Dame Alicia Markova, Britain’s first and the first Jewish prima ballerina, combined amazing technique and personal strength with tremendous artistry to become one of the finest classical dancers of her generation. One of the last hired by Diaghilev for his famous Ballets Russes in 1924, she was launched into ballet stardom. After his death in 1929, she helped launch ballet in England in the 1930s and 1940s. Through touring the world extensively and embracing popular media appearances to develop and expand its audience, she further became one of ballet’s greatest ambassadors in the mid-twentieth century. After retiring from the stage, Markova extended her legacy through choreography, teaching, and her commitment to coaching succeeding generations of dancers.
Dame Alicia Markova, Britain’s first and the first Jewish prima ballerina, combined amazing technique and personal strength with tremendous artistry to become one of the finest classical dancers of her generation. She also became one of ballet’s greatest ambassadors of the mid-twentieth century, through extensive touring and embracing popular media appearances to develop and expand its audience. After retiring from the stage, she extended her legacy through choreography, teaching, 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. She took the responsibility of passing on that knowledge very seriously.
Lilian Alicia Marks was born 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. The future Mr. and Mrs. Marks met while in their teens and eventually married in 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. She earned the nickname “The Child Pavlova,” a reference to Anna Pavlova, then the most famous ballerina in the world. For both her physical resemblance and the qualities of her dancing, the comparisons would continue for years to come.
Markova made her professional debut in 1920 at age ten in the pantomime Dick Whittington. She had such critical and popular success with the three solos she performed that Mrs. Marks decided to seek further ballet training for her daughter. Markova began study with Serafina Astafieva, a former star with the Ballets Russes company of Serge Diaghilev.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
The Ballets Russes was one of the most prestigious ballet companies of the early twentieth century. Under Diaghilev’s leadership, the company combined great virtuosity from its impeccably trained dancers with great collaborations in the music, costumes, and décor created by the most exciting modern artists. So it was a great honor and important career point when Markova was seen by Diaghilev himself the following year. She 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 one of the first great ballet partnerships of the twentieth century.
In 1924, tragedy struck the family with the sudden death of Markova’s father. His health had 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 his 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. She studied technique with Cecchetti and Legat, masters of the Italian and Russian traditions respectively. She created roles in new ballets (including by George Balanchine, just emerging as an important choreographer), learned the Russian classics, and transitioned from child prodigy to maturing artist. She also got her first tastes of touring, as the company was based in Paris and Monte Carlo and performed throughout Europe.
Offstage, Markova and Diaghilev formed a close bond. The usually intimidating impresario became a father figure, and at one point even considered officially adopting her. She later credited him with guiding her artistic education. In this he was aided by a number of the Ballets Russes collaborating artists, including Igor Stravinsky, from whom Markova learned about music, and Henri Matisse, who taught her about art.
In addition, the death of Markova’s governess Gladys “Guggy” Hogan when Alicia was sixteen both forced and allowed her to take greater charge of the practical aspects of her life and career. Hogan had been the family nurse since Doris’s birth and Markova’s devoted but fiercely overprotective chaperone since her debut. Now able to exercise her independence, Markova ultimately gained poise and confidence.
England, then the World
Diaghilev’s death in 1929 was another devastating loss, but Markova rallied and returned to London. Initial struggles to find her place in London’s emerging ballet scene led her to expand her range to include dancing in West End musicals and at movie palaces in between films. Eventually she found acceptance, working with, among others, the Ballet Club and the Vic-Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Her artistry and growing reputation helped to develop these companies that established English ballet. In 1935 she and Anton Dolin formed the first Markova-Dolin Ballet, which toured extensively around Britain. They brought ballet to new audiences, including pioneering appearances in large outdoor stadiums.
Starting in 1939 Markova followed much the same path in the United States, arriving and touring initially with a re-formed Ballet Russe. In 1941 she lent her star power to the fledgling Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), 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 and 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 radio, and television. 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. Markova was proud of her heritage throughout her life, refusing the suggestions of several colleagues throughout her adulthood to have plastic surgery on her nose to “refine” her appearance.
Passing It On
Markova retired from performing in 1963, the physical wear and tear from decades of dancing and touring finally taking their toll. That same year she was named a Dame of the British Empire, one of countless awards and accolades she received. In and around an international schedule of coaching, lectures, and media appearances, 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.
Markova then returned home to England to be closer to family and include more of her home country’s ballet institutions in her activities. While there were romances over the years, about which she was always discreet, Dame Alicia Markova never married. She chose 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 shortly before her death, on December 2, 2004, in Bath, England, one day after her ninety-fourth birthday.
Selected Works by Alicia Markova
Giselle and I. London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1960.
“A Bouquet for the Ballerina.” The Dancing Times, October 1962, 18–19.
“Reminiscences of a Ballerina.” Dance Magazine, December 1962, 38, 76.
“My Life in Opera” The Dancing Times. London. April 1964, 362–363.
“Tribute to Marie Rambert.” In Fifty Years of Ballet Rambert, edited by Clement Crisp, Anya Sainsbury, and Peter Williams. London: Scholar Press, 1976. [Note: Rev. ed. published as Ballet Rambert: Fifty Years and On. England: 1981]
Markova Remembers: Dame Alicia Markova. Boston: Little Brown, 1986.
Anthony, Gordon. Alicia Markova. London: Phoenix House, 1951.
Anthony, Gordon and Ninette de Valois (fwd). Markova: With A Collection of Photographic Studies. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.
Beaumont, Cyril William. Alicia Markova. London: Beaumont, 1935.
Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. René Blum and the Ballets Russes: A Lost Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Dolin, Anton. Alicia Markova, Her Life and Art. New York: W.H. Allen, 1953.
Eliot, Karen. Albion’s Dance: British Ballet During the Second World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
Fisher, Hugh. Alicia Markova. London: Black, 1954.
Fisher, Hugh and Cyril Swinson, eds. Alicia Markova. London: Black, 1958.
Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. [later edition, New York: 2009].
Hall, A. George, ed. A Legend of British Ballet, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin; A Collection of Portraits. London: Hall Publications, 1940.
Leonard, Maurice. Markova: The Legend. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.
Mason, Francis. “Interview with Alicia Markova.” Dance Magazine, July 1952, 11–12 (includes compilation of biographical data).
Sutton, Tina. The Making of Markova: Diaghilev’s Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon. New York: Pegasus Books, 2013.
Film and Video
Delouche, Dominique, dir. Markova, La Légende. Television documentary (Muzzik, 2001).
Geller, Daniel and Goldfine, Dayna, dir. Ballet Russes, documentary film (Zeitgeist, 2005).
Makarova, Natalia, writer. Ballerina. Season 1, Episode 4, “Passing on the Torch.” Directed by Derek Bailey, featuring Natalia Makarova, Alicia Markova. Aired 1987, BBC.