Dame Alicia Markova, Ballerina

Dame Alicia Markova, Ballerina

Born: 1 December, 1910, in London. Died: 2 December, 2004, in Bath, aged 94.

ALICIA Markova was the first British ballerina to gain worldwide fame. She was an early star of the Royal Ballet and made an international career just after the war. At the age of 14, however, she joined the Diaghilev Ballet and danced with them for the last four years of its existence under Diaghilev’s stewardship. She danced with the Vic-Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) before forming a heroic partnership with Anton Dolin. The two created the Markova-Dolin Company which evolved into the Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet). Markova specialised in sylph-like roles. Her fragility and ease through the air gave her an ethereal quality which made her ideal for Les Sylphides and Giselle.

Lilian Alice Marks was one of four sisters born to an engineer in London. She suffered from bad knees so her mother took her to a dance class in a rather grand villa on the Kings Road called The Pheasantry (now a Pizza Express) to see if deportment would help her.

Serge Diaghilev saw her in class when she was ten and wanted her to join his company immediately. On the spot the somewhat intimidating impresario changed her name to Alicia Markova and sketched out roles for her, but "Little Alicia" had to wait a few years, then Diaghilev arranged for a young English girl - Ninette de Valois - to shepherd Markova to Monte Carlo where she joined the company on her 14th birthday.

Markova was not over-awed (as most were) by Diaghilev and the host of stars who surrounded him: she joyously called him "Sergypop" and chattered away to him in English - a language he refused to use with anyone else. Her first role was Red Riding Hood in Aurora’s Wedding and then had roles in La Boutique Fantastique, Prince Igor and Petrouchka. Balanchine rearranged Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (Matisse designed her a white pyjama suit) and Markova floated as if on air as the nightingale.

She gradually grew in confidence and Diaghilev (in poor health) was keen to see her advance. She partnered Serge Lifar in Balanchine’s La Chatie and, in 1929, at the final performance at Covent Garden of the company’s Aurora’s Wedding, Markova danced the fearsomely difficult Blue Bird pas de deux with a new partner, Anton Dolin.

Diaghilev intimated that the following season she would become a principal and offered her Giselle. Alas, two months later Diaghilev died and Markova’s career was in turmoil.

Work was in short supply although de Valois, Rambert and Ashton put on matines and Markova danced in Ashton’s new Rio Grande and Faade in 1931. But it was not until January 1932 that her career was re-established. De Valois started the Vic-Wells Ballet and Markova joined as a principal.

Markova was an integral part in the creation of the company. The fact the Royal Ballet is now such an international force was largely due to the likes of Markova’s ability to dance and create works under the most trying conditions. In 1932, alone, she mounted Les Sylphides based on the Diaghilev production and created and danced in (with Robert Helpmann) the Haunted Ballroom. In 1933, she became the company’s prima ballerina.

That year, she danced her first Giselle in performances that are now legendary. The Nutcracker followed and then Markova led the company in the first full-length Swan Lake ever seen in this country. It was a triumph.

In May 1935, Markova created the role of the Betrayed Girl in the first all-British ballet. Choreographed by de Valois The Rake’s Progress was an instant success and is now a classic. The company principally performed at Sadler’s Wells but toured extensively. Such was the enthusiasm in Glasgow, Dolin has written, that he and Markova "had to write a letter to the local press to convey our thanks to the people".

The two stars set up the Markova-Dolin Company in 1935 to let them dance more and earn some money. They had known each other since the Pheasantry but Dolin had often danced abroad. The company was only to last until 1937 but they toured throughout Britain (including many cities in Scotland) and proved hugely popular.

Markova was not invited back by de Valois (another aspiring artist called Margot Fonteyn was now in full flight) so Markova joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, making her New York debut in 1938 with them. The following year, a season was planned at Covent Garden in which Markova was to premier a new ballet by Massine. But by the first night, war had been declared.

Markova was under contract to the Ballet Russe and spent the war in America as their principal dancer. She created the female lead in Anthony Tudor’s 1943 version of Romeo and Juliet ("Markova as Juliet is not only the greatest dancer of her time, but also the greatest actress") and danced Giselle often with Dolin. Their partnership broke new grounds for dramatic intensity and technical virtuosity.

In 1950, she founded the Festival Ballet. She only remained as prima ballerina there until 1952 and spent the rest of the Fifties giving guest appearances at The Metropolitan New York (where she became director of the Opera Ballet from 1963-69), La Scala etc. In 1962, during a performance in New York of Giselle, she decided to retire. No fuss, no bother.

She became a sympathetic teacher with various companies and was a guest professor of dance at the Royal Academy of Dance. She appeared in some TV programmes (Masterclass, BBC2, 1980) and wrote several books: (Giselle and I (1960); Markova Remembers (1982) and was given various university honours. She was created a Dame in 1963.

One of the histories of the Royal Ballet states that "the dancer who did most to launch the company was Alicia Markova". Over the years, as great names have emerged, Markova’s role has been too easily forgotten. Her influence on generations of dancers was immense. Her teaching was incisive and authoritative and brought fresh insights to an interpretation.

At a Covent Garden gala for Margot Fonteyn in 1990, other great names from the past wrote paragraphs extolling Fonteyn’s virtues. Markova wrote three simple lines recalling the "happy memories since 1933 of your great achievements". No mention of herself. This modest and retiring lady remained to the end delightful of manner and a great ambassador of her art.

She never married.

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