Alicia Markova: Britain’s superstar ballerina

She danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays – an unknown thing nowadays

I knew nothing about Alicia Markova before volunteering to help catalogue her personal papers and belongings at Boston University’s Gotlieb Centre.

Its director, Vita Paladino, asked if I might be interested in working on a recent acquisition. I would. How about the ballet dancer Dame Alicia Markova?

My first reaction was, isn’t she Russian? I was confusing Markova with the Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova. I soon learned that many people assumed Markova was Russian.

It was Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of Ballets Russes, who changed her name.

“Who would pay to see Alicia Marks?” he had asked her. The title “Dame” should have been an instant tip-off. Markova was British and the most famous ballerina of her generation.

Markova, I soon learned, was Diaghilev’s “baby ballerina” – the youngest dancer ever to be accepted into his Ballets Russes. She had just turned 14 and was as timid as she was small.

Her tiny stature (her 2.5-sized feet were so small that insurance companies refused to insure them as “the risk was too great”) led to her becoming known as “the ballerina who lands like a snowflake”.

Many rare photographs and performance programmes from those times are part of the dancer’s archives. There were even rumours of an original Picasso drawing buried somewhere in the collection. (It was actually a Matisse.)

That all sounded exciting enough, but nothing prepared me for Markova’s astonishing life story laid bare in her archives. Markova, born in 1910, was a woman far ahead of her times who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds with grace, determination and an unflagging spirit of adventure.

Markova appealed to both the opening-night glitterati and everyday people who had never seen ballet before her Markova appealed to both the opening-night glitterati and everyday people who had never seen ballet before her Markova’s career is as improbable as it is remarkable. In pre-First World War England, a frail, exotic-looking Jewish girl who learnt to dance in Muswell Hill and was so shy that she barely spoke a word until age six and was so sickly she needed to be home-schooled turned herself into a superstar and became the most famous ballerina in the world.

How famous? She was asked to judge the Miss World contest held in Paris, create a “supper club” act for Las Vegas, appear with Bob Hope and Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the Palladium Theatre in London, and had her own radio programme. She was the subject of comic strips, crossword puzzles, and trading cards.

Celebrated artists asked to paint her and Vogue made her a fashion icon. She was hired as an advertising spokesperson for everything from chocolates and potatoes (yes, potatoes) to shoes and cigarettes (although she didn’t smoke). Her name alone could sell out a 30,000-seat auditorium – for ballet!

Markova appealed to both the opening-night glitterati and everyday people who had never seen ballet before her. There was even a racehorse named after her (the filly won a key race at eight-to-one odds).

Markova was a workhorse herself, devoting every waking hour to perfecting her craft. She had a hardscrabble upbringing and a zealous drive to succeed. In a radio tribute, good friend Laurence Olivier spoke of Markova’s being “nicknamed affectionately ‘The Dynamo’, –and understandably”, he explained admiringly.

“When you think she danced at least one act of a great classic ballet, and then a divertissement, and finale, every night of the week and twice on Saturdays – an unknown thing nowadays, and I’m sure would be considered impossible, because she didn’t do it just for a short season, but for a number of years.”

She not only pioneered British ballet – two of the three companies she helped launch are still in existence today (Markova became president of the English National Ballet, a company that she co-founded as the Festival Ballet back in 1951) – but she dared to go off on her own, becoming the first “free agent” ballerina and the most widely travelled dancer of her era. She performed in parts of the world that had never seen ballet at all, let alone one of its greatest practitioners.

As the London News Chronicle reported in 1955: “She is to the dance what Menuhin is to music, but unlike the violinist, she has no competitors in her field, for all the other leading ballerinas, from Fonteyn to Ulanova, work in the framework of established companies. Indeed, it seems as though Markova may be the last of her kind – the ‘rebel’ dancer who is prepared to carry the full responsibility for her career on her own delicate shoulders.”

Markova believed firmly in ballet for everyone, not just the elite. To that end, she not only performed in the world’s grandest theatres with the most prestigious ballet companies, but also in more accessible popular venues, such as music halls, school gymnasiums and even a boxing ring in Liverpool. Though she flew on stage, she was down-to-earth once off, and it made the public love her.

Markova believed firmly in ballet for everyone, not just the elite Markova believed firmly in ballet for everyone, not just the elite Several male impresarios, choreographers and dance partners didn’t share those sentiments. Markova’s fierce independence and high artistic standards drove them crazy. Many needed her name to sell tickets but bristled at giving her any personal control. Didn’t she know ballerinas were supposed to be seen and not heard? Markova was neither when it came to practising, something she always did alone.

She also never joined the company in daily classes, choosing instead to pay for private lessons. Markova wanted no distractions and this solitary endeavour gave rise to the myth that she rarely practised at all, which was far from the truth. Women in the dance world admired Markova’s fortitude, among them Dame Margot Fonteyn, who, as a ballet-school pupil in London, was completely riveted while watching Markova rehearse.

She said that Markova “always remained my ideal and my idol”. Choreographers found her skills and determination a marvel. George Balanchine, Mikhail Fokine, Frederick Ashton, Léonide Massine, Jerome Robbins, Bronislava Nijinska, and Antony Tudor all created roles specifically for Markova.

Markova had to overcome poverty, sexism, anti-Semitism, and not being considered “pretty” enough to succeed.

She was proud of her religion, which almost ended her career, and would become the world’s first openly Jewish prima ballerina assoluta – the highest (and rarest) rank of a classical female dancer. And though often urged to have her prominent nose surgically “bobbed” to conform to conventional standards of beauty, Markova steadfastly refused.

Her archive offers many clues to what motivated Markova to always push on. Certainly her personal letters are a treasure trove, but so, too, are the countless scrapbooks of press clippings. Markova was unusually open and candid with reporters and her newspaper interviews demonstrate how the timid young dancer turned into a marketing genius, managing the media and her image with an uncanny flair.

And then there is all that correspondence – boxes and boxes of it. While it was fun to read a charming note of thanks from Princess Diana or a Cecil Beaton luncheon invitation to dine with the famed fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, it is the personal letters from the great dancers, choreographers and impresarios in Markova’s career that are the most revelatory. What a tale they tell of ego, flattery, hubris and manipulation.

The letters from Anton Dolin, Markova’s most frequent dance partner and lifelong “friend”, are positively Machiavellian.

Then there are the letters between Markova’s sisters – Doris, who served as her personal manager and travel companion for many years, and Vivienne, who shared their London apartment. Doris’s descriptions of horrendous stage conditions, unscrupulous managers and Markova’s increasing health problems are alternately disturbing and confounding. What drove the ballerina to keep up such a gruelling, self-chosen life?

Markova seemingly knew everyone. In addition to all the ballet luminaries of her time, Markova’s address books are filled with a veritable Who’s Who of the arts world, among them the performers Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, and Gene Kelly, composer Igor Stravinsky, modern artist Marc Chagall, and pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Liberace – yes, Liberace!

Markova clearly valued letters from everyday fans, especially children and soldiers, all of which she saved and personally answered. A letter from a grateful solider during the war was in the same file as a jolly note from Noel Coward. People were people to Markova.

But while Markova loved her public – she would spend hours signing autographs – she hated big parties, never getting over her shyness in a roomful of strangers. She could be great fun one moment, and severely depressed another, often retreating to her hotel room to read a book and listen to music alone. Markova herself was anything but an open book.

It is a very strange thing to read through all of someone’s private papers, even if you have permission to do so. I came across an unsigned letter in her handwriting on Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London stationery. Perhaps it was jotted down in her dressing room one evening and then tucked inside her work papers. It is uncharacteristic and heartbreaking. Though she was a superstar to the world, Markova was only human.

March 24, 1958

Dear God,

I offer you my heartfelt thanks for giving me the power & strength to live and dance through the last two years. Since Rio, I have suffered such constant pain at times it has been almost unbearable. No one will ever know how much I have suffered mentally & physically. Only due to my faith in thee and the feeling that I must try & accomplish as much as possible to help people and make them happy (as time is limited for me) has kept me going.

Thank you dear God for helping me to live a good life and one that I could be proud of. I only regret that all the truth & knowledge I have acquired in my art & otherwise will be of little use as so few people seem to want it... There is nothing here on earth to make me feel I want to stay so I am ready to leave at any time.

Alicia Markova was 47 years old when she wrote that letter – still an in-demand performer and celebrity. She danced professionally for another 4.5 years and lived to the age of 94.

‘The Making of Markova: Diaghilev’s Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon’ by Tina Sutton (Pegasus Books, £12.99) is published on 2 September

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'