'Dracula' Reflects Dancer's Journey From War-Torn Hungary To Prima Ballerina

Oct 16, 2014

Publicity still for Toth's production of 'Dracula'
Credit Courtesy Northeastern Ballet Theatre

Wolfeboro ballet instructor Edra Toth knows what it feels like to be misunderstood.

On Saturday night, her nonprofit Northeast Ballet Theater will present Dracula, a ballet written by Toth. In it, Toth’s dance ensemble will illustrate the truth about Dracula – or, more accurately, the original historical figure he’s based on, a militant ruler named Vlad Tepes.

“Dracula is a hero” in some parts of Eastern Europe, said Toth, a Hungarian who immigrated to the United State nearly 60 years ago.

“He was the only one at that time (the 15th century) who understood what was happening with the Turks and the Ottoman Empire, and he opposed them,” she explained. “He’s a defender of Christianity.”

Not exactly the story made popular by Bram Stoker, who wrote the novel Dracula. (The word roughly translates as “devil," a nickname attached to Vlad by his enemies). Stoker portrayed Vlad as a blood-sucking vampire who lived in Transylvania.

Stoker is still popular in that community because his book put the town on the world’s map, Toth said, "but in Hungary they hate him." 

Transylvania is now part of Romania but was part of Hungary for about 1,000 years.

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (1456-1462) (died 1477). Oil on canvas, artist unknown.
Credit Via Wikimedia Commons

Toth says tension about the character’s identity is something she understands and is what inspired her dance of romance, adventure and drama. She was only four years-old when her family fled Hungary during the 1956 Revolution and came to America.

While they treasured their old way of life, they also worked to adapt to their new surroundings – which created some confusing feelings for that plagued her for years.

“My childhood was really spent trying to define who I am and where I belong,” she said. “Inside, we only spoke Hungarian. So I was a Hungarian girl. But when I walked out the door my mother would say, ‘Now you’re an American girl.'”

Things were not made any easier by American cultural prejudices following World War II – specifically the “war in Europe.”

“Remember, in those days, it was the 1950s,” she said. “If you spoke with an accent, oh my gosh! You were different! For one thing, you got less pay – my mother worked in a nursing home for 90-cents per week! So, you were a ‘foreigner.'”

Toth remembers her early childhood in Budapest as sheltered but secure. She was surrounded by a large and loving extended family, especially her parents and a doting grandmother.

But outside their private world, Hungary wasn't safe.

I tugged on this woman's dress and she turned around and said, 'Little one, what do you want?' I knew from that moment I'd never see my grandmother again.

After suffering under the Nazis during World War II, the country found itself controlled by the harsh hand of Soviet Russia’s communist leaders. After a student revolt erupted into the Hungarian Revolution, Toth’s parents decided to escape to Austria.

They traveled by night across the countryside, trying to avoid the Russian army that patrolled the area. They left in a rack truck and later joined hundreds of people traveling by foot, mile after mile by night, heading to the border.

At one point, Toth recalled running up to an elderly woman she thought was her grandmother.

“I tugged on this woman’s dress and she turned around and said, ‘Little one, what do you want?’ I knew from that moment I’d never see my grandmother again.

“When something like this happens to you, you sustain this sort of trauma," Toth said. "My mother always said, ‘You come from a large family,’ but my grandmother was only one who knew we were going to leave. She’d been told, if you don’t hear from us in a year, give up hope.”

Authorities treated the older woman harshly after the young family escaped, Toth said.

“I didn’t see her again until I went back in 1998 and I stood at her grave.”

After the Toths arrived at the border, they decided to come to America.

Toth dances with Rudolf Nuryev. In 1972 Toth was one of the Boston Ballet dancers who toured with Nureyev and performed George Balanchine's 'Apollo.'
Credit Courtesy Edra Toth/Northeastern Ballet Theatre

For a brief time they in New York, where the young girl began to understand how important dance was to her. It happened when she traded a large chunk of chocolate for a tutu that belonged to another girl. 

“She had this gorgeous black tutu and we had this brick of Hershey chocolate,” Toth said.

“I was in heaven, dancing around. But then she ate the chocolate and wanted the tutu back. That was the first inkling I had that dancing was something that was very natural to me. It made me feel good, it gave me fulfillment and joy.”

Not long afterwards, Toth’s family moved to a tenement apartment in Boston. They had less than 10 dollars. The place was hot in summer and cold in winter, and her parents worked several jobs to sustain them.

Edra was an early “latchkey kid,” squirreled away in the uncomfortable apartment during the day until the adults came home from work.

“When I was six years-old my mother got me, from Goodwill, a red-and-black rumba skirt,” she remembered. “I would dance in it after school. If someone came to the door, I couldn’t open it. But there was always ballet. I would dance. There was no music, just what was in my head.

“In my poverty, in my pain… it was the place where I belonged and was whole.”

One day the owner of the building approached Edra’s mother with an offer. The woman's daugher wanted to attend dance school but was shy. Edra said her landlady asked if Edra would attend with her daughter, and in exchange, she would pay Edra's way. 

Toth debuted in the title role of Giselle opposite Ivan Nagy when dancer Violette Verdy's plane was delayed. Toth was only 16.
Credit Courtesy Edra Toth/Northeastern Ballet Theatre

Toth studied with the local teacher, who quickly saw her innate talent. After a few years, her parents approached the Boston Ballet.

According to Edra they said, ‘We’ve been told that Edra has talent and we need to know if there’s no chance for her. So, if there’s not, we can start steering her into a different direction."

Toth was soon studying at the Boston Ballet, taking professional classes along with adults and other kids who had much more training. Her mother cleaned the company’s dance studios to pay for her daughter’s lessons. Later, scholarships allowed the child to continue to grow – and she did.

“I worked hard. I took every class I could because what came through me was this tremendous force,” Toth said. “I knew that I was here for a definite purpose, and I knew what that purpose was. And I had to go with it. It was a drive that – you got sucked along with it.”

Still, Toth sometimes felt the familiar pains of estrangement.

Toth works with a student in her Wolfeboro, NH studio
Credit Image by Daryl Carlson: kamaraimage.com

“Especially when you’re a young person, you want to fit in. Other girls my age, they had birthday parties, school dances. I wasn’t interested. I was with 26, 27 year-old people, rehearsing. And I wanted to be accepted by them, but of course I was not so that continued that feeling of not-fitting-in.”

When she was 15 years-old, Toth got her big break when was asked to dance the lead in Giselle, a classic ballet presented by Jacob’s Pillow, the oldest dance festival in America.

“The only thing I remember about that night, I remember the opening,” she said. “I remember coming out and looking up to the lights…I don’t know who danced that night, but it wasn’t me!

“Then, afterwards, I remember my beautiful mother running down the aisle with this huge bouquet in her hands.”

More than 40 years later, Toth still had tears in her eyes when she recalled it.

“In that moment – everything she had worked for – She worked three jobs! And everything she sacrificed for… It was like a gift she gave to me, and she saw a return.”

The next year Toth was Prima Ballerina with the Boston Ballet. As the years passed, she worked all over the world with dancing greats including Rudolf Nureyev, Ivan Nagy and Edward Vilella. She danced the lead roles in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Les Corsaires, Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and many other classics.

Toth was soon teaching others to dance and eventually moved her studio to Wolfeboro. 

“Miss Edra,” as her students call her, believes anyone can dance – and everyone should. She doesn’t turn away anyone who cannot pay for their lessons because she remembers those who helped her find her way through dance.

“It’s not just about being able to execute the steps, it’s not technical acumen,” she explained. “Dance, it’s the love of who you are, and finding out who you are.

Dancers rehearse for 'Dracula'
Credit Courtesy Edra Toth/Northeastern Ballet Theatre

"To see children, they might be unusually shy or they could be ‘coded’ or something. But you see this transformation, it’s phenomenal. Ballet is the key that unlocks the mysteries of the soul, and the mental facilities.”

Toth has written several ballet pieces over the years but Dracula is special to her. She wrote it more than 10 years ago after visiting areas of Eastern Europe near where she grew up.

“I remember walking down these streets and feeling a ‘connection’,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was.”  She later learned that where she walked – where Val Tepes once ruled – was once part of Hungary, her homeland.

Further research into the character connected her to her own past and to those “misunderstood” feelings that haunted her for years.

Afterwards, she said, “I felt a compulsion to write this ballet.”

'Dracula,'  the original ballet by Edra Toth, will be presented one night only, Saturday, October 18 at 7 PM at the Kingswood Arts Center in Wolfeboro, NH. For information and tickets, visit the Northeastern Ballet Theatre's website. 

Ray Carbone is a long time Lakes Region writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, New England Boating and various other regional websites and publications. He manages a blog that centers on the Lakes Region lifestyle; it’s an ongoing sequel to his 2009 book, “The Lakes Region of New Hampshire: Four Seasons, Countless Memories.” Ray can be reached at raycarbone@metrocast.net