“We in Britain never had a ballerina before me – and that was the whole point of my life.”
Alicia Markova was generally considered to be the greatest classical ballerina of her generation. The last link with Serge Diaghilev, she worked with some of the greatest names in the arts. Stravinsky oversaw her musical education and Matisse and Picasso designed her sets. She was Britain’s first prima ballerina assoluta and her artistry inspired a whole generation of dancers, including Margot Fonteyn. She is remembered as a dancer whose lightness was extraordinary, dancing so weightlessly that many spectators almost expected her to fly off the stage.
Born Lilian Alicia Marks on December 1, 1910 in Finsbury Park, London she began ballet classes because she was flat-footed and knock-kneed. She was 14 when the Russian ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev saw her at a party hosted by Alicia’s ballet teacher, Princess Astafieva. So impressed was he that he said to Astafieva: “You have given a genius to the world. The ballet has found its next generation.” He hired Alicia on the spot for his Ballet Russes company, which was based in Monte Carlo.
At the Ballet Russes, Diaghilev renamed her Alicia Markova and cast her in the title role of Nightingale in La Rossignol, a ballet scored by Stravinsky, choreographed by Massine and costumes designed by Matisse. It premiered in Paris in 1929. Diaghilev became a second father to her and dictated her regime.
In 1929 Diaghilev died suddenly but by then Markova was a well known and popular dancer with an international reputation. She returned to London and danced with the Vic Wells Ballet and the Ballet Rambert and in 1935 founded the Markova-Dolin company with the leading dancer Anton Dolin. The company performed all over Britain, Africa and America, appearing in towns and villages, many of which had never actually seen a ballet performance before. The two of them often danced eight shows a week.
From 1941-44 and again in 1945, Markova was the prima ballerina of the Ballet Theatre, now called the American Ballet Theatre. In 1943 she originated the role of Juliet in Anthony Tudor’s Rome and Juliet. She reached the pinnacle of her career during these American years, creating numerous other leading roles and becoming closely identified with her incomparable Giselle.
She and Dolin founded the London Festival Ballet – now the ENB – in 1950 and in 1963 she retired, making her announcement unexpectedly at Heathrow Airport. “In those days there were about 30 or 40 press at the airport,” she said. “It was New Year’s Day and I was waiting to fly to New York and they asked me if I had made a New Year’s resolution. I don’t know what possessed me but I said ‘Yes, It’s very simple. You will never see me dance on stage again’.”
In the same year she was made a Dame but far from retiring completely she became active as a teacher. She served as a ballet director for the Metropolitan Opera in New York and taught at the Royal Ballet school, The Paris Opera Ballet and the Australian Ballet School. Since 1973 she served as a govenor of the Royal Ballet. In 1980 she was seen teaching on BBC2’s much acclaimed Master Class.
Dame Alicia wrote two books, Giselle and I (1960) and Markova Remembers (1986). Summing up her life she said: “There has been only one great love in my life – ballet. I did it all with pleasure. I enjoyed it. Mine was like a life part.”
She died on December 2, aged 94, and is survived by her sister.
Dance critic Gavin Roebuck adds: As a dancer Alicia Markova could be ethereal, witty or dramatic as required. It would be fair to describe her as the people’s ballerina because of her extensive touring and significant role in the establishment of British ballet. As a student at the Arts Educational London School, of which she was President, I remember she would occasionally give a master class, inspirationally passing on her knowledge and coaching dancers in some of her greatest ballets – Les Sylphides, The Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake.