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.”
She formulated ballet-jazz by adding classical vocabulary to what she learned from Luigi, Jojo Smith and Phil Black in New York. For example, in jazz dance, feet are parallel, but she used turnout. “Students had to have strong ballet technique to do her class,” says her former dance assistant Michèle-France Cloutier. “Eva’s control was amazing. She could hold her balance on demi pointe and talk at the same time.”
It was Mr. Toussaint who first had the idea of establishing a company and a school. Ms. Von Gencsy brought in former Les Grands Ballets dancer Geneviève Salbaing, and the triumvirate established Les Ballets-Jazz Contemporains. Mr. Toussaint and Ms. von Gencsy were artistic directors, Ms. Salbaing the administrator.
Right from the beginning there was friction, and Mr. Toussaint bowed out in 1974. Ms. von Gencsy followed in 1978, and for the next 35 years, maintained her very active freelance teaching career. Always a class act, she never spoke about the breakup.
Mr. Toussaint (and other loyalists) maintain that Ms. von Gencsy was pushed out of the company, claiming that he and Ms. von Gencsy wanted to maintain the polished rigour of ballet lines, while Ms. Salbaing felt that the only way that the company could grow was to make the repertoire more commercial by opening up the dance style. According to Sylvie Normandin, Ms. von Gencsy’s executrix, in later years, there was a rapprochement between the two: “Eva did forgive Geneviève when they were both little old ladies.”
Everyone who knew Ms. von Gencsy came to love her, both for her charm and her sunny disposition. For Mr. Robitaille, “She was like a sweet, naive little girl who was always just discovering the world. Her favourite expression was ‘Everything is beautiful!’ All of us knew that it wasn’t true, but Eva believed it.”
The love of freedom Ms. von Gencsy carried into her dance permeated her life. Mr. Macdonald’s wife, former Les Grands ballerina Annette av Paul, was also on the Banff staff. She remembers Ms. von Gencsy flying her kite on the mountain. “She loved to see the kite soar,” said Ms. av Paul, “and her personality was like that. She was a survivor, no matter what.”
Ms. von Gencsy was married for 10 years to a fellow Hungarian who loved to race cars. Ms. Normandin said: “They divorced after 10 years because Eva didn’t want to be a wife. She wanted to dance, and dance was more important than any man.” The couple did, however, remain friends.
On a romantic note, Ms. von Gencsy was a cougar before it became fashionable, conducting discreet love affairs with a series of beautiful young men. In Mireille Dansereau’s 2003 documentary film, Eva, Ms. von Gencsy is asked whether she ever wanted children, to which she famously responded, “Yes.” (beat) “Stuffed!”
Long-time friends, such as retired dance librarian Vincent Warren, recall her gracious, old-world charm, like sending notes after being invited for lunch, or actually taking the time to write letters, decorating the envelopes with little coloured hearts and flowers.
Mr. Warren relates an amusing von Gencsyism. The two were often ballet examiners together, and whenever Ms. von Gencsy knew that a group of boys was next, she would put on lipstick. Her vanity carried over into the studio. Her various leotards all had matching shoes. “The curtain was never down for Eva. She was always on stage,” Mr. Warren said.
Ms. von Gencsy was extremely interested in politics, loved Trudeau, and was a committed Liberal voter. While she had tremendous respect for French-Canadians’ pride in their heritage, she was strongly against separation. She was well read and very knowledgeable about the performing arts. Von Gencsy also kept every program from every dance concert she ever attended.
Always eager to learn, she took various survey courses at Concordia University. When someone gave her a used computer when she was 80, she took to it immediately. She particularly delighted in looking up dance performances on YouTube. She also adored animals, especially big dogs, and called Ms. Normandin’s golden retriever, Léon, her boyfriend.
Never a big eater, Ms. von Gencsy became frail and very thin. She hated to cook and could only make one dish – goulash. Worried friends dropped by her tiny apartment with food packages. Even the concierge at the Mountain Street building where she lived for 45 years made her soup.
In her later years, when travelling became too difficult, she continued to teach, holding recreational classes at the tony Midtown Le Sporting Club Sanctuaire. Her last teaching post was conducting recuperative classes for cancer patients at the Jewish General Hospital – right up to the day before her final collapse.
The end was sudden and dramatic. In conjunction with BJM’s 40th anniversary season, an evening of films was held at Cinémathèque Québécoise on April 3. Two of Ms. von Gencsy’s seminal choreographies were featured, Warm-up (1972) and Up There … Souls Dance Undressed Together (1975). In the middle of her introduction, which conveyed all her enthusiasm for life and dance, she suffered cardiac arrest.
She was revived, and lingered for another eight days. Her legion of friends take some solace in the fact that the last act of her life was on a stage. She was able to have a rueful laugh over the fact that Ms. Salbaing was scheduled to speak after her. Ms. Normandin said: “She finally managed to upstage Mme. Salbaing.”
Eva von Gencsy demanded truth from her doctor about her condition, he told her that she would soon be dancing with the angels. She accepted the inevitable end with grace and serenity, telling the doctor, “After all, I am 85!” shaving four years off her age, even in the face of death. Hotel-Dieu is a teaching hospital, and when the doctor appeared with six students, she blew a kiss to each one. Just before she died, she told Ms. Normandin that she was thankful for her life and for dance. “Everything is beautiful,” she said.