Rasch continued to teach even after she joined the production staff of the Keith-Orpheum, where she organized and choreographed routines for the circuit.
As Rasch settled into her newfound success, she was introduced to Tiomkin by the vaudeville producer Morris Gest in Paris in the summer of 1925. Tiomkin soon joined Rasch’s American vaudeville act. (Their collaborative efforts on stage and screen will be documented in a future article.) The couple wed in New York City in May 1926, with Rasch’s half brother, Ferdinand G. Schlesinger (1903–1984), also known as Frederick, in attendance. (It is presumed Rasch’s father died when she was fairly young; her mother had remarried by the time Rasch was twelve.) Tiomkin described Rasch as slender, shapely, and graceful, with handsome features and expressive eyes: “She was a woman of few words and spoke only when it was to the point.”
Vaudeville had brought them together, and soon each would make a name for themselves in theater and film, respectively. It was 1929, and America’s economic climate had helped bring about a decline in vaudeville ticket sales. By 1932, twice-daily shows at New York’s Palace Theatre had come to an end. The Albertina Rasch Girls were among the last to perform, ending a near decade-long string of vaudeville productions. Rasch went in search of other concert venues, bringing her show to Lewisohn Stadium in New York in 1932 and the Hollywood Bowl the following year.
In addition to her ballet studio, Rasch was involved in launching the landmark eatery the Russian Tea Room. Hungry New Yorkers en route to Carnegie Hall in the late 1920s often gathered at this neighborhood pastry shop, the window of which was lettered Albertina Rasch Russian Tea Room when the establishment moved to 150 West 57th Street around 1928. Four years later the Poland-born founder, chocolatier Jacob Zysman, sold it to a Russian, Sasha Maieff. Rasch was listed as the establishment’s president in a 1929 corporate directory, and often was seen in the restaurant enjoying tea and cakes in the company of her fellow dancers and musicians.
On Broadway (1924–1945)
Just prior to meeting Tiomkin, Rasch began an association with staged musicals on Broadway that would last into the 1940s and bring her in contact with some of the biggest names in the business, from George Gershwin to Al Jolson to Cole Porter. Her inspiration for this new career path came when twenty of her dancers appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1924, a musical revue that went on to log 171 consecutive performances at the Apollo Theatre.
In 1927, a banner year for Rasch’s choreography, she had five shows on stage, including Rio Rita, in which the Rasch dancers performed alongside a hundred Ziegfeld girls. She choreographed the ballets “In the Clouds,” “Stars and Stripes,” and “The Jungle-Jingle” for the Ziegfeld Follies, featuring the words and music of Irving Berlin. “Jungle-Jingle” showcased dancers dressed as animals, from cobras to gazelles. Roy Webb, who would go on to a career as a film composer, orchestrated some of the numbers.
Rasch did the choreography for a ballet based on George Gershwin’s orchestral work An American in Paris for the 1929 production Show Girl. She was not unfamiliar with Gershwin, having staged a ballet to his Rhapsody in Blue back in 1925. Varieties, an original 1931 revue in twelve scenes staged by Le Roy Prinz, featured three dances choreographed by Rasch: “On with the Show,” “Tapping Depression Away,” and “In a Rose Garden.” One of her most notable achievements on Broadway is 1931′s The Band Wagon, with Fred and Adele Astaire. Described as a choreographic feast, it is probably one of the greatest musical revues ever mounted on stage, and includes the memorable production number “Dancing in the Dark.” The double revolving stage and scenic and lighting effects were so popular they traveled with the show to London, Paris, and beyond.
The Rasch dancers also graced the stage in 1931 in Everybody’s Welcome, a production marked by two firsts: the stage debut of Harriet Lake, later known as the film actress Ann Sothern; and the first performance of the song “As Time Goes By,” now forever linked with the film Casablanca. A succession of musicals followed: The Wonder Bar with Al Jolson in 1931, Irving Berlin’s Face the Music in 1932, Wild Violets in London in 1933, and The Great Waltz in 1934. Rasch also co-staged, with director Monty Woolley, the musical revue Walk a Little Faster in 1932. All of the dances and ensembles were created and staged by Rasch to music and lyrics by Vernon Duke and E. Y. Harburg.
The apex of her Broadway career came with Cole Porter’s Jubilee in 1935, for which Rasch choreographed the production number that followed the now classic song “Begin the Beguine.” Her stage work continued through 1941 with Lady in the Dark, but she had already begun training her sights on Hollywood—at the same time, ironically, that Hollywood folk were now moving east in search of stage work. The cast of Lady in the Dark included Danny Kaye in his first legit production, Gertrude Lawrence, and Bert Lytell, with costumes by Irene Sharaff. The sets were designed by future Oscar winner Harry Horner, father of the Oscar-winning film composer James Horner. Written by Moss Hart, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Lady in the Dark was one of the few shows in which Rasch choreographed for both male and female dancers, in this case aptly named the Albertina Rasch Group Dancers.
Marinka, her final show as a choreographer, closed on Broadway in December 1945. The Albertina Rasch Girls made their last stage appearance most likely in 1947′s Bitter Sweet. With Rasch spending more and more time in Hollywood, the direction of her New York dance studio fell to Agnese Roy, the former prima ballerina of the Rasch troupe, Rasch’s frequent assistant choreographer, and wife to Rasch’s half brother, Ferdinand. The studio closed in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
As sound films signaled the end of vaudeville and economic depression loomed over Broadway, Rasch looked west toward yet another medium, filmed dance. Her Hollywood career can be divided into two distinct acts. In the first, sound musicals from 1929 to 1931, she directed dance routines in set pieces that were interpolated into films, often with no direct relation to the film’s storyline. The second, beginning in 1933, afforded her the opportunity to choreograph scenes integral to a film’s plot, storyline, or action.
Her entrée to Tinseltown came through her dance troupe. A series of MGM publicity stills show the leggy dancers posed in front of a Greyhound bus sporting a twenty-foot banner that read “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Welcome Albertina Rasch’s Hollywood Party Girls.” The Albertina Rasch Dancers were in town for the filming of the Technicolor finale of Hollywood’s first all-star revue, the aptly named Hollywood Revue of 1929, with dances staged by Sammy Lee. Charles King sang “Orange Blossom Time” to pirouetting blossoms (the Belcher Child Dancers) and full-blown flowers (the Rasch girls). The Albertina Rasch Dancers also appeared in Galas de la Paramount, the 1930 Spanish-language version of Paramount on Parade.
Our Blushing Brides (1930) was typical of her early work in musicals. Rasch staged the ballet, led by actress Joan Crawford, that takes place during the spectacular garden party scene. Studio publicists claimed Crawford lost eight pounds from the four-hour daily training sessions necessary to master the number. Angel Cake and three other Vitaphone musical shorts filmed in 1931 ended her initial foray into Hollywood dance circles.
Throughout the 1930s, Rasch and Tiomkin traveled back and forth between New York and Hollywood, sometimes alone, sometimes together, following the work. Rasch was under contract to MGM, where she worked on a number of musicals at the Culver City studio, many featuring scores by Herbert Stothart, beginning with Devil-May-Care (1929), and continuing with Going Hollywood (1933), The Firefly (1937), and Marie Antoinette (1938). The latter was one of three film collaborations with director W. S. “Woody” Van Dyke II. For 1937′s Rosalie, Rasch choreographed the “Gypsy” and “Tartan” production numbers, which featured some 500 ballet and tap dancers. Rasch returned to her roots with the Broadway Melody of 1936, directed by Roy Del Ruth, staging the “You Are My Lucky Star” number with music and lyrics by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. In the mid-1930s, MGM loaned the Albertina Rasch Dancers to Warner Bros. for William Dieterle’s Madame Du Barry. Two Columbia films also date from this period, After the Dance and Josef von Sternberg’s The King Steps Out.
Ever the innovator, Rasch envisioned a ballet school that could train young charges for film work, a West Coast counterpart to her New York studio. She opened her Hollywood studio in March 1930 at the corner of Fairfax and Sunset. Instead of the typical Hollywood chorus girl, Rasch sought out young, ambitious, educated, and pliable high school girls with athletic figures to engage in her strict and rigorous method, characterized at times as militaristic in its discipline. The première danseuse-turned-teacher loathed routine steps that were mechanical and meaningless. “It is high time that dancing becomes intellectual,” she proclaimed. Rasch believed every motion had to have an intelligent thought behind it, and she demanded uniformity and perfection, particularly in the field of film, where performances are frozen in time. Early on she had come to the realization that filmed ballet movements required techniques that differed from live concert or stage dancing. For example, she felt that movement needed to be slowed down for the camera so that the audience could “catch” the action. Choreography, for its part, had to take editing into account. Considering her love of music and marriage to a composer, it is ironic that Rasch rarely used music during her training classes, preferring to use a cane to beat time on the wooden floor. Dancers, she felt, should not rely too heavily on musical cues (one can imagine her calling out, “Count, count, count!”).
By the time of her retirement, Rasch had more than a dozen feature films to her credit and was perhaps the best-known female dance director in Hollywood.
Leaving behind her a celebratory career in film and stage, Rasch settled into retirement at the couple’s Windsor Square home in Los Angeles. After more than forty years of marriage, “Albertinotchka”—as Tiomkin fondly called her—died on October 2, 1967, at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California. Initially drawn together by a love of art and music, both Rasch and Tiomkin shared a common Russian-Jewish heritage and began their formal artistic training at an early age. Each emigrated to the United States in hopes of furthering their careers, and both enjoyed considerable success, making significant contributions to the American art forms of theater, dance, and music.