Markova, Alicia (1910—)

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Markova, Alicia (1910—)

Distinguished English-born ballerina who was one of the stars of the dance world from the 1930s to the early 1960s . Name variations: Lilian Alicia Marks; Dame Alicia Markova. Pronunciation: Mar-COVE-ah. Born Lilian Alicia Marks in Finsbury, North London, on December 1, 1910; daughter of Arthur Marks (a mining engineer) and Eileen Barry Marks; studied dance with Serafima Astafieva, 1921–25; never married; no children.

Met Anna Pavlova (1919); began career as dancer in pantomime show (1920); met Patrick Healey-Kay and received first offer to dance in a production by Diaghilev (1921); death of her father (1924); joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and danced first solo role in Le Rossignol (1925); death of Diaghilev (1929); joined Old Vic-Sadler's Wells ballet (1933); gave first performance of Giselle (1934); formed Markova-Dolin Ballet (1935); joined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and made debut in America (1938); joined Ballet Theatre (1941); had surgery for hernia (1943); appeared in Broadway show (1943–44); founded London Festival Ballet (1950); left London Festival Ballet (1952); received Order of the British Empire (OBE, 1953); gave final performance (1962); announced her retirement and named Dame of the British Empire (DBE, 1963); served as ballet director, Metropolitan Opera (1963–69); taught at the University of Cincinnati (1970–74); presented television series on BBC (1981); was given gala birthday celebration at Sadler's Wells (1990).

Selected roles:

title role in The Dying Swan ; title role in The Firebird ; title role in Giselle ; Juliet in Romeo and Juliet ; the Nightingale in Le Rossignol ; title role in La Sylphide ; Odette-Odile in Swan Lake ; Sugar-Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker ; Swanhilda in Coppélia.

Alicia Markova was one of the most eminent dancers of the 20th century. Taken into the world of Russian ballet by the distinguished impresario Sergei Diaghilev, she moved on to form her own ballet company in the 1930s. In 1950, along with her longtime partner and friend, Anton Dolin, she founded the London Festival Ballet and promoted interest in classical dance in Great Britain. In all, she stands as a pioneer in the formation of British ballet. Writes her English biographer Maurice Leonard: "Before her only foreigners had been ballerinas. No one thought we could do it."

During the first decades of the 20th century, the ballet world was dominated, in all its aspects, by Russians like Diaghilev. His Russian ballet had taken Paris, then the other major cities of Western Europe, by storm in the years before World War I. In the 1920s, cut off from Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution, his touring company still set the standard for the ballet world. Dancers of several nationalities were attracted to the company, and some were invited to join. With the death of Sergei Diaghilev in 1929, his Ballets Russes collapsed, and his dancers went their separate ways, sometimes bringing ballet to their own countries and setting up national companies. Alicia Markova, whose Russian name disguised her English background, was one of the most renowned products of the Diaghilev company.

The future ballet star was born Lilian Alicia Marks in the north London neighborhood of Finsbury Park. Her father Arthur Marks was a Jewish mining engineer whose family had originally come from Poland, and her mother Eileen Marks was an Irish-born Roman Catholic who converted to Judaism. Markova grew up in a loving, increasingly prosperous household, and her childhood was marked by the arrival of a housekeeper with a powerful personality. Gladys Hogan , whom everyone called "Guggy," became a crucial figure in Alicia's life and early career.

An initial turning point came when a doctor advised ballet lessons to deal with Alicia's flat feet. Her ballet teacher saw her extraordinary natural talent almost immediately, and, encouraged by her teacher, the young girl soon won a dance contest at a London theater. In 1919, Alicia met the greatest ballerina of the day, Anna Pavlova . She had already seen Pavlova's performances, but this time she pushed her father to arrange an introduction. The visit to Pavlova's house led to a private lesson. Like Alicia's first ballet teacher, Pavlova saw the talent in the young girl and encouraged her to think of a professional career.

Within a year of her meeting with Pavlova, Alicia, still a young child, was launched as a professional dancer. On April 1, 1920, she gave her first paid performance, at a charity show for the Italian Red Cross. With special permission from the local government and with Hogan accompanying her in the role of governess, she began regular performances at a local music hall. The minimum age for someone undertaking such work was ten; Alicia had just celebrated that birthday. Presented as "The Child Pavlova," she was hailed by one critic as "a very accomplished ballerina in miniature."

Only at this point did Alicia begin her formal training in the classical tradition. She auditioned for the famous Princess Serafima Astafieva in 1921, made her usual striking impression, and began her studies with Astafieva immediately. A fellow pupil was a young English dancer named Patrick Healey-Kay, who was to become her lifelong partner. When Sergei Diaghilev visited the school, he too was struck by the young girl's talent, and he planned on creating a special dance for her in the prologue of his production of The Sleeping Beauty. This was an extraordinary opportunity for such a young dancer, and Alicia was crushed when she was temporarily disabled by diphtheria. The disease not only destroyed her first chance to perform in one of Diaghilev's productions, it almost took her life.

By this time, Diaghilev was finding it difficult to maintain his company with Russian-born dancers. Patrick Healey-Kay had already joined his company; to give him a Russian facade, his name was soon changed to Anton Dolin. Three years later, at the start of 1925, Astafieva persuaded Diaghilev to allow Alicia, still only 14, to join the Ballets Russes. Legally she could not take a full-time position, but Diaghilev decided to ignore the law; for professional purposes, she was to be presented as 16 years of age. The previous year, Alicia's father had died after seeing the family's fortune dwindle due to bad investments. She entered upon a full-time dancing career mainly because of the growing financial pressures on her family.

Both Alicia's family and Diaghilev recognized that the young prodigy needed to be supervised, and Hogan continued to travel with her in the role of governess. Meanwhile, Diaghilev appointed one of his established dancers, Ninette de Valois , to look after the girl. De Valois took on the task reluctantly, expecting to encounter a spoiled brat. Instead, she found, "there was never a sweeter child. … Everything you told herto do she immediately did." Nonetheless, young Alicia found herself out of place and lonely in a group that contained no one close to her age.

Diaghilev took the young dancer under his wing, seeing to it that she had French lessons, changing her name to the Russian-sounding "Alicia Markova," and offering her steadily larger parts. She began a longstanding relationship with the young choreographer George Balanchine, and her debut in a solo part was in Balanchine's version of Le Rossignol, his first original production since his arrival in Western Europe from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, under Hogan's supervision, Markova led a disciplined life of practice, rehearsal, and performances, all the while continuing to do her schoolwork. For four years, writes Sarah Montague , "her life was immensely exciting artistically and completely sheltered socially."

During those years from 1925 to 1929, the tiny young dancer, who weighed only 80 pounds, traveled throughout Europe with Diaghilev's company. Illness forced Hogan to give up her role as governess, and Eileen Marks stepped in to accompany her daughter. Meanwhile, Diaghilev took a direct role in promoting her career. Some of his decisions Alicia accepted only with reluctance. He insisted, for example, that she abandon her position as a soloist for an entire season; by dancing with the corps de ballet, she would thereby improve her technique. She would also free herself from later accusations that she had advanced too quickly because of favoritism. The impresario also restricted her social life, barring her, until she reached the age of 18, from joining the company at the various functions to which they were invited. The Diaghilev company stressed modern dance, and Markova's years with the group gave her a firm grounding in this branch of ballet.

In 1929, Alicia Markova's career seemed on the verge of a major advance. She danced publicly for the first time with Anton Dolin, and Diaghilev informed her that she was to be promoted to the rank of prima ballerina. She would alternate in roles already held by some of the most illustrious and established members of his troupe. She was also to receive a formal contract, symbolizing her arrival as a full-fledged professional. All of these expectations exploded for Markova on August 19. While taking a holiday in England, she learned of Diaghilev's sudden death.

In the next year and a half, Markova spent much of her time away from the world of dance. By the beginning of 1931, however, she began a new and decisive phase in her career: she became a leading figure in the new world of British ballet. She danced for the Camargo Society, an organization recently founded to promote the art of dance in Markova's native country. She also renewed her relationship with Ninette de Valois, who was now becoming a prominent ballet producer in Britain. At the Camargo Society and at the equally new Ballet Club, Markova found herself paid a pittance, dancing on cramped stages, and dealing more with up-and-coming British dancers than with the great Russian stars of the Diaghilev company. She covered the gaps in her finances by dancing in stage shows that took place in the intermissions at movie theaters in London's fashionable West End.

Agnes de Mille">

Alicia's art, through sheer concentration and focussing of impulse, became transfigured gradually to the beauty and cold endurance of the stars.

Agnes de Mille

Markova became increasingly involved in the efforts of Ninette de Valois to promote British ballet. In March 1932, she began to dance important roles in the Sadler's Wells Company, an organization founded by de Valois that would eventually become the Royal Ballet. Later that year, Markova was a featured star in de Valois' troupe of dancers sent to perform in Copenhagen, the first time a company comprised entirely of British dancers went abroad to perform.

Markova's performances at Sadler's Wells drew huge audiences for the new, and still struggling, company, and she shifted from guest artist to full member in 1933, then broadened her work to appear in the musical A Kiss in Spring. The critics panned the overall production, but they praised the ballet interlude at the close of the evening that featured Markova. In June 1933, at the final performance put on by the Camargo Society, Markova appeared before Queen Mary of Teck and other members of the British royal family.

Ninette de Valois' dance company stressed the great Russian classics, and Markova now found herself steeped in this tradition. Thus, in 1934, she took on the title role in Giselle, a part with which her name would be associated for the remainder of her career. Markova had been attracted to the role since seeing one of her Russian mentors, Olga Spessivtzeva , perform it in the early 1930s. Partnered with Anton Dolin, Markova now danced it for the first of many times. She received lavish praise, one critic noting that "her ethereal grace attained a truly poignant beauty."

In 1935, Markova and Dolin left Sadler's Wells to form their own company; they had become increasingly convinced of their power to draw an audience based upon the success of a recent Sadler's Wells tour throughout Britain. Their departure from the company founded by Ninette de Valois was accompanied by harsh feelings and the threat of lawsuits. In the end, de Valois let them go, placing Robert Helpmann and the young Margot Fonteyn at the center of her future efforts. Fonteyn, another English dancer, had long since made Markova her model.

The Markova-Dolin Company, which would became Alicia Markova's artistic home for the next three years, gave its opening performance in Newcastle on November 11, 1935, then toured extensively. Shy as usual, Markova refused to make speeches from the stage after performances, leaving this task to Dolin. Combined with her Russian name, this gave many audiences the impression that she was a foreigner who could not speak English.

The tours were grueling. Wrote Markova in her memoirs in 1986: "My life was, literally, spent between my hotel room and the stage, and my dressing-rooms were my real home." Meanwhile, critical success followed, but it came at enormous cost. The company ran up huge deficits too great to be sustained even with the help of wealthy patrons. There was also a physical cost. Markova gave eight performances each week, and, in the fall of 1937, she suffered a serious foot injury.

By now, Markova was one of the leading ballerinas in the world, but she had confined her performances to Britain throughout the 1930s. The possibility of appearing before foreign audiences was something she had rejected repeatedly in order to build up the dance world in her own country. In 1937, she received an offer she decided to accept. Leonid Massine and the American impresario Sol Hurok were building an American ballet company. Markova signed with

Hurok, and the Markova-Dolin Company ended its last tour at the close of 1937.

Before leaving for America, Massine's company performed in Europe, where Markova joined them in Monte Carlo, Paris, and London in the spring of 1938. Her early months with the new company were marred by a difficult relationship with her partner Serge Lifar. His efforts to overshadow her, notably as she danced her favorite role as Giselle, made their dancing styles incompatible. In London, where her interpretation was well known and popular, audiences booed Lifar. Markova had a triumphal American debut in Giselle in October 1938, but there was a poisonous atmosphere surrounding her performance due to hostility and jealousy towards her from other members of the troupe. She received a threatening note after one rehearsal, and a stage prop lily she was supposed to pick up during her performance was nailed to the stage. The most disturbing event occurred on the second night. Lifar slipped, sending her crashing to the floor. When the two of them were disentangled, Markova was found to have a bone fracture in her foot. Although she was dancing in agony, she finished the first act before passing out. Lifar soon left the company.

The American tour continued for six months, with the company visiting more than 100 cities before returning to Monte Carlo in May 1939. According to biographer Leonard, acts of sabotage continued throughout the tour. A costume she needed in the midst of a performance turned up mysteriously mutilated. On another occasion, a long needle was embedded in a costume she was wearing.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Markova left for America. Though she would have preferred to remain in Britain to do war work, Sol Hurok had threatened legal action unless she honored her contract to appear once again in New York. Her stay abroad lasted for eight years. Together with Alexandra Danilova , who accompanied her from Europe, and dancers whom Hurok and Massime recruited in America, Markova toured the U.S. and Latin America with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as the company was now called. In 1942, she set an attendance record for the Hollywood Bowl, attracting an audience of 35,000. In the changing and competitive world of ballet companies, Sol Hurok established a link with the newly created Ballet Theatre. In 1941, Markova followed him.

A new turn in Markova's career came in late 1943. Responding to a long series of invitations by producer Billy Rose, Markova agreed to appear in the Broadway show The Seven Lively Arts. From November 1943 to May 1944, she and Dolin danced in the show to music specially commissioned from composer Igor Stravinsky. Along with Dolin, she also appeared briefly in the Hollywood film A Song for Miss Julie. But the wartime years saw Markova struggling with a variety of illnesses. In 1943, for example, she had to undergo surgery for a hernia. In the aftermath of the operation, a doctor ordered her to take a prolonged period for recuperation, but he was mistaken when he warned her that she might never dance again.

In the postwar years, the English star continued to dominate the ballet world. She toured widely in both North and South America, even traveling to dance in the Philippines in 1947. This whirlwind of activity put enormous strain on her slender physique. Newspaper accounts of her career noted how she kept her strength with a routine diet of steaks and chocolate sundaes after her performances; she usually weighed less than 100 pounds.

In 1948, Markova returned to her native country after an absence of eight years. Dancing Giselle at Covent Garden with the Sadler's Wells troupe, she received a tumultuous reception from both the audience and the press. One critic wrote, "Markova gave us a Giselle whose quality has not been seen in London for ten years." She was also idolized by the younger generation of English dancers, most of whom were seeing her perform for the first time. Now based in Britain, Markova and Dolin formed their own small company in 1950. With the country gearing up for the Festival of Britain scheduled for the following year, she decided to call their troupe the Festival Ballet. That same year, she and Dolin made a brief, black-and-white film version of Giselle for American television.

Markova continued her frantic schedule of traveling, dancing on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1950s. Leaving the London Festival Ballet in 1952, she performed as a guest artist with numerous companies. In 1958, she fulfilled a longstanding desire to dance in Israel. As always, her most popular role was in Giselle. She once calculated that she had danced it with more than 15 different partners, and she found a new and frequent partner, the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. In a different group of settings, she performed in variety shows at the London Palladium and on British television. In 1953, Markova received her first honor from the British government, the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

At the start of 1963, Markova announced her retirement to a group of reporters who had come to interview her at Heathrow Airport as she prepared to leave for the United States. Now 52, she had recently undergone a series of illnesses, and, even though her physician told her she could continue with her career, she decided to end her work as a performer. "Things would have to be whittled away," she noted. "I didn't want that." In the aftermath of her retirement, she received from Queen Elizabeth II an additional honor, the title of Dame of the British Empire (DBE).

Nonetheless, Markova's work continued in other forms. She served as ballet director for the Metropolitan Opera from 1963 to 1969. She was hailed, along with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, as one of the outstanding directors in the dance world. In 1970, still active in the dance world at the age of 60, Markova joined the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. She quickly became an active fan of the university's basketball team, but she kept some of the trappings of a star ballerina and arrived to teach her classes in a chauffeured limousine.

Markova remained at the university for four years, then returned to London in 1974, where she continued to be an influential and respected member of the dance world. In 1981, she was the star of her own BBC television series, "Markova Master Classes," and her birthdays were the occasions of celebrations in the artistic community. In 1985, the Royal Ballet marked her 75th with a special performance of Giselle. Sadler's Wells presented a gala performance five years later to mark her 80th. Even in what some would consider old age, Markova still struck acquaintances with her beauty and grace. A young journalist who interviewed her in 1994 noted that, compared to Markova, "I … have never felt less gainly in my life."

Markova has remained a shy person throughout her career. Many were struck by the way in which the ballerina, who so dominated a stage, preferred to sit by herself at a party. She never married. In her autobiography, she referred to proposals she had received, ranging from one from a leading Danish dancer to offers from a number of millionaires. She turned them all down. Her longstanding relationship with Anton Dolin led to rumors of romance, and Maurice Leonard claims her longtime partner proposed to her twice. Here again she declined. "I suppose I really am one of those people married to their careers," she said.


Leonard, Maurice. Markova: The Legend. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.

Markova, Dame Alicia, DBE. Markova Remembers. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986.

Montague, Sarah. The Ballerina: Famous Dancers and Rising Stars of Our Time. NY: Universe Books, 1980.

suggested reading:

Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Ballerina: The Art of Women in Classical Ballet. London: BBC Books, 1987.

Fisher, Hugh. Alicia Markova. 2nd ed. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958.

Markova, Alicia. Giselle and I. NY: Vanguard Press, 1960.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Markova, Alicia (1910—)

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