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Dame Alicia Markova

"The people's ballerina"

Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Founder and President of English National Ballet

Died 2 December 2004

By Jane Pritchard,
Archivist, English National Ballet



© Roger Woods

Announcement from Markova House, London home of English National Ballet

Alicia Markova - Legend

'Markova' in Postings



Dame Alicia Markova, DBE (born Lilian Alicia Marks) was one of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century. The critic, Arnold Haskell described her as belonging ‘to the royal family of the dance. A true descendant of Taglioni and Pavlova her name is a household word’. Her exquisite fragility and weightlessness was an illusion disguising a steel-like technique and strength and her beautiful feet and hands could dart or flow, shaping her movements in response to music. 

Markova began to dance on medical advice to strengthen her weak limbs and made her stage debut at the age of ten (as Salome in a pantomime of Dick Wittington when she was billed as ‘Little Alicia, the child Pavlova’). After training at Serafina Astavieva’s studio in Chelsea she joined Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1924. Here, because she was still tiny, special roles, such as the Nightingale in the Stravinsky-Matisse-Balanchine Le Rossignol were choreographed for her, and she was introduced to a range of new and established ballets. After Diaghilev’s death Dame Alicia played a significant role in the establishment of British ballet working with the Vic-Wells/Royal Ballet, the Camargo Society, and the Ballet Club/Rambert. In 1935 with her partner Anton Dolin she founded the Markova-Dolin Ballet, the first of several companies they would lead, which climaxed with the foundation of Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet).

As a dancer Dame Alicia’s range was impressive for she could be ethereal, witty or dramatic as required. She created roles for Frederick Ashton, Ninette de Valois, Michel Fokine, Antony Tudor, Leonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine, John Taras and Anton Dolin. It was for her that the classics Giselle, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker were stage in London in the early 1930s and she moved beyond classical ballet, performing a programme of Indian dances with Ram Gopal in 1950s. As a ballerina she toured the world extensively, working with most of the major companies and presenting her own concert programmes.

 


Alicia Markova in Where the Rainbow Ends'
© Vivienne


Markova joined the Ballets Russes at the age of 14 being recognised as a ‘baby ballerina’ even before publicists coined the catch-phrase in the 1930s. Diaghilev had hoped that little Alicia would dance in his famous production of The Sleeping Princess (1921) as the smallest of the fairies at Aurora’s Christening but she was prevented by catching diphtheria. He took her to watch performances when she recovered and Diaghilev became a father figure in her life guiding his ‘English daughter’ in all aspects of life when she joined his company in Monte Carlo in 1925. As a member of the Ballets Russes she studied under the great ballet teacher Enrico Cecchetti and her later teachers included Nicholas Legat and Vincenzo Celli. Having created special roles for the Ballets Russes as she grew she combined working in the corps de ballet with featured parts. In 1927 she took over the role of the Cat in La Chatte, brightly realising that she would benefit from attaching rubber tips to her shoes so that unlike her predecessors in the part she did not slip on the special shiny floor the ballet used. When she first danced Princess Florine in the Bluebird pas de deux Diaghilev suggested that feathers for her head-dress should be made of bird of paradise feathers and diamonds as he felt the traditional ostrich feathers and pearls were too ‘heavy’ and vulgar for her delicate features. He gave Alicia’s Mother £10 with which to find the feathers on a Monday morning in Manchester (where his company was performing) and she continued to use the resulting head-dress throughout her career. At the time of Diaghilev’s death in 1929 he was planning to revive Giselle for the great ballerina Olga Spessitseva and wanted Markova to learn the role for which she later became famous.

The death of Diaghilev, or ‘Sergypop’ as she called him, was devastating to the young ballerina who, at 18, felt that her life had ended. However the choreographers who were to establish ballet in Britain were eager to work with her. Frederick Ashton invited her to be ballerina in the play Marriage à la Mode 1930), for which he had been asked to undertake the choreography. She quickly became a muse to him appearing in his Persian La Péri (1931), his witty Façade (1931), his effervescent Les Rendezvous (1933) and chic Les Masques (1933) among many others. Her 1932 performance of L’Etoile in his Foyer de danse inspired by Degas’s pictures survives on film. Roles created for her by Ninette de Valois included the cancan dancer, La Goulou, in Bar aux Folies-Bergères, for which de Valois suggested she study the walk of the ‘ladies of pleasure’ in Soho, and the dramatic Betrayed Girl in The Rake’s Progress.

Most significantly with Alicia Markova as a true ballerina Ninette de Valois knew she could commission Nicholas Sergeyev to mount the great classics - Giselle, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake - for her company. These were ballets with which she would be associated throughout her career and which showed off her poetry, musicality and phrasing. Giselle revealed her lightness and ethereal qualities and The Sugar-Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker her crystalline precision, but she would also take on comic and virtuoso roles.

In 1935 Markova joined forces with Anton Dolin, the partner, with whom she was most closely associated, to found the Markova-Dolin Ballet the first of a series of companies designed to take ballet to new audiences. After two seasons of constant touring she joined the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo (1938-41) touring to North and South America and was a pioneer ballerina with American Ballet Theatre (1941-45). In those years Markova’s art reached new heights and her creations such as the Queen of Hearts for Balanchine, Princess Hermilla for Fokine’s Bluebeard, Zemphira for Massine’s Aleko, Juliet for Tudor, The Firebird for Bolm and Camille for Taras indicate her incredible range. Most of these ballets were witnessed by the great critic Edwin Denby in whose writings we can still conjure up her performances. After returning to Britain with Dolin to dance at Covent Garden in 1948 the couple introduced arena performance to Britain dancing at Empress Hall London and Harringay Arena where they were seen by 25,000 people in four nights.  They then presented gala performances mostly in non-traditional theatre venues throughout Britain which led to the foundation of London Festival Ballet, now known as English National Ballet.

 


Dame Alicia Markova - although not stated this just has to be Markova in one of her most famous roles - Giselle
© Roger Woods


It was Markova who suggested the name for Festival Ballet evoking the Festival of Britain, then imminent, which seemed appropriate for a company created to reach new audiences. Although she ceased to be the Company’s ballerina in 1952 she returned as a regular guest until the end of her dancing career. It was her love of Giselle and The Nutcracker, which led to those ballets becoming cornerstones of the Company’s repertoire. For the final decade of her career she continued to travel widely both with Festival Ballet and as a guest with the Grand Ballet de Marquis de Cuevas, Royal Winnepeg Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, La Scala Milan, Chicago Opera Ballet.

With her retirement from performance in January 1963 Dame Alicia continued to play an active role in the world of ballet and theatre. Dame Alicia was involved in producing ballets from early in her career for she helped to mount some of the Ballets Russes’ creations for the young Vic-Wells Ballet. She has taught and coached dancers in some of her greatest ballets, Les Sylphides, The Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake and has presented televised master classes. She became Professor of Ballet and Performing Arts at the University of Cincinnati and the Patron and President of many companies and dance organisations including serving as President of English National Ballet.  Dame Alicia was awarded the CBE in 1958 and made DBE in 1963. In 1957 she received the Dance Magazine Award in America, in 1963 she was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award by the Royal Academy of Dancing and in 1995 she received a Special Evening Standard Award. In 1966 she received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Leicester University.

Jane Pritchard, Archivist, English National Ballet.



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