Dame Alicia Markova DBE (1 December 1910 – 2 December 2004) was an English ballerina and a choreographer, director and teacher of classical ballet.
Most noted for her career with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and touring internationally, she was widely considered to be one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of the twentieth century.
She was the first British dancer to become the principal dancer of a ballet company and, with Dame Margot Fonteyn, is one of only two English dancers to be recognised as a prima ballerina assoluta.
Markova was a founder dancer of the Rambert Dance Company, The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and was co-founder and director of the English National Ballet.
Markova was born as Lilian Alicia Marks on 1 December 1910. Her father, Alfred, was Jewish by birth; her mother, Eileen, converted to Judaism. The family lived in a two bedroom flat in Finsbury Park.
Markova began to dance on medical advice to strengthen her weak limbs. She made her stage debut at age ten, performing the role of Salome in the pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat, for which she was billed as Little Alicia, the child Pavlova.
She began studying ballet with Princess Serafina Astafieva, a Russian ballerina living in London. Astafieva was a retired dancer of the Ballets Russes, a renowned ballet company founded by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
Astafieva established the Russian Dancing Academy at The Pheasantry, King’s Road, Chelsea, and was responsible for teaching a number of notable British dancers including Margot Fonteyn and Anton Dolin. A blue plaque now marks the site of her former studio.
At the age of 13, Markova was observed in class by Diaghilev, who was visiting London in search of new talent for his ballet company. He invited her to join the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, which she did in 1925, one month after her 14th birthday. Due to her age, she performed a number of roles which were specially choreographed for her, also performing in a varied repertoire of new and established ballets.
Alongside the many notable dancers, during this period she encountered a number of leading 20th century figures who created work for the company including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine, and Bronislava Nijinska.
Following the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Markova returned to England, where she became the founder Principal Ballerina of The Ballet Club, a company founded by Dame Marie Rambert.
During this period, she was particularly noted for performing works by Frederick Ashton, who was unknown at the time, but would go on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated choreographers. The Ballet Club was to be the first professional ballet company in the United Kingdom, later becoming known as the Ballet Rambert.
Now known as the Rambert Dance Company, it remains the oldest established dance company in the UK.
In 1931, Ninette de Valois founded the Vic-Wells Ballet in premises at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London. A former colleague from Diaghilev’s company, she invited Markova to join the company as one of its founder dancers, which she did, forming a famous partnership with Anton Dolin.
De Valois hired Frederick Ashton, who became the resident choreographer and later Artistic Director of the company. In 1933, de Valois appointed Markova as the first Prima Ballerina of the company, which is now the internationally renowned Royal Ballet.
It was after seeing the Camargo Society performance of Giselle with Olga Spessivtseva and Dolin in 1932 that Markova first realized the possibilities of the then-neglected ballet. In time it became her most treasured role and the one whose expressive possibilities she continued to develop throughout her career. Her premiere in the role was on New Year’s Day 1934 at the Vic.
In 1935, Markova and Dolin left the Vic-Wells ballet to form their own touring company known as the Markova-Dolin Company. The company toured extensively for two seasons and in 1936 Prince Wolkonsky joined the company as ballet master. Later in 1938 Markova joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, touring the world as the company’s star ballerina.
The company was the first to tour ballet throughout the United States, taking the art form to audiences who had never seen ballet before. During this time, she was a key figure in the formation of the American Ballet Theatre, dancing with the company during its early years.
Markova appeared in ballets around the world, but is remembered mostly for her Giselle, as well as for The Dying Swan and Les Sylphides. During the Second World War she re-formed Les Ballets Russes in the United States and appeared as a dancer with Dolin in the Hollywood film, A Song for Miss Julie.
Some time after suffering a stroke, Markova died on 2 December 2004 in a hospital in Bath, one day after her 94th birthday. She never married. A funeral service was held at Bath’s Haycombe Crematorium. A memorial service of thanksgiving for her life and work was held at Westminster Abbey on 8 March 2005.
As part of the service, dancers of the English National Ballet company performed extracts from the ballet Giselle (Daria Klimentová, Dmitri Gruzdyev, Erina Takahashi, Arionel Vargas) and Les Sylphides (Agnes Oakes and Simone Clarke).