Hungary has a reputation for producing glamorous and exotic women, among them Eva von Gencsy – fashionably dressed, beautifully coiffed, with an innate elegance gilded by that beguiling Hungarian accent.
When Ms. von Gencsy died April 11 at 89, another pioneer of Canadian dance slipped from our midst. Not only was she prima ballerina in the formative years of companies that would later become the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, in 1972 she co-founded Les Ballets-Jazz Contemporains (later Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and now Ballets Jazz Montréal).
Ms. von Gencsy was instrumental in developing ballet-jazz as a unique dance style; she also became one of the most famous and influential teachers of ballet-jazz on the international circuit. She was a gifted, passionate and inspiring teacher, and her legacy is the countless thousands of her students who carry the torch of ballet-jazz.
Louis Robitaille, artistic director of BJM and the first scholarship student at the BJM school, said: “Eva transmitted her passion for dance until the last moment of her life. She was a monument, the Queen of Dance. We don’t have towering personalities like hers any more.”
Eva von Gencsy was born in 1924 in Csongrad, south of Budapest. Her father was a school principal. (The aristocratic “von” was apparently added by her mother.) The talented young dancer was sent to boarding school in Budapest to study at the Troyanoff Russian Ballet Academy. When she was just 14, she toured with Varga Troyanoff’s company. In 1944, the 20-year-old won a bursary to study at the University Mozarteum Salzburg, where she lived in a bombed-out building. The following year, she made her solo debut in the opera ballet company of the Salzburger Landestheater. In Austria, she learned of a Canadian refugee program where you could enter the country if you worked for one year.
When her boat landed in Montreal in 1948, the customs officer, seeing that Ms. von Gencsy was a dancer, directed her to Winnipeg, which had just hosted the first Canadian Ballet Festival.
She became a domestic servant for a Winnipeg family that allowed her to take classes and dance with the fledgling RWB. In fact, dance consumed so much of her time, that it took Ms. von Gencsy two years to make up the required one year of work. When a devastating 1954 fire at the RWB closed down the company, she relocated to Montreal, where she found lucrative television work on Radio-Canada. She later joined Les Grands Ballets.
Not only did Ms. von Gencsy sport immaculate classical ballet technique, she also had a brilliant flair for the dramatic. One of her most famous roles was the Lady Known as Lou in Gweneth Lloyd’s 1950 ballet, The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Brian Macdonald, Canada’s doyen of dance, remembers her long legs high-kicking prop liquor bottles held high in the air, smashing them as she went. “She loved doing those roles,” he said, “but she could sell anything, whether wearing point shoes, ballet slippers or high heels.”
Mr. Macdonald, later a distinguished choreographer and director, got to know Ms. von Gencsy through Radio-Canada performances. He introduced her to jazz dance, and to Luigi, New York’s master jazz dance teacher. She went on to teach for 13 years in the Banff jazz dance program, which Mr. Macdonald established in 1962. “Eva became addicted to jazz dance,” he said.
Haitian-born Eddy Toussaint fell in love with Ms. von Gencsy when he saw her perform in a ballet-jazz piece she had choreographed for Expo 67. He became her student. During his university summer vacations, they rented an apartment in New York and took ballet and jazz classes all day. “I couldn’t believe that a white ballerina could move like a black person,” he said. “Eva could have fit right into a black nightclub act.”
As Mr. Toussaint points out, Ms. von Gencsy made a distinction between ballet-jazz and jazz dance, the latter generally referring to Broadway or cabaret style. “To Eva, ballet-jazz was a celebration of the soul as well as the body,” he said. “Her style was based on ballet technique, but performed with the freedom of jazz dance.”