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
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable