Dame Alicia Markova, Britain’s first prima ballerina, combined amazing technique and personal strength with tremendous artistry to become one of the finest classical dancers of her generation and, through touring extensively to develop and expand its audience, one of ballet’s greatest ambassadors. She also extended her legacy beyond performance, through choreography and her commitment to coaching succeeding generations of dancers.
Markova’s dancing was legendary for its purity, lightness and lyricism. She danced a wide range of roles, particularly early in her career, but became best known for her interpretations of the classics. Most associated with Giselle, she wrote a book on her history with the title role (Giselle and I, 1960). Her variety of experience and her amazing memory made her a living treasure trove of ballet history, tradition and style.
Born Lillian Alicia Marks on December 1, 1910 in North London, she was the first of four daughters born to Arthur Marks (1889–1924), a mining engineer, and Eileen Barry (1890–1949), an Irish Catholic from County Cork, who met while in their teens and eventually married (1910) after Eileen converted to Judaism (taking the Jewish name Ruth). Alicia’s sisters—Doris, Vivienne, and Berenice (known as Bunny) were born in 1914, 1917 and 1918, respectively. A strong Jewish influence in her youth was her Orthodox paternal great-grandfather, Abraham Marks, with whom the family lived briefly when Markova was very young. Abraham, a theatrical costume supplier, fostered young Markova’s theatricality. The sisters would play in his storeroom, making doll clothes and costumes for productions, which Alicia often originated and directed and which they performed for family and friends.
A frail child, who was mostly home schooled due to her shyness and several childhood illnesses, Markova originally started dancing for therapeutic reasons. She was diagnosed at age eight with flat feet and weak knees; the family doctor suggested ballet exercises might strengthen her. Markova had loved music since she was a toddler and it quickly became clear that she was a natural, with great technical facility and, despite her shyness, a compelling stage presence.
Markova made her professional debut at age ten in the pantomime Dick Whittington, dancing three solos, to such critical and popular success that Mrs. Marks decided to seek further training for her daughter. Markova began study with Serafina Astafieva, a former star with the Ballets Russes company of Serge Diaghilev. Markova was seen by Diaghilev himself the following year and was to be in his 1921 production of The Sleeping Princess, but two days before rehearsals began she was hospitalized with diphtheria. Upon recovering, Markova continued to work with Astafieva, and performed occasionally in engagements arranged through Astafieva’s school. At the school Markova met the young Anton Dolin (born Patrick Kay, 1904–1983), with whom she later formed the first great ballet partnership of the twentieth century.
In 1924, tragedy struck the family with the sudden death of Markova’s father. His health failed in the wake of his financial ruin at the hands of a crooked business partner. Markova was devastated, but she realized that her dancing was now the family’s best chance for income. Astafieva and Dolin (now a Ballets Russes soloist) arranged for her to dance again for Diaghilev. He was won over, and Markova was hired to join Diaghilev’s company. He changed her name to Alicia Markova, in keeping with the contemporary idea that all great ballet dancers were Russian. At fourteen, she became the first “baby ballerina.”
Markova’s four and half years with the company laid the lasting foundation of her career. Under Diaghilev, she created roles in new ballets, first learned the Russian classics and transitioned from child prodigy to maturing artist. Offstage, the death of Markova’s governess Gladys “Guggy” Hogan (the family nurse since Doris’s birth and Markova’s devoted but fiercely overprotective chaperone since her debut) when Alicia was sixteen both forced and allowed her to take greater charge of the practical aspects of her life and career, through which she gained poise and confidence.
Devastated again by Diaghilev’s death in 1929, she rallied and returned to London, where she worked with, among others, the Ballet Club and the Vic-Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet), considerably helping to develop these companies which established English ballet. In 1935 she and Anton Dolin formed the first Markova-Dolin Ballet, which toured extensively around Britain, bringing ballet to new audiences, and performing pioneering appearances in large outdoor stadiums.
Starting in 1939 she followed much the same path in the US, arriving and touring initially with a re-formed Ballet Russe, then joining the fledgling Ballet Theatre in 1941, where she was a principal ballerina. She and Dolin, who had also joined Ballet Theatre, still made outside guest appearances and in 1945 they re-formed their company. They toured Central America, the Philippines and helped to establish a national ballet in Mexico. In 1948, the two returned to England, forming another touring company that became the Festival Ballet in 1950 (now the English National Ballet). Markova then traveled the globe as a guest artist, performing with her own and other ballet companies, as well as in concert programs, operas, on television, and even radio. A tour to Israel with Festival Ballet in 1958 was a proud highlight, given her Jewish heritage and earlier performances at benefits in New York to fund the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.
She retired from performing in 1963; that same year she was named a Dame of the British Empire, one of countless awards and accolades she has received. In and around an international schedule of coaching and lectures, she directed the Metropolitan Opera Ballet from 1963 to 1969 and served on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music from 1970 to 1974, when she returned home to England to be closer to family and include more of her home country’s ballet institutions in her activities. Dame Alicia Markova never married, choosing instead to give her complete devotion to her demanding but immensely fulfilling career. She lived in London with her sister Doris, continuing to work until just a few months before her death, on December 2, 2004, in Bath, England, one day after her ninety-fourth birthday.
Giselle and I. London: 1960; Markova Remembers: Dame Alicia Markova. London: 1986; “Tribute to Marie Rambert.” In Fifty Years of Ballet Rambert. Crisp, Clement, Sainsbury, Anya, and Williams, Peter (eds). Ilkley: 1976.
Note: Rev. ed. published as Ballet Rambert: Fifty Years and On. England: 1981.
“A Bouquet for the Ballerina.” The Dancing Times, October 1962, 18–19; “My Life in Opera,” The Dancing Times. London. April 1964, 362–363; “Reminiscences of a Ballerina.” Dance Magazine, December 1962, 38, 76.
Anthony, Gordon. Alicia Markova. London: 1951; Anthony, Gordon and de Valois, Ninette (fwd). Markova; With A Collection of Photographic Studies. London: 1935; Beaumont, Cyril William. Alicia Markova. London: 1935; Dolin, Anton. Alicia Markova, Her Life and Art. New York: 1953; Fisher, Hugh. Alicia Markova. London: 1954; Fisher, Hugh and Swinson, Cyril (ed). Alicia Markova. London: 1958; Hall, A. George (ed). A Legend of British Ballet, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin; A Collection of Portraits. London: 1940; Leonard, Maurice. Markova: The Legend. London: 1995; Mason, Francis. “Interview with Alicia Markova.” Dance Magazine, July 1952, 11–12 (includes compilation of biographical data).
How to cite this page
Harwood, Rebecca Katz. "Alicia Markova." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 17, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/markova-alicia>.