Dame Alicia Markova

Ballerina of steely muscle and evangelical, unsnobbish zeal
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The Independent Online

Alicia Markova was Britain's first ballerina and became a living legend. She seemed to be made of superior, more durable material than other mortals: she concealed muscles of steel under the frailest possible exterior; at 92, she was still skimming across a studio floor demonstrating nuances of phrasing to dancers a quarter her age, her exquisitely narrow, unblemished feet still supple.

Lilian Alicia Marks (Alicia Markova), dancer, teacher, director and writer: born London 1 December 1910; ballerina, Ballets Russes 1925-29, Rambert Ballet Club 1931-33, Vic-Wells Ballet Co 1933-35, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo 1938-41, Ballet Theatre 1941-46; co-founder and prima ballerina, Markova-Dolin Ballet Company 1935-37; co-founder and prima ballerina, Festival Ballet (later English National Ballet) 1950-51, President 1986-2004; Vice-President, Royal Academy of Dancing 1958-2004; CBE 1958, DBE 1963; Ballet Director, New York Metropolitan Opera House 1963-69; Professor of Ballet and Performing Arts, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati 1970-2004; President, London Ballet Circle 1981-2004; died Bath 2 December 2004.

Alicia Markova was Britain's first ballerina and became a living legend. She seemed to be made of superior, more durable material than other mortals: she concealed muscles of steel under the frailest possible exterior; at 92, she was still skimming across a studio floor demonstrating nuances of phrasing to dancers a quarter her age, her exquisitely narrow, unblemished feet still supple.

She began her career when British ballet hardly existed and was to be instrumental in the development of Britain's first companies - Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet. Her stage partnership with Anton Dolin lasted 30 years; together they launched touring ensembles which transmuted in 1950 into London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). A professional at 10, engaged by Sergei Diaghilev at 14, she was the original baby ballerina.

As a child prodigy, she was billed as "Little Alicia, The Child Pavlova". It may have been an opportunistic sobriquet, but of all the world's ballerinas she was the closest to Anna Pavlova through her dark, slender looks and through her evangelical, unsnobbish zeal to bring ballet to ordinary people all over the world. Aged nine, she had been taken to see Pavlova perform and with her father's help got herself invited to Ivy House, Pavlova's home in Golders Green, London. Pavlova put Alicia through her barre exercises and showed her how to rub herself down with cologne.

Unlike Pavlova, though, Markova always welcomed the new. Giselle was the ballet most closely associated with her, but she combined a love for the classics with an appetite for modernity. She was the clay for some of the 20th century's greatest choreographers when they too were just starting out - George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor. She starred in some of Leonid Massine's biggest, most important ballets.

Many spectators thought Markova was Russian, but her name had undergone the regulation Russianisation by Diaghilev. She was born Lilian Alicia Marks in Finsbury Park, London, in 1910, the eldest of four girls. Her father Arthur was a mining engineer whose ancestors had been involved in the design of Tower Bridge and the lights on Broadway. Arthur was Jewish and his wife Eileen Barry had converted to Judaism. The family prospered. By 1914, Arthur had a factory in the Caledonian Road, manufacturing "rubberine", his invention, used by the Army to prevent tyres puncturing.

Alicia was a physically fragile, solemn little girl, shy and obedient. Aged six, she still didn't speak and didn't mix much with other children, being mostly taught at home by a strict governess known as Guggy. For most of her life Markova was to remain reticent, preferring to let the ebullient Dolin do the talking. It was not until she retired and began a vigorous career lecturing and teaching that she came into her own as a speaker, the small voice speaking with a hushed composure.

Alicia began dance lessons on the recommendation of a specialist, to remedy what looked like knock-knees and flat feet. Eileen enrolled Alicia and her second daughter Doris to learn "fancy dancing" at the Thorne Academy in Muswell Hill where the Marks family then lived. Her first performance was at a local talent competition and her parents were astounded. Their daughter, so timid in real life, was completely unfazed at being on stage and she won the prize of five guineas.

Accepted into the cast of Dick Whittington, which opened at the Kennington Theatre in December 1919, she attracted enthusiastic attention. The Daily Telegraph called her "a very accomplished ballerina in miniature". Another dance student, the 17-year-old Patrick Healey-Kay, later Anton Dolin, came to see "the Child Pavlova" and was so impressed he left flowers at the stage door.

Revising her previous scepticism, Eileen enrolled Alicia with a Russian teacher, Princess Serafina Astafieva, at the Pheasantry in the King's Road, Chelsea. ("You have a racehorse," was Astafieva's verdict to Eileen.) Dolin, also a pupil there, pinched her and pulled her hair because she was so solemn.

One day Diaghilev arrived to watch the class. He decided to have a Fairy Dewdrop solo choreographed for Alicia in his lavish new production of The Sleeping Princess (better known as The Sleeping Beauty), opening in London in 1921. But Alicia caught diphtheria. As compensation, Diaghilev arranged free tickets for her and sometimes sat with her, explaining what was happening. Alicia's solemn dedication entranced him. When he returned to London in 1924, he engaged her in the Ballets Russes.

By then she was 14, still very thin and small, and her family's financial fortunes had plummeted. Her father had been the victim of a swindle - "When I was six we had a Rolls-Royce," she said. "By the time I was 13, nothing." In 1924 he died of pneumonia.

Accompanied by Guggy and chaperoned by another Ballets Russes dancer, Ninette de Valois (future founder of the Royal Ballet), Alicia set off with the company for Monte Carlo. "Is that the brat?" de Valois had asked on meeting Alicia at Victoria Station, but she soon found her a sweet, intelligent and disciplined child. In the exclusively adult milieu of the Ballets Russes, Guggy was a dour guardian, forcing Alicia to lead a drab life of work and study. On good days, Guggy allowed sweet-toothed Alicia two chocolates but, if she was criticised a lot in class, the chocolates were withheld.

The normally intimidating Diaghilev was Alicia's substitute father. People called him Sergei Pavlovich, she called him Sergipops. Her first, small role was Little Red Riding Hood in Aurora's Wedding (extracts from the 1921 Sleeping Princess); her first major role was as the nightingale in Le Chant du Rossignol, choreographed on her in a new 1926 version by Balanchine. Igor Stravinsky guided her through his score's fearsome complexities. Henri Matisse designed her all-white body costume. Alicia's incredible virtuosity thrilled Balanchine. He included double tours en l'air, a turning jump from the male lexicon, and devised a diagonal of fouettés that gave the impression of a little bird hopping.

Alicia Markova toured with the Ballets Russes in 1925-29. She danced Papillon in Mikhail Fokine's Carnaval and the Bluebird pas de deux from Aurora's Wedding; she performed the title role in Balanchine's La Chatte. In 1929, during the Ballets Russes season at the Royal Opera House, Diaghilev promised her important roles for the following season. But it was not to be: Diaghilev died on 19 August that year and the company folded. Alicia was holidaying in Brighton when she saw the shocking headline.

There followed real poverty. Unable to afford classes, she worked out in her bathroom, with the towel-rail as barre. Ashton used her in the commissions he received. She danced in his ballet sequence for Dryden's Marriage à la Mode at the Lyric Hammersmith. She danced works by de Valois and Ashton which were funded by the Camargo Society and Ballet Club, the fledgling stirrings of British ballet.

For someone accustomed to major opera houses, the Ballet Club's 18sq ft stage at the Mercury Theatre was quite a contrast. The audience's proximity probably helped develop Markova's magisterial concealment of strain, no matter how hard the dancing. She projected a peerless image of sweat-free effortlessness, of floating, delicate serenity. "Her technique was bolts of lightning and steel," wrote the choreographer and writer Agnes de Mille:

However, it took a professional eye to recognise this. She seemed to laymen to float in a mist, and they remained wonderstruck.

The mystique was further fuelled by her preference for taking her daily class in private (creating the rumour that she never needed to do class), her unvaryingly soignée appearance, and by her habit in rehearsals of just marking out - once in high heels and a mink coat. ("I was cold," she said.)

She danced the witty Polka at the 1931 premiere of Ashton's first masterwork, Façade, and at subsequent performances the Tango and Tarantella. The same year she played a tap-dancing prostitute in his Rio Grande, the following year she started in the shows he was staging at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch, between film projections. For £20 a week, she danced three times a day. Later, she did this while appearing elsewhere, shuttling between stages in taxis:

I would do my first two shows at the Regal, then I'd go to the Wells and open the programme with the White Act from Swan Lake. I'd come back to the Regal to do my 9pm show then I would go to the Mercury Theatre and do their last item on the programme, perhaps Façade.

Through the Regal Cinema, she became loved by the general public and de Valois invited her to become a guest artist with her newly founded Vic-Wells Ballet. She started in 1932, in two ballets by de Valois: Cephalus and Procris and the barefoot Narcissus and Echo. The same year she staged and danced Fokine's Les Sylphides for the company. She watched the great Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtseva's Giselle, an interpretation that was in Markova's words "touched with soul and poetry". It taught her about dancing beyond technique into a world of distilled emotion.

Partnered by Dolin, she made her début in Giselle at the Old Vic, in the Vic-Wells Ballet's 1934 premiere, becoming the first British ballerina to dance it. "She was unique in the role," says the critic John Percival. "The outstanding quality was her lightness in Act 2." The same year, she danced two other classical Vic-Wells premieres: the first complete Nutcracker and Swan Lake in Britain. She danced more Ashton ballets, including Foyer de Danse (1932) and Les Masques (1933) and the premiere of Les Rendezvous (1933). She created the role of the Betrayed Girl in de Valois's The Rake's Progress (1935) at Sadler's Wells.

By then it was also clear that Markova and Dolin could fill theatres on their own. In 1935, they left the Vic-Wells Ballet to start the Markova-Dolin Company and, from then on, de Valois would concentrate on developing Margot Fonteyn to fill the gap. The Markova-Dolin Company lasted two years, touring a mixed repertoire. In 1938 Markova and Dolin joined the choreographer Massine's new Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, appearing across Europe and America. As the company's prima ballerina, Markova created roles in several ballets by Massine: Seventh Symphony (1938); Capriccio Espagnole (1939); Rouge et Noir (1939); Vienna 1814 (1940).

She was in America with the Ballet Russe during the Second World War years. They covered great distances in uncomfortable trains without sleepers. In 1941, she joined Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). There she was reunited with Dolin and worked with the choreographer Fokine. She was in the premiere of his comedy ballet Bluebeard (1941), dancing a cancan in the finale. She danced in his new production of his Les Sylphides. "He taught me . . . there is no beginning or end to the movements - they melt away like sound on the air," she wrote.

Markova created roles in Massine's Aleko (1942) and Tudor's Romeo and Juliet (1943), sleeping in her dressing room during rehearsals to save time. She and Dolin performed Giselle at the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of 35,000. They accepted the invitation to appear in Billy Rose's new Broadway revue The Seven Lively Arts (1944-45), dancing Scènes de ballet to Stravinsky's commissioned score. (Ashton was later to choreograph his own version.)

In 1946 she, Dolin and the impresario Sol Hurok re-formed the Markova-Dolin Company, touring America, the Caribbean, the Philippines. She was now the world's highest-paid dancer - on $1,000 a week - but she missed England. Aged 38 she returned to de Valois's company (later to become the Royal Ballet), triumphantly dancing Giselle with Dolin and Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House and making her début in The Sleeping Beauty.

On the other side of the Atlantic, she appeared in a baseball stadium in Montreal, introduced by a regiment of Mounties. She danced in South Africa and Kenya. In 1949, she and Dolin embarked on a season at the Harringay arena, billed as "The World's Greatest Ballet Stars". They formed another ensemble, which became the seed for London Festival Ballet. Markova thought of the name, to coincide with the Festival of Britain, and the company gave its London opening on 25 October 1950 at the Stoll Theatre.

She guested with companies abroad, she gave concert tours with Milorad Miskovitch, in 1955 she danced Giselle in New York with the young Erik Bruhn. In 1959 she made her début in Ireland, appearing in Giselle for the last time, and was the subject of BBC TV's This is Your Life. In 1962, she gave her farewell performance, partnering Miskovitch in L'Après-midi d'un Faune with London Festival Ballet. Between 1963 and 1969 she was ballet director of the New York Metropolitan Opera House, staging dances for operas.

Markova never really retired. She remained married to her art, her phenomenal memory making her an illuminating coach, her personal history offering a reservoir of important souvenirs. The subject and author of many books, she appeared frequently on television and film.

Nadine Meisner