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Spotlight: Alicia Markova

Hi everyone! Welcome to the third instalment in the Spotlight series. This week: Dame Alicia Markova.

Markova in costume for 'Giselle'

Markova was born Lilian Alice Marks on 1 December 1910. She took up dancing on the advice of doctors, who hoped it might strengthen her weak limbs. She studied in London under the Princess Serafina Astafieva, a retired Russian ballerina. She also took classes with the famous Enrico Cecchetti. Astafieva had danced with the Ballet Russes, a company formed by its renowned manager, Sergei Diaghilev. Astafieva had also previously tutored Margot Fonteyn.

Diaghilev first encountered Marks during a class at Astafieva's studio. Despite her young age - she was only 13 - Diaghilev offered Marks a place with his company. She travelled in Monte Carlo to join the company in 1925, just after her 14th birthday. There, in keeping with the tradition popular with ballerinas at the time, she changed her name to its Russian equivalent, 'Alicia Markova'. Many of the pieces that she danced were choreographed especially for her. During this period, she worked with famous artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, with composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, and with choreographers George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, and Bronislava Nijinska.

Markova backstage in the 1930s

In 1929, following the death of Sergei Diaghilev and the subsequent confusion it caused with his company, Markova returned to England. She joined a new company as its first principal dancer, The Ballet Club, which had been founded by Dame Marie Rambert. She worked closely with the then unknown choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton. The Ballet Club was Britain's first professional dance company, and remains the oldest in Britain - now known as the Rambert Dance Company.

In 1931, Markova changed companies again. This time she joined a new company formed by her old colleague from her Diaghilev days, Ninette de Valois. The company was known as the Vic-Wells Ballet, but would later, in tribute to its home theatre, become the Sadler's Wells Ballet - today, The Royal Ballet. Markova became the company's prima ballerina in 1933, and formed a famous partnership with Anton Dolin. Sir Frederick Ashton was hired as a choreographer, and later became the company's Artistic Director.

Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, 'Les Sylphides'

Markova possessed a sense of lightness and delicacy, and a certain ethereal quality, that was reminiscent of her predecessor Anna Pavlova. Aptly, her favourite role was that of Giselle. Markova first saw the ballet, at the time largely neglected, in 1932. It was a performance of The Camargo Society, starring Olga Spessivtseva and Anton Dolin. She premiered the role herself on New Year's Day in 1934. She was the first English ballerina to dance it, and it would become her most treasured and most celebrated role.

Markova as 'Giselle'

In 1935, Markova and her dance partner, Dolin, left the Vic-Wells Ballet to found their own touring company. The Markova-Dolin Company toured extensively for two seasons and took on as ballet master the great Russian theatrical worker, Prince Wolkonsky. In 1938, Markova again changed companies, this time joining the newly reformed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as its prima ballerina. The company was the first to tour extensively through the United States, and Markova proved a key influence in the foundation of the American Ballet Theatre, with which she danced during its early years.

Markova in costume for 'Les Sylphides'; Markova in costume for 'Facade', 1931

With the coming of World War II, Markova reformed the Ballet Russes in the United States. Though most famous for her Giselle, she is also the first English ballerina to perform the entirety of Swan Lake. She was also renowned for her Les Sylphides, as well as The Dying Swan, the role of The Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and as famous ballerina Marie Taglioni in Dolin's Pas de Quatre. She was influential, too, in the development of a new genre, the 'jazz ballet', dancing in such works as Leonide Messine's Rouge et Noir, Antony Tudor's Romeo and Juliet, and Ruth Page's Vilea. During her time in the United States, she and Dolin appeared in the Hollywood film A Song for Miss Julie.

Above: 'Pas de Quatre', 1950, with Nathalie Krassovska, Mia Slavenska, Alexandra Danilova, and Alicia Markova

Below: 'Pas de Quatre' on stage, 1953

In 1950, she and Dolin founded the Festival Ballet for the imminent Festival of Britain. Markova was the prima ballerina, while Dolin was Artistic Director. The company toured extensively both nationally and internationally, placing emphasis on less conventional places that would be unable to experience ballet otherwise. The company also introduced a number of educational programmes designed to spread knowledge of ballet. Markova remained the company's prima ballerina until 1952, after which she returned regularly as a guest dancer until her retirement. In 1989, the ballet was renamed the English National Ballet.

Markova and Dolin rehearse backstage; Markova's niece Susan imitates

She retired from the stage in 1963 at the age of 52. That same year, she was made a Dame for services to her profession and to her country. She continued to be active in the ballet world. She staged many of the ballets that she had performed with the Ballet Russes, and coached dancers in the roles that she had danced for choreographers such as Sir Frederick Ashton.

Markova demonstrates in class with the help of a student, 1963

She presented televised master classes, and taught at several institutions including the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars, the Abingdon Ballet Seminars, the Arts Educational Schools in London and Tring, and was both governor and regular guest teacher at the Royal Ballet School. She served as President of the English National Ballet, a governor for The Royal Ballet, and as vice President of The Royal Academy of Dance.

Markova suffered a stroke and died in Bath, England, on 2 December 2004. She had never married. A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 8 March 2005. As a tribute, dancers of the English National Ballet performed extracts from Giselle and Les Sylphides.

Markova during filming for the acclaimed documentary, 'Ballet Russes'

Below is a link to a Youtube clip showing Markova performing her favourite role, Giselle, in 1951. The incredibly hard variation is the ballet's most famous, from Act I; but Markova pulls it off perfectly with a lightness that is almost impossibly effortless.

Alicia Markova was critical in the foundation of four ballet companies. Her legacy as not only a superb dancer, but also as a teacher, is fundamental to our modern understanding of ballet.

Silhouette from 'Les Sylphides'

Thank you for reading! Next week, the Spotlight will be on Mikhail Baryshnikov.

- Selene

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