THE STAR WITH THE DISHPAN HANDS
Immigrant Eva von Gencsy came right from the kitchen to dance to stardom with the Winnipeg Ballet. Back in Salzburg the balletomanes have never seen anything quite like her interpretation of the sultry siren that's known as Lou
A NEW soloist was emerging to captivate Winnipeg’s wise ballet audience. The people, many of them in gleaming evening dress, sat absorbing the gay lilting strains of Strauss and they could feel the warmth of the pale expressionless dancer come across the footlights to them. She moved crisply and with infinite grace in her long white tulle dress and her feet twinkled with consummate precision in white satin slippers with two rows of satin ribbon crossed at the ankles. A tiny white tiara contrasted sharply with dark hair caught in a snood at the nape of her neck and she was completely given to the music of Vienna that directed her deft movements.
There was a quality about her, someone remarked with eager enthusiasm afterward, that was as indefinable and as immediately recognizable as that of a thoroughbred race horse: a certain quality of grace or class that was as tangible as a summer breeze, and as intangible, too. But none of the praise reached the ears of the soloist. Already she was back in a kitchen washing dishes she’d hastily stacked before she’d dashed to the ballet three hours earlier. Her feet hurt. Her legs ached. She burst into tears.
Eva von Gencsy cried the tears of fatigue many times that first 3-ear in Winnipeg where as a displaced person from Hungary she was a domestic servant in the large elegant home of C. D. Casey) Shepard, a lawyer. The language wets a constant struggle for her—at first the only words she knew were “doughnut, Coca-Cola”—and so were the customs, the housework she’d never done before, and the endless practice required to sharpen the dancing technique that had made her a soloist in her native Budapest and at Salzburg, Austria. For most of that first 3-ear of loneliness and separation from home she felt her greatest friends were the composers to whose music she danced. That, at least, she could recognize and feel.
She didn’t know it the night she wept in the kitchen but her little solo part in „ ballet called Finishing School, in Winnipeg, was the turning point in her new life. She had cleaned the rooms in the three-stor3house, made the beds and prepared a dinner for eight people. Then, with the Strauss music filling the Winnipeg Auditorium, the audience felt the impact of her personality as she danced her first solo part with the Winnipeg Ballet. That was early in 1949 and through the next three 3-ears she became what David Yeddeau, founder of the Canadian Ballet Festival, calls “Canada’s most versatile prima ballerina.”
Now, as leading ballerina for the Winnipeg Ballet, Eva has been widely applauded in all t3-pes of ballet. In the classic works, of which her favorite is the grand pas de deux in Swan Lake, S. Roy Male3r, of the Winnipeg Tribune, called her “a beautiful 3'oung dancer with a radiant personality who showed rare grace of figure and technical finish.” In Vancouver the Province noted that 'lier waltz ballet excerpt . was an enthralling interlude.” But Eva von Gencsy (pronounced Gen-shee, with a hard G) has won most of her prominence with audiences and ecstatic salutes
from critics in a Canadian satire of Robert W. Service's poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, in which she dances the role of the celebrated Lou.
This ballet was created as a result of friends constantly pestering Gweneth Lloyd, founder and director of the Winnipeg Ballet, Betty Farrallv, the dance mistress, and David Yeddeau, the former manager, for a ballet in a distinctly Canadian setting. They’d steered away from the idea on the grounds that anything they might produce would turn out to be a hashed-over version of Rose Marie. But then one night two years ago, as the three of them sat talking, David suggested they try a satire on Dan McGrew. The thought captured the imagination of all of them and they worked it out from there—Gweneth doing the choreography, David the scenario and Betty the dance routines. Originally, Jean MacKenzie, the company’s leading ballerina, played Lou. Then, when she married and retired from dancing the role fell to Lillian Lewis. Then Lillian, too, married and stopped dancing and the part went to Eva von Gencsy, who steadily had l>een improving under Betty Farrally’s strict discipline of diet and expert teaching ability. All three dancers had given Lou something different. Jean MacKenzie had been a blond, cold and aloof Lou; Lillian Lewis a dark warm-blooded one. Eva made Lou naughty and suggestive and the critics knocked themselves out describing her. “A vividly sensuous piece of work,” sighed Jack Karr in the Toronto Star. Herbert Whittaker, of the Toronto Globe and Mail, observed; “A wicked roll of her hips . got the festival going properly.”
Everywhere the company went, from Montreal to Vancouver, audiences laughed themselves into the spirit of the satire and the critics prodded around for synonyms for sex.
Of all these rolesthe classics, the waltzes and the character parts—the one of Lou perhaps comes closest to the real Eva, although she is a young woman who off the stage leaves the impression that she is still playing a role. In turn she is the poised reserved ballerina, sedately expressing her devotion to the profession, and then suddenly she will flutter her eyelashes, toss her dark head and with a tantalizing laugh remark that she works so hard she has no time for dates. She does work hard, but she has time for occasional dates, too. One time, when the company was in Montreal, she arranged dinner engagements for two of the dancers with two Hungarian boys she knew. She found her own date somewhat anaemic, however, and, when the Hungarian boys showed up, she decided to take them herself. So the three of them, Eva and the two Hungarians, went out to dinner and didn’t return until three o’clock in the morning.
This wasn’t precisely the surest way of maintaining esprit de corps in the company but Eva, with a ready laugh for other people's jokes and almost continuous good humor, was able to ingratiate herself back into the girls' good graces. During rehearsals she can be temperamental and frequently spats with her male partner, Arnold Spohr, but away from the theatre she is among the first to credit him with a great
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The Star With the Dishpan Hands
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deal of her improvement. Spohr, a rising choreographer as well as the Winnipeg Ballet’s leading male dancer, partners her in her favorite grand pas de deux and she says that because of him she can live the part she is dancing. “He really makes me feel he is a prince,” she says, “and that way the spell can be communicated to the audience.”
Her vivaciousness, flamboyance and even her rich Hungarian accent grive her a winning way with the dancers, too, after the natural clashes of temperament that accompany long rehearsals. On a trip to eastern Canada last spring Eva announced as the train departed that she wanted most of all to see a sheep. Through the forests and rocklands bordering Lake Superior there were, of course, no sheep and Eva kept reiterating her desire to see one. As the train pulled into Toronto a lake freighter could be seen on Lake Ontario moving slowly toward the docks near the railway station.
“There eet ees!” she cried, “a sheep, a sheep!”
Her vanity is both a woman’s and an artist’s. She was ballerina in Gweneth Lloyd’s The Wise Virgins at the command performance for Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in the Winnipeg Auditorium last fall. At the last instant, just as the dancers were to go on-stage, Eva was missing. A stagehand hurried to the dressing room to find her applying a last-second brush to her eyelashes.
She is vain, in a laughing, goodnatured but still definite way, about her weight and age which she surrounds with as much mystery as possible. She would be pleased if she were adjudged to be twenty-four years of age and appalled if the figure were placed at thirty, although most people who know her feel the latter to be the more accurate estimate. Similarly, one hundred and fifteen pounds is an excellent weight for a ballerina but it is one to which Eva, who loves Hungarian goulash, thick soups and “wheeped creem,” can only aspire. Each time she yields to her yearning for rich foods— and, because of Betty Farrally’s strict diet, it isn’t often—her thighs reflect it beneath her mesh stockings.
Thus, while the purists may insist that on-stage her figure does not have the classic lines of the pencil-straight ballerina, she is far from inelegant. She is a pirouetting hourglass, with « full mouth, heavy-lashed hazel eyes under long slim black plucked brows and dark hair parted in the middle and pulled rather loosely back past her wide forehead and high cheekbones to a horsetail knot at the back. Mostly, she dresses in plain dark suits with light blouses. She is five-feet-six in her highheeled, black suede shoes, with trim ankles and full shapely calves. She is olive-skinned, wears dangling earrings and little make-up.
For the last two years she has been a teacher at the Canadian Ballet School in Winnipeg and is described by Betty Farrally, the ballet mistress, as a good one—conscientious, patient and very hard-working. Last year, for instance, she conducted children’s classes at Dauphin, Man., traveling two hundred miles northwest by bus and missing only one day’s classes in Winnipeg.
To do this she’d catch a bus at six o’clock each Thursday morning, jiggle and jog for six hours to Dauphin, conduct her class there in the afternoon and make the two-hundred-mile return trip by bus at night. The next morning
she’d report to the ballet school at ten o’clock to conduct her Winnipeg classes or to begin a long day of rehearsals if the company were readying for a performance or a tour. Eva seldom found the trips monotonous or arduous, as she had found the housework during her first year, because they were connected with ballet and anything connected »nth ballet was part
Therefore she regarded the housework as a role, too, a means to an end. The unfamiliarity of it and the long hours it required were part of her bargain in coming to Canada and she knew that after a year the obligation would be fulfilled. Four years ago, when the mere act of breathing grew complicated in much of Europe, she came as a domestic servant because that was fhe simplest method of leaving Hungary. Under DP terms she agreed to spend a minimum of a year in that capacity. She went to Winnipeg because a Travellers’ Aid woman in Montreal told her the ballet there was the best in this country.
Meanwhile the Shepard family in Winnipeg had made an application to take a DP into their home as a domestic. So, on the morning of Oct. 1, 1948, when Eva stepped from a train at Winnipeg’s Union Station, it was to be greeted by Casey and Carol Shepard.
“It was an incredible scene,” Shepard recalls. “They came out of the train like cattle, each wearing a flapping identification card. For us, the arrival of Eva was like getting an express package; in this case in human form.” The Shepards were moving to a new home the day Eva arrived and she got into the human chain that passed packages from the moving van to the house.
It was a week before they communicated in anything more intelligible than sign language and then Carol discovered that her faulty school German provided a common ground. When she learned Eva had been a dancer in Hungary and Austria Mrs. Shepard took her to Gweneth Lloyd. She was overweight, as much as twenty-five pounds, but there »ras about her dancing a flash of that indefinable something which Gweneth calls “dancing from the heart.”
In this connection, David Yeddeau has said that ballet, if it is to attract Canadians, must be entertainment first and art second. People like Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer, of the Sadler’s Wells company, have that quality of reaching the uninitiated and Eva von Gencsy has it, too. There are occasions, of course, »'hen ballerinas have off nights, just as quarterbacks and pitchers have them. On those occasions Yeddeau says, “The horses weren’t running that day,” and ballet will be a series of uninspiring leaps and jumps for people watching it for the first time.
Under a strict diet and uncompromising instruction Eva joined the corps de ballet and endeavored to regain her technique. The Shepards, who paid Eva the government-stipulated thirtyfive dollars a month plus board and room, erected a dancer’s barre in the basement to facilitate Eva’s practicing When she wasn’t preparing meals, making beds, minding the Shepards’ three children or cleaning the house, she was in the basement practicing. At night, after t»’elve hours of housework, she went to the ballet school on Main Street and rehearsed with the corps de ballet. On Winnipeg's cold »inter nights she'd »-ait on the comer for her bus and practice her steps in the snow. If it was difficult to manipulate her feet in heavy overshoes the exercise at least served to keep her warm.
Long before Eva’s year had elapsed
I she had become one of the family at I the Shepards’. In fact, the family became so fascinated by her career that I Mrs. Shepard's friends coined a stock sentence to cover all social engagements. “Carol won’t be there,” they’d say. “She has to be sitter because her DP is rehearsing.” Other nights, Eva would improve her English by reading large illustrated bedtime stories to the children. She'd look at the picture of a dog and then at the word under the picture and gradually, just as a child learns, she learned to recognize the words. And for words that had too many sj'Oables to be included in children's books. Carol bought two English-German dictionaries and the two of them would thumb through the soon dog-eared pages to find the phrases for which they were groping. And Eva improved her English with her closest friends, Mr. and Mrs. Gustav Nemes, with whom she dines every Sunday night. Gustav, editor of the weekly Canadian-Hungarian News, and his wife adopted a routine that never varies: dinner, relaxed reminiscences
and then an English lesson.
Eva was conscientious but she never did become an accomplished help around the house. One evening she was moving precariously from the kitchen under a trayful of food after she had prepared a meal for twenty. As she approached the swinging door leading to the dining room the door struck her tray and she served the meal on the floor. Carol Shepard, a contained socialite, calmly surveyed the havoc and said to her guests. “Only a ballerina can pick up things so gracefully.”
In her second year Eva moved in with the Shepards as a guest and began teaching ballet to the children. They took her to their summer home at Victoria Beach, near Winnipeg, and there she light-heartedly remade an old bathing suit into one of those French suits that are composed largely of skin. Then she strolled, with an exaggerated roll of her hips, across the sand. “You could have heard a pin drop all along the beach,” a man who was there recalls nostalgically.
In spite of her fatigue and the tremendous readjustment, Eva remembers her two years with the Shepards as a period of growing contentment. "I grew to love Canada, I think, because of the beautiful way they lived together,” she says simply. “Love dominated the Shepard home. To me it seemed the ideal of living.” She expresses a similar philosophy about her two years in the corps de ballet after having been a soloist in Europe. “A dancer must learn again to get used to the whole atmosphere of the corps: you fit into a picture instead of being one. The fundamentals are the same, of course, but the routines and the choreography differ and it is most difficult to be one of many. It is also most healthy. I think now a ballerina is a better dancer for having gone back to the corps.”
To Eva. Canada is a stimulating country in which to dance because there is an opportunity for a girl in the corps to become a ballerina. “At Salzburg everything is so permanent, so set. To be always in the corps would not be fair, you can understand, and here there is always a chance to do solo work. It is, I think, the difference between a young country and an old
Eva was bom in Budapest, the youngest of three children. Her father, who died three years ago, was headmaster of a girls’ school at which her mother also taught. Eva always wanted to dance and used to make up little dances and perform them for her parents. She was sent to the Russian
Ballet Academy in Budapest in 1935, when she was ten. (“Well,” she says, with a smile, “it was approximately in 1935 and I teas ten.”) There she also attended drama school. Later she won a scholarship enabling her to study in Salzburg where the ballet mistress at her school was also the ballet mistress at the Opera House and, after a year of study, Eva was offered a contract to dance at the Opera House. She danced there for three years and then returned to Budapest to study.
Eva was a soloist at the Landes Theatre in Salzburg from 1945 until early in 1948 when she was refused a passport to Italy to fulfill a contract with the Wanda Osiris Compagnia in Rome. That was when she decided to apply for emigration as a domestic servant to Canada. “The American soldiers talked so much about home that I wanted to see the New World,” she says. “The bombings during the war and the hard times that followed; those, and the stories and dreams of the Americans, decided me.” She made her application in May and five months later joined the Shepard family.
She left the family two years ago and now shares a five-room furnished apartment with two Hungarian sisters, Palma and Katrina Nagy, both of whom work at the Canadian-Hungarian News. Eva lost most of her love for cooking in her year in the Shepard kitchen (“and. anyway, Palma does it so beautifully”) but she does her share of the household duties in the ninety-dollar-a-month apartment. Her monthly salary is not many dollars more than that but she finds her expenses are low because she spends so much time at the school and is compelled, by her distressing ability to add weight easily, to eat like a rabbit.
She is on informal terms with the girls in the ballet but they are not her close friends. In addition to her Sunday nights with the Nemes family she finds the best way to relax is with people in other professions, and she knows a number of artists and doctors. What reading time she gets is confined largely to books on ballet. Of these, her favorite is Serge Lifar's On Classical Ballet, edited in English by Arnold L. Haskell. In addition to English, Eva speaks French (“it is the language of ballet”), Hungarian and German.
She has an intense loyalty to the Winnipeg Ballet, which gave her her new life, and insists she would not be interested in opportunities to dance in the United States—thus far. she has had none—but some competent judges are not so certain. David Yeddeau says she could dance in any Broadway musical featuring ballet “with no difficulty whatever.”
“Supposing some of those producers or movie people see her in New York or Los Angeles when the Winnipeg Ballet tours in the States, as it has often considered doing.” suggests Yeddeau. who left the company more than a year ago to become a free-lance stage manager and producer in Toronto. “They say to her. ‘How much are you making?’ and when she replies, ‘A hundred and fifty a month,' or whatever it is, they’ll simply say. Darling, would you be interested in a thousand dollars a week with us?’
"What would you do?” ★