L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Die weiße Reiterin - Therese Renz, circus equestrienne


Therese Renz (née Stark; 10 April 1859, Brussels - 29 September 1938, Berlin), equestrienne and circus performer. She was born the daughter of equestrienne Lina Wunderlich and circus director Wilhelm Stark. Her father abandoned the family while she was still very young and she was sent to live with a maternal aunt who ran a clothing boutique in Hamburg. But after attending a performance of Circus Renz, she convinced her mother and aunt to let her try her luck with the circus. So in 1872, at the age of thirteen, she was apprenticed with Circus Wulff, where she received extensive and intensive training. The following year, on her fourteenth birthday, she made her debut in Switzerland. 

Six portraits by Reutlinger, circa 1904. (In the first three she can be seen in the costume she wore for her Weisse Dame ("White Lady") act.) 
Album Reutlinger de portraits divers, vol. 25, featuring the portraits of Renz.

The acts she performed throughout her career would incorporate the particular talents of the different horses she worked with, but the performances always displayed her extraordinary skill as a horsewoman. Her work exemplified the highest level of dressage, the elements of which were those which one would today associate with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna: levades, courbettes, croupades, and caprioles. The horses would also perform the “Spanish Walk”, various dancing and bowing tricks, while Renz was most famous for the impressive feat of jumping rope while on horseback - horse and rider together.

Two photographs taken while Renz was in the act of jumping rope on horseback, circa 1900.

After lengthy tours of Germany and Switzerland, she signed on with Circus Renz, where she fell in love with one of the director's nephews, Robert Renz. The two were married in 1883 and later had a son, Hugo. Her husband's uncle's disapproval of the marriage caused them to leave the company and join Circus Herzog where, during the 1880's and 90's, she reached the height of her career. This was also when she developed her signature act, Die weisse Dame ("The White Lady") where, inverting the convention of an equestrienne's black habit and top hat, she dressed all in white - usually even including a white wig - to match her mount, the Lippizaner stallion, Conversana.

Circa 1904.
From an act inspired by the choreography of dancer Loïe Fuller, 1912.

The couple rejoined Circus Renz in 1893 but, sadly, due to financial difficulties, the circus was forced to closed only four years later. And in that same year her husband died. She continued to perform, to tour successfully, and in 1905 she traveled to the United States where she performed at the New York Hippodrome for fourteen months. But in 1913, having already lost her mother, he son died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. She considered retiring, but performing was her only means of support as Europe headed toward war.

Returning to Belgium, she formed her own traveling equestrian show which, besides her horses, also included ponies, Great Danes, zebras, and even two elephants. But after the outbreak of war, the show went bankrupt and, forced to sell her animals, she endured several years of great poverty. At the end of the war she was nearly sixty. But in 1923, now sixty-four, she made a comeback with the Busch Circus in Vienna. Riding her very appropriately named English Thoroughbred, "Last Rose", she went on to perform well into her seventies. She wrote a brief memoir in 1934. In the saddle almost till the very end, she died at the age of seventy-nine and was buried in Berlin's St. Hedwig-Friedhof I cemetery, next to her husband Robert, who had preceded her by forty-one years.  

1932, still performing at the age of seventy-three.

In an interview she gave near the end of her life to a French women’s journal, she was asked about her tumultuous life:

“If you had the opportunity to live your life again, knowing all you know, all the joys and all the anguish that await you, would you choose as you had chosen before?”

Therese slowly sat up, looked one second at her horses – and probably beyond them to the adventurous parade that had been this life – then she looked at me. This little woman suddenly seemed surprisingly large, with a beautiful new face of energy, pride, and passion.

“Before God I swear, knowing all the trouble, all the grief, but also the infinite joys that were my destiny, I would not like to change one line of my life story. Regret, you see, even one regret, is worse than bankruptcy.”

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