Agnes de Mille, Alexandra Danilova, Alicia Markova, Anna Pavlova, Anton Dolin, Apollo, Ballets Russes, Choura, English National Ballet School, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Giselle, Kathleen Rea, Léon Woizikovsky, Le Bal, Les Masques, Liverpool Boxing Ring, Lydia Sokolova, Marie Rambert, Maryinsky Ballet School, Milorad Miskovitch, National Ballet of Canada, Sergei Diaghilev, Tamara Karsavina, The Festival Ballet, The Haunted Ballroom
“A girl must eat, particularly a ballet girl,” Alicia Markova told the London Daily Herald in 1954. “She burns up tremendous energy.” Unfortunately, the opposite message was recently conveyed to students at the English National Ballet School, a company originally co-founded by Markova (as The Festival Ballet) in 1950.
“Fabulous to have students and staff back in school after the Xmas break,” read the Facebook post. “Time to work off all that Xmas food.” A swift backlash ensued. “Scrutiny of weight and expectations for dancers to be unnaturally thin are prevalent in the ballet world,” former National Ballet of Canada dancer Kathleen Rea told the London Evening Standard. “I think the only logical conclusion a student would have reading the post is that they need to lose weight.”
How times change. When Markova began dancing in the early 1920s, her naturally bone-thin physique was considered unattractive for a dancer. Robust, athletic figures, like that of celebrated Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina, were then the norm. The sylphilke Anna Pavlova, who Markova closely resembled both physically and stylistically, was a noted exception. At first considered too fragile to attend the Maryinsky Ballet School, Pavlova only won her spot by showing a combination of fierce determination and poetry in movement. An exception was made.
The same could be said of the just turned-14 Lilian Alicia Marks, who Diaghilev asked to join his famed Ballets Russes in 1924, shocking the rest of the company. The rechristened Markova was so tiny and frail-looking compared to the more established ballerinas like the vivacious Lydia Sokolova (real name Hilda Munnings) and sparkling Alexandra Danilova (soon to become Markova’s lifelong best friend). A mere waif, Markova surprised them all with her unexpectedly dynamic athleticism.
Danilova – said to have had the loveliest legs in ballet – struggled with her weight briefly following her defection from Russia. It was in 1924, when she and soon-to-be-lover George Balanchine joined the Ballets Russes, having recently spent the summer performing in Berlin.
“I had gained weight since leaving Russia – all that German food has made me plump,” Danilova wrote in her autobiography Choura. “I started to rehearse with [Anton] Dolin, he complained about having to lift me. ‘What do you think I am, a piano mover?’ he asked.
“One night, I asked Balanchine to go out into the audience and watch me. He came backstage after the performance and said, ‘You want the truth?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘Choura, you look terrible – you’ve gotten so fat. What happened to you?’ The next morning, I went straight to the pharmacy and bought a bottle of diet pills – one in the morning, one in the evening, the directions said. Well, I thought, I’ll take five and I will melt immediately.
“The next thing I remember George was shaking me – I had passed out. He picked up the bottle and asked me, ‘Is this what you took?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered. He opened the window and threw the bottle out, then gave me a lecture about how I should lose the extra weight.” After Danilova switched to a healthy – and hearty – diet with lots of fish and no more sweets, the extra pounds disappeared. “Life in Russia had been a diet in itself,” she joked. Choura’s self-imposed, and certainly ill-fated, get-thin-quick scheme is a cautionary tale for today’s dance students.
Markova’s own diet proved shocking to peers, but for very different reasons. From The Making of Markova: Paper-thin, Markova looked as if a soft breeze could blow her down, with the press often speculating that she needed to eat more to keep up her strength. When she appeared in The Rake’s Progress, the Daily Sketch reviewer commented, “Markova, as the Betrayed Girl, was her exquisite self – a delight – but one wished for her art’s sake that she would eat a dozen steaks a day.” Little did he know about the dancer’s legendary appetite, as Marie Rambert (founder of London’s Ballet Club where Markova performed in the early 1930s) recalled quite vividly:
“Everyone who sees Markova, that exquisite ethereal creature, must imagine she lives exclusively in the air. What was our staggering surprise when after our first matinee, in which she danced the most birdlike of Swans, she sent out for a large steak and kidney pie which she proceeded to consume with relish! We were even more staggered when, at the same evening’s performance, her Sylphides was lighter than air! Not one ounce of what she absorbs ever turns to fat. It is all transmuted into the most subtle instrument of dancing.
“Happy Markova who can eat like a mortal and dance like an immortal.”
Equally in awe was dancer/choreographer Agnes de Mille, a student at Rambert’s Ballet Club when Markova was its reigning star. As de Mille wrote in her autobiography Speak to Me, Dance with Me: Alicia Markova, the stringiest girl I ever saw, a darling little skeleton, with the great eyes of a moth at the top, and a butterfly blur at the bottom where normally feet would be, and in between shocks and flashes of electricity.
When she paused there was the most beautifully surprising line I had ever looked at. She was twenty, although she looked much older because she was so thin. She didn’t look any age when she moved. She became a delicate force.
Throughout her career, the press often asked Markova for her “secret” diet tips to pass on to their weight-conscious readers. Her answer always astonished, as in this 1937 British newspaper interview titled No Special Diet – Markova Tells of Her Training: “On Sunday afternoon a petite dark-haired girl walked through the lounge of the Prince of Wales Hotel, settled herself in an armchair and ordered tea.
“She had a very good tea. Scones, bread and butter and cakes. For although she is superlatively slim, with a figure like a nymph, she is one of those lucky people who never have to diet. ‘Tell me, how is it you are slight and dainty, when so many ballet dancers are muscular and inclined to heaviness?’ That amused Markova.
“’Oh, I have muscles, too, but they are not visible. Perhaps that is because I have had the right sort of training, and have been taught dancing by the right people. Also, I can relax my whole body quite completely. Apparently this is quite a rare accomplishment, so my masseuse tells me.’
“That accounts for the remarkable poise. All through the interview her slim fingers lay quite composed in her lap, except when they were holding food. ‘No special diet then?’ Another dazzling smile. ‘No, quite the reverse, in fact. I believe that a dancer’s life is so strenuous he or she must eat plenty of nourishing food, otherwise they could not stand the pace. But I do not smoke at all – although I love chocolates!’” (See earlier post when Cadbury came calling!)
In 1942, a reporter for the Cheyenne, Wyoming Eagle was equally amazed at Markova’s diet: “Only 97 pounds, Markova’s daily schedule is as strenuous as a longshoreman’s, and to keep up with her energy-consuming routine the dancer eats five times a day, plus a couple of strawberry milkshakes for good measure. As a child, she was painfully thin and anemic and at the recommendation of her doctor she took dancing lessons to build herself up. Today, though Markova looks as fragile as a china doll, she has the constitution of a powerhouse – and the enviable reputation of being one of the greatest ballerinas of all time.”
Markova quickly realized her voracious eating habits made for great press copy – and newspaper features sold tickets. That candor also endeared her to fans of both sexes, who found her healthy appetite downright refreshing in the rarified world of ballet. But on one occasion, Markova’s diet – or lack thereof – made headlines on two continents, turning into a marketing bonanza for a 1954 British countrywide tour with talented partner Milorad Miskovitch.
Markova and Miskovitch – as a pair, with no corps of other dancers – were booked to perform at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. But just before the set date, the Philharmonic Society cancelled the engagement, as amusingly recounted in the London Daily Express:
She Might Harm the Machinery: 7 st. Alicia “must not dance on our stage.” Seven-stone (98 pound) Alicia Markova, “the ballerina who lands like a snowflake,” has been refused permission to dance at the Liverpool Harmonic Hall – because her dainty movement might damage delicate machinery under the stage. The stage holds the weight of the 72-strong Philharmonic Orchestra. School choirs use the stage and hundreds of boys scurry across it to receive their prizes at school speech days.
But Markova – she drinks a bottle of stout every night to keep her weight from dropping below seven stone – has been told: “sorry, but we can’t allow you to dance on the stage.” Critics have said Markova defies the law of gravity. Anton Dolin, her former partner, once said: “I have to pluck her out of the air.” Mr. W. C. Stiff, secretary of the Philharmonic Society, said yesterday: “Delicate machinery which operates the 25ft.-high screen is housed under the stage. The corporation put a ban on dancing because of the risk of damaging machinery.” No exception. Mr. Stiff added: “Although the stage is used for a variety of purposes, the people do not dance. Markova dances.”
She also knew a great story when she saw one. With Markova quotes like, “I’d be much more likely to float straight up and damage the ceiling!”, the ridiculous tale was picked up by the international newswires, appearing in papers throughout Europe and across the United States. But the press coverage didn’t stop there. Hoping to cash in on some of the publicity, owners of the Liverpool boxing ring offered their arena to Markova. They were undoubtedly shocked when she said “Yes!”
7st Alicia in wrestle-land, screamed the headline in one paper. Markova in ‘ring’ triumph, boasted another. “7 st. ballerina Alicia Markova tripped lightly back to a dressing room normally used by 20st. wrestlers. . . . her mirror propped on a massage table. On the walls were scrawled fighter’s autographs.” . . . “She had just come downstairs from the stadium itself where 3000 people had rapturously applauded her for five minutes.” . . . “Afterwards she sent a message to the audience, who had recalled her nine times: ‘Sign your programs, send them in, and I’ll autograph them all.’”
In the world of ballet, Markova was the reigning heavyweight.