Dame Alicia, the woman who brought ballet to the people, dies at 94

Eighty-six years ago a Harley Street specialist took one look at the flat-footed eight-year-old girl in his consulting room and warned that without urgent ballet lessons she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Eighty-six years ago a Harley Street specialist took one look at the flat-footed eight-year-old girl in his consulting room and warned that without urgent ballet lessons she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Yesterday, the world of ballet was mourning the death of Dame Alicia Markova, that same knock-kneed child who went on to become one of the greatest British ballerinas and the first of international renown.

The dancer, whose talent and unprecedented zeal for bringing her art to a popular audience meant she was known both as the "people's ballerina" and part of the "royal family of dance", died peacefully yesterday morning at a Somerset nursing home, a day after her 94th birthday.

Her death signalled the passing of one of the last great figures from the golden era of modern ballet.

The daughter of an engineer who lived in a two-bedroom flat in Finsbury Park in north London, her early career coincided with that of Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who made her a child star, and with such legends as Anna Pavlova, with whom the young Markova had a private lesson where the Russian dancer's key advice was to take good care of her teeth.

Matz Skoog, artistic director of the English National Ballet, the company that Dame Alicia went on to found, said last night: "With her passing we see the end of an era. She was a true giant of the ballet world and the last of her generation. All dancers throughout the world will feel a huge sense of loss."

The ballerina, who danced the leading roles in Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and, her most famous role, Giselle, became known for a unique style combining an apparent fragility with effortless strength. She came from a tradition of ballet where, despite being able to complete steps that only male dancers could equal, all movement had to appear without strain or toil.

Merce Cunningham, the renowned American choreographer, once said she gave "the illusion of moving without a preparation, as if she had no weight to get off the ground".

It was a career all the more remarkable for the fact that it started on medical advice rather than early ambition. After her governess noticed she had flat feet, the mother of the young Lilian Alicia Marks made an appointment with a Harley Street specialist who advised that dance would be the only way to avoid a dire outcome for her daughter. Speaking two years ago, Dame Alicia said: "I heard him [the doctor] say to my mother very quietly, 'If our experiment doesn't work she will be in leg irons and a wheelchair for the rest of her life' and I thought, 'Not if I can help it'."

She was quickly spotted by Diaghilev at a dance studio in Chelsea while he was in London with his Ballets Russes - which brought Russian ballet to the West with a dazzling array of dancers, artists and composers including Pavlova, Vasilav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky and Henri Matisse, who provided costumes and backdrops.

She joined Diaghilev's company at its Monte Carlo headquarters a month after her 14th birthday and had her named "Russified" to Alicia Markova to overcome the prejudice that only Russians made good ballerinas.

She was immediately cast in the lead role of Le Rossignol, scored by Stravinsky, which premiered in Paris in 1925.

After the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Dame Alicia returned home, initially convinced that her career was over. However, she rapidly became a leading figure in the emerging world of English ballet, performing with the Ballet Rambert and Vic-Wells Ballet, the forerunner of the Royal Ballet. In 1950, she founded the London Festival Ballet with her dancing partner, Anton Dolin. The company eventually became the English National Ballet.

The dancer, who at the height of her fame was hailed as the greatest ballerina in the West, was also known for her desire to perform before popular audiences as well as the aficionados of Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells.

While strapped for cash in the early 1930s, she danced between film showings at the Regal Cinema in Marble Arch. Other venues in her career included the Harringay greyhound stadium and a baseball stadium in Manila.

She was still dancing Giselle, the role which combined her talents best, at the age of 48. After retiring in 1963, she became a coach and director of ballet companies, including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

She had recently suffered from ill-health and was being cared for in a nursing home in Bath when she died.

In one of her last interviews, she said: "My life has always been busy-busy. I'm very pleased about that."

Obituaries, page 42

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk