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

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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