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Alicia Markova

Most people reading this will never have seen Markova dance. A few older ones, like me, will remember her towards the end of her career, drifting apparently weightlessly through Les Sylphides; or you may know her only as the elegant figure still to be seen occasionally in the audience or on some panel of ballet celebrities. It is easy to forget that she has had one of the most remarkable careers of any dancer living, that she was a famously strong technician and was for years considered the greatest classical ballerina of the Western world.

 At 14 Markova was hired by Diaghilev, as his first and only child-star; even before then she had been dancing in public as 'the miniature Pavlova', and had had a private lesson with the real Pavlova, who told her to take good care of her teeth. In her years with Diaghilev she created the role of the Nightingale in Balanchine's Le Chant du Rossignol (see picture) and danced in most of the repertory; by the time Diaghilev died in 1929 she was an established name on the international scene.

Markova did two invaluable things for the infant British ballet in the 1930s: first she joined it and then she left it. She danced both for Marie Rambert's Ballet Club and for de Valois' Vic-Wells Ballet (forerunner of the Royal Ballet). In the early days her name was as valuable as her talent: she brought with her the sophistication and glamour of the Diaghilev company, and attracted those balletomanes who thought only Russian ballet worth watching. (The irony was, of course, that Markova is English - her real name was Lillian Alicia Marks.) She created many roles for Frederick Ashton, and the ones that survive - the Polka in Facade, the lead in Les Rendezvous - tell us what she was like in those years, and remind us of her technical ability - how many women today can do the double tour en l'air at the end of the Polka? In de Valois' Bar aux Folies-Bergères she showed a sharp humour that she hardly ever again had the opportunity to display on stage.

When she left the Vic-Wells in 1935 to form her own company with Anton Dolin, consternation reigned: however would they survive without their great star? But it was her departure which forced de Valois to develop talent from within the company to replace her - most famously, of course, an almost unknown called Margot Fonteyn.

 Markova spent the 1940s mostly in America, initially with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and later with Ballet Theatre (for whom she created one of her most famous roles - Juliet in Anthony Tudor's Romeo and Juliet). It was in these years that she reached the heights of her career, and became closely identified with Giselle, the role for which she will most be remembered. Before Fonteyn reached her own maturity, Markova was probably the greatest exponent in the West of the classical repertoire.

In the 50s Markova came back to Britain and was instrumental in forming Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) - indeed it was she who suggested the company's original name. Her most famous partnership was with Anton Dolin, the co-founder of the company, but during her career she also danced with almost every one of the great male dancers, from Lifar and Massine to Erik Bruhn.

People trying to describe her style invariably talk about the extraordinary impression of lightness she gave - the result of course of technique and control gained by years of hard work. She gave "the illusion of moving without a preparation...as if she had no weight to get off the ground" - and this was no star-struck fan speaking: it was Merce Cunningham. I can vouch for it myself - I saw her in Les Sylphides making her airborne entrance for the pas de deux, and it was quite clear, even to an already fairly cynical spectator, that only her partner's restraining hands were stopping her from flying away. {top}

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