Albrecht, Alicia Markova, BBC, Ed Sullivan, Eric Johns, Erik Bruhn, Giselle, Harry Selfridge, Imogene Coca, James Starbuck, John Logie Baird, Les Sylphides, Margot Fonteyn, Max Liebman, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Rudolf Nureyev, Sid Caesar, The Dying Swan, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, TV pioneer, Woody Allen, Your Show of Shows
Sadly, the groundbreaking comedian Sid Caesar passed away last month. Reading the many tributes that followed, I was reminded of the fun I had in learning all about Alicia Markova’s appearances on Caesar’s must-see 1950s television variety program, Your Show of Shows, with Imogene Coca. Markova working with slapstick comedians – on TV? Yes indeed.
It was in 1952 when the program’s innovative producer Max Liebman approached “New York’s favorite ballerina,” as the papers called her. The already world-famous Markova was being wooed by many TV luminaries, including Ed Sullivan. But Your Show of Shows had one major advantage: their resident choreographer started his career in ballet. So in addition to staging weekly popular dance numbers, James Starbuck also parodied classical ballets dancing with Imogene Coca. Rather than poke fun at Markova’s beloved art, those skits actually engendered interest in ballet – hence Liebman’s invitation.
But Liebman had bigger plans for Markova than just dancing. From The Making of Markova:
Why not have Alicia Markova guest-host the show? No one had ever heard her speak! Audiences surely would assume Markova was Russian. Her clipped British accent would be the first surprise. And a ballerina delivering lines written by funnymen/show writers Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen? Intriguing to say the least. Liebman had a surprise coming himself. He had no idea Markova was blessed with such a phenomenal memory. After the dress rehearsal, she was able to deliver all of her lines without cue cards. And the show was live.
For her dance number, Markova chose the dreamy classical pas de deux from Les Sylphides and asked show choreographer James Starbuck to partner her. Though he was thrilled at the offer, NBC censors were a bit nervous. How would a man in tights play across America? As Dance Magazine later reported, “We presume Starbuck’s substitution of trousers for the white tights of ‘Sylphides’ was a concession to male America’s intolerance toward the accoutrements of classical ballet. (And don’t think he doesn’t know what he’s up against. Just visualize the audience – farmhands in North Dakota, miners in West Virginia, cowboys in Colorado – getting a view of the ‘Sylphides’ pas de deux for the first time!)”
The magazine was wrong. Markova and Les Syplides were a huge hit in Middle America – so huge, in fact, that she was invited back throughout the season to dance other ballets. The lively snowflake scene from The Nutcracker was a natural choice for a popular comedy/musical program, but Markova’s achingly moving Dying Swan caught viewers off guard. Commented one newspaper, Starbuck’s “imaginative production of ‘The Dying Swan’ faded out on a close-up of the final convulsive flutter of Markova’s exquisite hands, a shot which brought tears to the eyes of many viewers.” . . .
“Fan mail poured in by the thousands,” reported one newspaper. Another added, Markova’s Your Show of Shows “fan mail was so huge, a special room was given over to it.” The charming and soft-spoken British ballerina was now an American sweetheart, and her instant – and widespread – popularity didn’t go unnoticed by other television networks.”
CBS gave Markova her own series in 1953: thirteen 15-minute programs that combined her exquisite dancing with background information on each ballet explained by way of entertaining stories and anecdotes. Markova was clearly telegenic.
In today’s fractured world of endless programming options, it’s hard to imagine a weekly audience of 30,000,000 viewers! As the New York Times reported in Sid Caesar’s obituary, “from 1950 to 1954, he and his co-stars on the live 90-minute comedy-variety extravaganza ‘Your Show of Shows’ dominated the Saturday night viewing habits of millions of Americans. In New York, a group of Broadway theater owners tried to persuade NBC to switch the show to the middle of the week because, they said, it was ruining their Saturday business.” And from another Times piece, “Mr. Caesar was part of a group of men and women, few of them left now, who tend to have the phrase ‘TV pioneer’ attached to their names.”
Amazingly, Markova was also a TV pioneer, and two decades before Caesar and Coca! In 1932, the 21-year-old British ballet star became the first ballerina – and one of the first performers – ever to appear on the small screen. Both experimental and rudimentary, the newfangled “mass” medium was looked down upon by the high-toned ballet world, but Markova thought differently. She immediately recognized the power of television to reach new audiences, and literally jumped at the chance to work with Scotsman inventor John Logie Baird as he perfected his “televisor” transmissions in London. (The Baird television website is truly fascinating.) I recounted the story of how Baird and Markova made television history together in a formerpost you might find interesting. (Hint: the wildly promotional retailer Harry Selfridge was involved.) Markova’s early experience in the workings of television and camera angles for dance later became invaluable in America where she was asked to consult to the up-and-coming major networks
As British dance writer Eric Johns described Markova’s pioneering television efforts: “Way, way back in the almost prehistoric early thirties and the days of low definition experimental television, the flickering screens revealed the graceful figure of a dancer, one of the really great names in ballet – Alicia Markova. . . . If an international award were instituted for the most televised ballerina in the world, it would be won outright by Alicia Markova. Her pioneering has done so much to make the art of ballet, previously considered too high-brow for the masses, one of the most popular features of present day television programmes.
“Her first experience of dancing in front of a camera was about 25 years ago in an experimental television studio in Portland-place, when she had to make up with dead white face, black lips and purple eyelids. Since then, she has televised in more countries than any other dancer. [In Rio De Janeiro she won an "Oscar" as the most outstanding personality on television.]
“Markova has become the most travelled ballerina in history, having flown hundreds of thousands of miles to fulfill engagements all over the world. She can only accept a fraction of the invitations she receives to dance in widely scattered cities on all six continents. That is why she is so enthusiastic about the boon of television. . . . she has always looked upon television as the greatest advertising medium the theatre has ever had. She considers it can perform the same function as a well-devised trailer at the cinema by attracting more and more people to the box office to pay to see plays, ballets and operas, of which they have already caught a glimpse on their screens at home.
“ . . .Televised ballet, in Markova’s opinion, should be something more than a motion picture version of a stage performance. It opens a new field for imaginative choreographers, some of whom may decide to specialize in the new medium. . . . The television audience has the advantage of being in a position to appreciate the subtle details of hands, feet, and facial expression, which are lost in the theatre, except to the comparatively few people sitting very close to the stage.
“Whenever possible, Markova likes to speak to viewers before she dances, if only to say something about the particular ballet they are about to see. She has received thousands of appreciative letters from people who have enjoyed the programme all the more after listening to her words of guidance. Viewers get the impression of slipping into her dressing-room just before the curtain goes up and this close personal link makes them the ballerina’s friends for life. Afterwards they are all the more likely to go and see her dancing at a theatre whenever the opportunity comes their way.”
This week the BBC is airing several feature programs on British ballet, including rare excerpts of the magnificent Margot Fonteyn in a 1959 production of The Sleeping Beauty. Five years earlier, in 1955, the BBC presented another sensational performance: Alicia Markova dancing her legendary Giselle for the first time on television. Her partner was a young, relatively unknown Danish dancer named Erik Bruhn. Earlier that year, Markova had personally selected Bruhn as her Albrecht for a stellar season ender for Ballet Theatre (today’s American Ballet Theatre) in New York.
Dubbed “The Matinee that Made History,” the unexpected pairing of the 44-year-old Markova and 26-year-old Bruhn electrified audiences. As John Martin wrote in the New York Times: “It may well be a date to write down in the history books, for it was as if the greatest Giselle of today were handing over a sacred trust to what is probably their greatest Albrecht of tomorrow.” Markova had just two days to coach Bruhn, who had never performed the role before. He later said her patience, advice, shared work process and confidence in him proved invaluable.
The Markova/Bruhn partnership was a sensation as they performed to sold-out houses throughout Europe. When the BBC aired the full second act of their Giselle on September 12, 1955, millions of viewers tuned in. As a London newspaper reported the next day: “Markova’s ballet a spell-binder: Television added no tricks, no close-ups and no camera juggling to the performance of Alicia Markova in the second act of ‘Giselle’ last night. The cameras were focused statically upon a single woodland setting and added only exquisite lighting to the beauty of Markova’s dancing. Television left Markova and her Danish partner, Erik Bruhn, to cast a spell of enchantment with only their dancing, and Markova, a picture of fluorescent grace in the woodland shadows, gave us the most spell-binding ballet to be seen on the screen for many a month.”
As I wrote in The Making of Markova: A similar delirium swept the ballet world when Margot Fonteyn first danced with Rudolf Nureyev seven years later. But while that magical partnership lasted seventeen years, Markova disappeared from Bruhn’s life as quickly as she had materialized – just like Giselle. Markova was thrilled at having played a part in helping to launch what would become a brilliant career for Bruhn, and was delighted to dance with him again in the future, but now it was time to move on.
She had new worlds to conquer.