Markova is the Mother of Invention


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Ironically, no one knows for sure who “invented” the adage “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” Though variously attributed to Plato, Aesop, and an Indian philosopher (no, it wasn’t Frank Zappa), the saying came into general usage in 17th century England. Several hundred years later, the proverb would prove prophetic for a small, sickly Jewish girl from Finsbury Park, London. Born in 1910 with flat feet, knock knees and weak legs, Lilian Alicia Marks was the unlikeliest of future ballet stars. First, all classical ballerinas in her day were Russian. Second, as Markova herself often joked, “What would people say to a girl with throat trouble who announced her intention of becoming an operatic singer?”

Born with flat feet, knock knees, and wobbly legs, the five-year old Markova (shown here at the beach with her mother and baby sister Doris) was the unlikeliest of future ballerinas.

It was at the beach that Eileen Marks first noticed her daughter’s “duck-like” flat feet, knock-knees and wobbly legs. (Pictured here: the 5-year-old Markova next to her mother holding baby sister Doris.)

Remedial ballet exercises uncovered a dance prodigy.

The necessity of remedial ballet exercises unmasked a dance prodigy.

And indeed, little Lily would never have dreamt of a dance career had ballet class not become a necessity. Not only did she have fallen arches, but her right knee often buckled under. The doctor proposed leg irons as a cure, a fate neither the frail seven-year-old nor her mother relished. Any other options? Ballet exercises might strengthen her limbs and feet, offered the physician. They did. And a ballet prodigy was discovered in the process.

Mark Twain’s variation on the theme was “Necessity is the mother of taking chances.” That was certainly true when the painfully shy Lily Marks, age 13, auditioned for Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his new hire – the untried choreographer George Balanchine.

From the The Making of Markova: “Balanchine started asking me to do all kinds of things, including a lot of acrobatic steps. These I did rather to his surprise, mine too I might add. Finally he said, ‘Now please do for me two pirouettes in the air, like the men do.’ This seemed to me a little extraordinary as I had never even tried to do one. Anyway, I attempted it and went round perfectly. He was delighted and said, ‘Yes, you will do.'”

George Balanchine asked the teenaged Markova to do acrobatic steps formerly only performed by men. Their collaboration on The Nightingale was a triumph for them both.

George Balanchine asked the teenaged Markova to do acrobatic steps formerly only performed by men. Their collaboration on The Nightingale was a triumph for them both.

Within months, the naïve teen became the youngest ever soloist at the world famous Ballets Russes and star of Balanchine’s first full-length choreographic work for the company, The Nightingale. As London newspaper The Independent would later comment: “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 jouettés that gave the impression of a little bird hopping.” The ballet launched both of their careers. However, Lilian Alicia Marks would not be listed on the program. Being a prima ballerina in the 1920s “necessitated” a Russian name. “Who would pay to see Marks dance?” scoffed Diaghilev, who quickly rechristened her Alicia Markova.

At Diaghilev's behest, the 14-year-old Markova learned to dance silently.

At Diaghilev’s behest, the 14-year-old Markova learned to dance silently.

Diaghilev also believed the best ballerinas made as little noise as possible. More than anything, his youngest-ever prodigy wanted to please him, so Markova learned to dance silently. “If Markova springs like a winged fairy, she comes to the ground just as lightly,” wrote British dance historian Cyril Beaumont, “noiselessly in fact, always passing – ball, sole, heel – through the whole of the supplanted foot. Of how many ballerine can that be said?”

An airy lightness would become Markova’s signature, along with her never showing any signs of physical exertion or heavy breathing. She developed that otherworldly quality out of necessity when performing with Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club, one of England’s first classical dance companies in the early 1930s. “The stage at the Mercury Theatre, it was very small,” explained Rambert. “But she [Markova] turned it to her advantage. She developed a very effortless technique. You could stand quite close to her. You didn’t hear her breathe. You didn’t hear her move a step. She just floated on a cloud. It was really wonderful!”

Close proximity to audiences in a tiny theater necessitated Markova's mastering a silent, effortless dance technique. (At the Ballet Club, 1933)

Close proximity to audiences in a tiny theater necessitated Markova’s mastering a silent, effortless dance technique. (At the Ballet Club, 1933)

To prevent her headpieces from moving while on-stage, Markova glued them to her head!  (From Cimarosiana, 1927.)

To prevent her headpieces from moving while on-stage, Markova glued them to her head! (From Cimarosiana, 1927.)

Markova may have been extremely timid off-stage in her early dancing years, but she was a whirlwind on. So much so, that one night while doing a series of rapid turns, her headdress flew off, fortunately settling ’round her neck rather than landing with a thud. Though Diaghilev was impressed she kept dancing impeccably, he sternly warned that must never happen again. The obedient teen’s solution? Glue. Fortunately she found one that stuck without removing every hair on her head.

Nicknamed “the Sphinx” by her Ballets Russes peers, Markova was exceptionally quiet in a company of exuberant personalities. She was keenly observant, however, avidly attending dress rehearsals of other dancers. That was lucky for her when she inherited the lead role in La Chatte.

The slippery stage set for La Chatte (1927) downed two prime ballerinas - including Alicie Nikitina shown here - before Markova inherited the role.

The slippery stage set for La Chatte (1927) downed two prima ballerinas – including Alice Nikitina shown here – before Markova inherited the role.

“[Olga] Spessivtseva created it and had an accident, and then [Alice] Nikitina took over and she hurt her foot, and then I went in,” Markova explained to Speaking of Diaghilev author John Drummond. “I was the third Cat. I was only sixteen at the time, but I was very observant. I had noticed that they complained so much about the floor because it was black. American cloth, terribly slippery in certain areas. And other areas, because of the very modern design, were like cotton, two surfaces, and I figured out that was causing the accidents.”

 Markova got the better of La Chatte's slippery set piece.

Markova got the better of La Chatte’s dangerous floor cloth.

Making matters worse – or better, depending how you look at it – La Chatte choreographer George Balanchine decided to take advantage of Alicia’s special talents and add more complicated and difficult moves. Again, as told to Drummond: “I thought, I don’t want to hurt my foot. I don’t want to be put out, because it was a wonderful ballet, marvelous role. I had to solve the problem somehow, and this slippery floor, because otherwise I wasn’t going to be able to do all these double turns in the air that Balanchine had given me and all these pirouettes on pointe which he had added, so I suddenly remembered when I danced on a ballroom floor, I used to have rubbers [sole grips] put on my ballet shoes.”

Markova invented a ballet wardrobe essential . . .

Markova invented a ballet wardrobe essential . . .

As one critic noted, “The Cat of Alicia Markova was flawless. She is an accomplished ballerina . . . one of the greatest dancer talents of present times.” And resourceful. In fact, to solve an ongoing workout problem, she invented one of today’s most ubiquitous ballet essentials. The lightbulb went off while Markova was knitting a bed jacket as a Christmas gift for an elderly friend. In order to make the wrap both warm and comfortably lightweight, she created an airy, lace-like stitch using extra thick wooden needles.

That gave her an idea. Up until that time, dancers wore heavy leg warmers over knit tights during winter practice sessions. Despite the cold, the wool made them sweat profusely. In Markova’s case, perspiring heavily led to weight loss she could ill afford. So using the same open-weave stitch as in the bed jacket, she created lightweight leg covers that were breathable and less restrictive.

. . . leg warmers! (Here, rehearsing at Jacob's Pillow, 1941)

. . . leg warmers! (Here, taking a break from rehearsing at Jacob’s Pillow, 1941)

When fellow dancers saw Markova’s creation, they asked if she might be willing to knit them several pairs as well. She would. They quickly caught on and the ballet world has Alicia Markova to thank for the standard practice leggings of today.

Despite Markova's prodigious appetite, she appeared lighter than air on stage.

Despite Markova’s prodigious appetite, she appeared lighter than air on stage.

Unlike many of her peers, Markova was always trying to put on weight rather than lose it. Bone thin in her early years, she was once described by dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille as “the stringiest girl I ever saw, a darling little skeleton.” And as Ballet Club’s Marie Rambert noted, “Happy Alicia who can eat like a mortal and dance like an immortal. It was so astonishing to see Alicia putting down a thick solid steak and kidney pie, and to think when she comes on the stage, she’s a disembodied spirit. How did she do it?”

Five meals a day cost money and Markova made very little of that while pioneering British ballet in the early 1930s. “I had to live and I always had a great appetite,” she later reminisced. “I love my food, so I was doing commercial work as well.” The “commercial work” Markova referred to was dancing in popular stage musicals, as well as live at London’s Regal Cinema three times daily between film showings – much like the Rockette shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Frederick Ashton was the choreographer.

Paltry wages from London's nascent ballet companies necessitated Markova's taking on commercial work to support herself and her family. (Here in the romantic comedy A Kiss in Spring, 1930, with Harold Turner.

Paltry wages from London’s nascent ballet companies necessitated Markova’s taking on commercial work to support herself and her family. (Here in the romantic comedy A Kiss in Spring, 1930, with Harold Turner.)

From The Making of Markova: The pay was exorbitant for the times, £20 a week for Markova, and would subsidize her and Ashton’s more serious collaborations for the budding British ballet community. . . . Everything was on a grand scale, especially when compared to the tiny, small-budgeted Mercury Theatre. . . . Sandwiched between a performance of The Regal Symphony Orchestra and the Hollywood film Illicit – starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell – Alicia Markova and William Chappell were to appear live on stage in the Dance of the Hours. The production was quite an extravaganza with the two leads, amply surrounded by a large – though rather inexperienced – corps de ballet. The audience was wowed nonetheless, captivated by the two stars, elaborate sets, and fanciful costumes. . . .

The Cinema production numbers changed every three weeks, which meant Markova would be performing three shows a day in one ballet, while rehearsing the next one. It took a toll physically, especially in Ashton’s Foxhunting Ballet, where Markova played the titled Fox “in all-over brown leotard, large bushy tail, a bonnet with little ears and paw-like gloves.”

Markova and Ashton's commercial work helped popularize classical ballet to a wider audience. (Markova in Ashton's La Peri at the Ballet Club, 1931

Markova and Ashton’s commercial work helped popularize classical ballet to a wider audience. (Markova in Ashton’s La Péri at the Ballet Club, 1931.)

In 1945, Markova danced in Broadway's musical/comedy The Seven Lively Arts to expose new audiences to classical ballet, shown here with partner Anton Dolin and comedians Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr in a delightful Al Hirschfeld caricature.)

In 1945, Markova danced in Broadway’s musical/comedy The Seven Lively Arts to expose new audiences to classical ballet. (Captured by legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld here with Anton Dolin and comedians Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr.)

. . .”I just remembered being dazzled at what she was doing,” [ballet critic] Arnold Haskell remembered years later. “It was sandwiched between the selling of ice-creams and the film and all that, and you couldn’t get into a ballet atmosphere, but you could admire the virtuosity, and it was a show of virtuosity for a popular public.” In many ways, it could not have been a more effective tool for helping ballet trickle through all levels of society in England for the first time.

While many high-toned balletomanes looked down on a ballerina of Markova’s stature performing in such “mass-market” productions, she continued appearing in popular venues long after she needed the money. Never a snob, Markova felt exposing new audiences to the beauty of ballet – no matter where they first saw it – would only increase ticket sales for classical dance. And it did.

Perhaps it was kissing the legendary Blarney Stone that gave Markova her belated gift for the gab.

Perhaps it was kissing the legendary Blarney Stone that gave Markova her belated gift for the gab.

Another boon to popularizing ballet in the 1930s and ’40s was Markova’s appreciation for – and mastery of – the mass media of her day. In 1932, she became the first ballet dancer ever to appear on the new-fangled medium of television (see earlier post: The Television-ary Markova), and willed herself to become a more vocal marketer in newspapers and magazines. That was not easy for a woman who barely spoke a word until age 6 and totally lacked confidence as a public speaker. But Markova loved ballet, and wanted everyday folks everywhere to share her appreciation. IMG_1415.JPGUnderstanding the power and wide reach of print media, she slowly but surely became a more lively and entertaining interview subject. Her natural empathy and down-to-earth manner endeared her to thousands of housewives and working women, especially during the war years. (See earlier post: Markova Entertains the Troops.)

Contractual obligations necessitated Markova's dancing in the US during WWII, though she wished to stay at home with her family. (From left to right, her sisters Vivienne, Doris, and Bunny.)

Contractual obligations necessitated Markova’s dancing in the U.S. during WWII, though she wished to stay in London with her family. (From left to right, the Marks sisters Vivienne, Doris, and Bunny.)

And speaking of the war years, Markova wished to remain in London with her family and friends at the outbreak of WWII. Unfortunately, she had an ironclad contract to dance in the U.S., with non-compete clauses and threats of legal injunctions requiring she honor her commitment or stop performing all together. As the main financial support of her sisters and widowed mother, Markova had no choice. But she managed to stay connected to her loved ones through weekly shipments of goods that were rationed in wartime London.

By splitting travel expenses with close friend and fellow prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova during the war years, Markova was able to send more rations and money home to her family.

By splitting travel expenses with fellow prima ballerina (and best friend) Alexandra Danilova, Markova was able to send more rations and money home to her family during the war years.

That necessitated two things: careful budgeting of her meager wages, and inventive packaging to insure delivery. From The Making of Markova: “I would always ask what the shortages were and I remember the one time, they said lemons. . . . You couldn’t get lemons. I went out and bought a lot of lemons, and I thought how are we going to get them through? Customs will take them first, probably. So what we did, we got a whole lot of old sweaters that looked like awful old shabby things and filled the arms with the lemons and rolled them up . . . and we sent them over to the family.”

Though metal was severely rationed during the war, Markova shared her allotment of hairpins with the ballerina bun heads back home.

Though metals were severely rationed during the war, Markova shared her allotment of hairpins with the ballerina “bunheads” back home.

Markova also made sure to send “necessities” like hard-to-find lipsticks for her sisters, with ballet shoe ribbons and metal hairpins going to needy “bun heads” at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. “Bobby pins! We couldn’t get anything like that,” famed British ballerina Beryl Grey later told Markova. “We were so excited and grateful, and so touched that you were thinking of us.”

“An extravagance is something that your spirit thinks is a necessity,” proffered British philosopher Bernard Williams. One might agree that a fur coat is a prime example. But that wouldn’t be true for early 20th century ballet dancers. Winter tours throughout Europe, and later the United States, often required extensive journeys in unheated trains. It was a bone-chilling experience. In fact, Anna Pavlova caught pneumonia when her touring train broke down in a frigid snowstorm, causing her premature death within weeks.

Fur coats were truly a necessity for ballerinas during frigid cross-country tours. (Here Markova, Danilova, and Mia Slavenska.)

Fur coats were truly a necessity for ballerinas during frigid cross-country tours. (Here, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo trio of Markova, Danilova, and Mia Slavenska.)

When the 14-year-old – and penniless – Markova was accepted at the Ballets Russes, a generous, well-traveled friend of the family had one of her own fur coats cut down and remade for the tiny dancer, knowing she would need it. Later, Markova learned how valuable that gift really was. It wasn’t just the unheated trains. Dancers often spent hours on wind-swept, icy rail platforms waiting for luggage, costumes and sets to be loaded or unloaded. A lightweight fur also served as a soft mattress, warm blanket, and even a public relations tool. After lengthy trips on bumpy railcars, ballerinas hardly looked their best when arriving in a new town. Markova noted that donning their fur coats made them look glamorous to the press, even when they could barely keep their eyes open.

Markova was repeatedly asked to have her ethnic nose "fixed" throughout her career.

Markova was repeatedly asked to have her ethnic nose “fixed” throughout her career.

There was one “necessity” Markova staunchly opposed throughout her career. She was repeatedly advised to have her ethnic nose bobbed so she would look “prettier” – and more importantly – less Jewish.

When Markova began dancing, classical ballerinas were all Russian, and Jews were not allowed to attend the Maryinsky ballet school in St. Petersburg. In fact Jews weren’t even allowed to live in cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow without special permits. Anna Pavlova was Jewish, but hid that fact throughout her career. Even when she was world-famous, she was afraid of losing fans if her religion became public in such anti-Semitic times.

Alicia Markova felt differently. Not only did she refuse to have her prominent nose “fixed,” but she was also openly vocal about her religion, becoming a great source of pride in Jewish media circles throughout Europe and the United States.

Markova's prominent profile was later celebrated by fashion magazines, such as thisVogue photo by John Rawlings.

Markova’s prominent profile was later celebrated by fashion magazines, such as this stunning Vogue photograph by John Rawlings.

IMG_3136Markova would become the first Jewish – and first British – prima ballerina assoluta in history, and a role model for young dancers all over the globe. “Necessity is the last and strongest weapon,” wrote Titus Levy in ancient Rome. For Markova, honoring her religion was that kind of necessity.







Markova Takes the Heat


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Markova was the most widely traveled ballet dancer of her generation.

Markova was the most widely traveled ballet dancer of her generation.

Oh, to be famous and travel the globe performing! Sounds so thrilling. And it was a thrill ride for the universally acclaimed Alicia Markova, but not one most people would sign up for. International ballet tours in the 1940s were far more grueling than glamorous, often involving dangerous locales, ghastly heat and humidity, and warped stages with gaping holes.

For Markova, it was all an adventure. She would become the most widely traveled dancer of her generation – often under her own steam, without monetary or management support from a major company – willing to sacrifice comfort and security in order to bring ballet to everyday people everywhere.

Dance rehearsals in extreme heat were not for the faint of heart. (Photo by Gordon Anthony.)

Dance rehearsals in extreme heat were not for the faint of heart. (Photo by Gordon Anthony.)

Easy this was not, especially in tropical heat. For anyone suffering through a scorching August day, picture having to wear tights, a multi-layered tutu, and dance for two hours!

And that was often just the beginning of a dancer’s trials. Take Markova’s first trip to South America, where temperatures could reach 120 degrees and air-conditioning in theaters was unheard of. It was 1940 and she had the good fortune to be co-starring at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo with her best friend, the vivacious prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova.

Alexandra Danilova made grueling tours fun for her pal Markova

Alexandra Danilova made grueling tours fun for her pal Markova.

After completing an arduous cross-country US tour in New York, the company was preparing for their international booking when a doctor arrived at rehearsal to administer vaccinations.

Artistic director Léonide Massine insisted that needles go into the dancers’ left legs rather than arms, so if any unsightly skin reaction erupted, tights would provide cover. Markova disagreed, as she had experienced problems with shots in the past and her legs were her livelihood. Massine won the argument.   From The Making of Markova:

Danilova and Markova were booked in a “first class” cabin, which they soon discovered was “the size of an average broom cupboard.” The close quarters would seem even more so as the boat went farther and farther south and the weather got increasingly hot and humid.

Danilova and Massine rehearsed while Markova was immobilized with her painful left leg.

Danilova and Massine rehearsed while Markova was immobilized with her painful left leg.

About ten days into the trip, Markova’s leg began to swell, eventually ballooning to twice its normal size. The ship’s doctor insisted that she lie still the entire trip with her leg elevated while he attempted to treat the inflammation with various dressings. But the swelling only got worse, hardened and eventually went numb. “I had a left wooden leg. It was like a piano leg,” Markova remembered.

. . . As the ship got closer to landing in Rio de Janeiro, a long list of warnings was issued to the company prior to disembarking. Markova’s stiff leg seemed to pale in comparison. Drinking plenty of bottled water with salt tablets was standard enough advice, but they were also told to avoid alcohol at bars, as local café glasses were known to spread syphilis of the mouth. If that wasn’t dismaying enough, the pretty young corps members were cautioned never to go out alone, as white slavery was a thriving business. Welcome to Rio!

After a performing a demanding role in oppressive heat, Markova passed out!

After performing two demanding roles in oppressive heat, Markova passed out!

. . . There was just one day to practice before opening night when Markova was scheduled to perform an excerpt from Swan Lake. Wouldn’t you know – that particular scene was danced almost entirely on the left leg. “[T]he heat was agony,” she remembered quite clearly. “I suffered really quite a few days after we were there with that leg.” Though the tights masked her wound, they only made her feel hotter.

The rest of the company wasn’t faring much better. Despite all the health warnings, one after another the dancers fell ill from dysentery, heat prostration, and various other ailments. . . . One evening Markova had to dance the demanding leads in two lengthy ballets and, upon leaving the stage after the final curtain, fainted from exhaustion in the wings.

Dolin and Markova had as much luck fishing in Cuba as they did dancing on a horribly warped stage. At least they had time for lunch with Ernest Hemingway.

Dolin and Markova had as much luck fishing in Cuba as they did dancing on a horribly warped stage. At least they had time for lunch with Ernest Hemingway.

Bigger problems than intense heat awaited Markova when she returned to Central and South America in 1947, this time with her Markova-Dolin Company co-founded with longtime partner – and fellow Brit – Anton Dolin.

Again, from The Making of Markova: In Bogota, the British consulate left word that the company was not to leave the hotel, as “there is going to be shooting today.” Only one matinee and evening performance were cancelled. Apparently they were all done shooting the next morning. A sudden revolution also prevented Markova and her partner Anton Dolin from a quick stopover in Nicaragua to dine with an old friend. “So we missed luncheon and the possibility of a bullet in the hors d’oeuvre,” Markova humorously recalled.

The stage was so badly warped in Cuba Markova feared her "Dying Swan" might literally live up to its name.

The stage was in such bad shape in Cuba, Markova feared her “Dying Swan” might literally live up to its name.

But it was in Cuba that Markova danced on the worst stage of her career – and that’s saying something. She had already maneuvered around holes, slippery marble, sharp tilts, and squished flowers, but the Cuban floorboards were a veritable roller coaster. Due to the incessant heat and humidity, the wood was so warped that it looked more like a Mediterranean tile roof than flooring.

When it came to her personal wardrobe, Markova quickly learned how to pack light and deal with extreme heat while touring. Shopping trips with celebrated modern artist Marc Chagall and his wife proved especially fruitful. The three were in Mexico City in 1942 preparing for Massine’s new ballet Aleko. Commissioned to create the sets and costumes, Chagall produced such astonishingly beautiful designs that they were applauded as loudly as the dancing. (To view those remarkable designs, see my former post “The Colorful Marc Chagall.”) From The Making of Markova:

Perhaps inspired by her Giselle costumes, Markova had lightweight peasant blouses and dresses designed for tour in extreme heat.

Perhaps inspired by her Giselle costumes, Markova had lightweight peasant blouses and dresses designed for tours in extreme heat.

“I used to go to the market with Chagall often, and in Mexico at that time, it was very primitive,” Markova later recalled. “You could go to the market and buy all the wonderful cotton materials, and they were all dyed – by the Indians you see – in these fantastic colors. Well, they were almost psychedelic colors: the marvelous candy pinks, and yellow, and oranges. You could choose your materials and choose the lace and everything, and the braids, and design your own, what you had in mind, and then you brought it and you took it to the other end of the market.”

There a “little lady in black” sat at a Singer sewing machine and Markova would show her what she had brought and present her design ideas. Since the fabrics were so cool and lightweight, the ballerina thought them ideal to wear while on tour in stifling climates.

Rather than shop for themselves, the Chagalls used the outdoor marketplace as an inspiration laboratory for costume design; and they too would buy fabrics, intricately cut lace, and decorative trim for the elderly seamstress to stitch up to specifications. (Of course, it was Chagall’s hand painting on the fabrics that made the costumes true works of art.)

The tortuous moves in Aleko combined with extreme heat did Markova in.

The tortuous moves in Aleko combined with extreme heat did Markova in.

When the company later performed Aleko in Los Angeles in July of ’43, the lightweight costumes proved little salvation in oppressive weather conditions. “Dancing in the humid air five nights a week, after rehearsing through a hot, sunny day at the Hollywood Bowl, or in one of the airless dance studios, was having its effect,” recalled Anton Dolin. Even more of an issue was Massine’s diabolically difficult choreography which had felled several dancers in rehearsals. The afternoon of the Hollywood premiere, Markova so severely pulled a muscle that she passed out cold; but with a sold-out crowd of 35,000 for opening night, she had no choice but to go on.

An amazing 35,000 people turned out to watch Markova perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1943.

An amazing 35,000 people turned out to watch Markova perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1943.

From The Making of Markova: The program went on as scheduled and Markova gave her normally fiery performance until almost the end of the ballet. Suddenly she felt a stabbing pain that she just couldn’t dance through and dropped to the stage. Co-star Hugh Laing immediately carried her into the wings and an ambulance was called. Another ballerina quickly took Markova’s place to finish the ballet, which at that point, required only that she be stabbed to death by Laing’s Aleko. But the audience barely paid attention. They were all murmuring about what had happened to Markova.

She would be out of commission for the rest of the summer.

Markova and Dolin traveled to Manila, devastated by shelling raids during the war.

Markova and Dolin made the arduous journey to the Philippines after the war.

By the time Markova and Dolin flew to the bombed-out Philippines in ’48 – a journey so daunting the pair were the only two dancers on the trip – she was an experienced packer for all kinds of weather. Even so, a surprise awaited her in Hawaii – a mid-point booking scheduled to break up the lengthy trip. (In those days it took 4 days just to fly from Hawaii to Manilla!) Despite all her preparations for the tropics, Markova was shocked at how much her feet swelled from the combined heat and humidity. She could barely fit into her ballet shoes. Worse still, the blocking in the toe turned to complete mush.  From The Making of Markova:

A panicked telegram was immediately dispatched to Capezio in New York, where all of Markova’s ballet shoes were hand-made, requesting that the company quickly send a dozen new pairs a half-size larger, lighter weight, and with sturdier toe blocks. The shipment arrived well before the departure for the Philippines. Never again would Markova attempt such a trip without a supply of what she now called her “tropical” toe shoes.

The beautiful native Manila dress sharply contrasts with the building devastation from wartime shelling raids.

The beautiful native Manila costumes worn by the two dancers sharply contrast with the wartime building devastation behind them.

[Awaiting Markova and Dolin in the Philippines was unimaginable devastation: miles of strewn rubble, bombed-out buildings, and a strong military presence.] First on the agenda was checking into the Manilla hotel – or half a hotel, as it turned out. “I remember opening a door next to my suite, which led directly and terrifyingly on to nothingness; the rest of the building had been sheared away by bombing,” Markova wrote in her memoirs. At the hotel’s front desk was the sign PARK YOUR FIRE-ARMS HERE – a none-too-reassuring reminder of daily shootings. 

[It hardly mattered. The Filipinos could not have been more gracious or appreciative that the famous dancers had made the dangerous, arduous trip. No dance company had visited the Philippines since Anna Pavlova in 1924, and huge crowds gathered for every performance, many in outdoor fields in the middle of nowhere.] When Markova arrived in Cebu, she was taken to the barren outdoor cinema where she and Dolin would dance that evening. The locals were transforming the site right before their eyes.

When Markova stood on one toe, Filipino audiences gasped in amazement.

When Markova stood on one toe, Filipino audiences gasped in amazement.

For a stage, dozens of upturned lemonade cases were lashed together and covered with a canvas. Off to one side sat a group of Filipino women, who one by one were cutting open old military grain sacks. The flattened fabric was then stitched together and painstakingly decorated with hundreds of wild tuberoses. It was a unique and quite beautiful backdrop. On the other side of the makeshift stage were placed several drained gasoline drums, now filled with fragrant flowers. The scent was so overwhelming, Markova remembered, as if someone had spilled bottles of expensive perfume everywhere. 

. . . The entire audience was hypnotized. Every time Markova rose up on her toes, there was an audible gasp. No one could imagine how that was humanly possible. The rapturous reception was the same all over the Philippines, bringing as much joy to the dancers as the worshipful crowds. [For the story of Markova’s performing on another unusual stage in Manila, see my former post “Ballet in a Boxing Ring? It was a knockout!”]

While on tour, Markova always enjoyed making time to visit local ballet schools to pass on her passion for dance.

While on tour, Markova loved visiting local ballet schools, as here in Manila, to encourage her passion for dance.

Markova and Dolin also made time to visit one of the local ballet teachers, helping her to develop easy-to-master lesson plans for her newly star-struck dance students.

Before the trip, Dolin wasn’t initially keen on such a grueling journey, but Markova talked him into it. “Whenever people say to me, ‘Oh, you can’t go to a certain place because there is no theater there or there isn’t any public,’ I would always say to Pat [Dolin], that’s where we’re going because it must be opened up.”

Can a Ballerina “Lean In”?


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Markova "leaning in" to dancer Stanislas Idzikovski dancing Carnaval, 1933

Markova “leaning in” to dancer Stanislas Idzikovski dancing Carnaval, 1933

She can if her name is Alicia Markova. Though Sheryl Sandberg certainly didn’t have ballerinas in mind when writing Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she’d be mightily impressed with Markova’s work ethic and hard-won success. Yes, even ballet could be a ruthless profession controlled by men, and Markova fought for a seat at their table. Though painfully shy and obedient as a child, Lilian Alicia Marks grew up to be not only the greatest classical ballerina of her generation, but also a force in ballet. She pioneered British ballet at a time when only Russian troupes commanded respect and full houses; and two of the three companies she helped launch are still in existence today – The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.

The young Peggy Hookham, soon to be  Margot Fonteyn

The young Peggy Hookham, soon to be Margot Fonteyn

By becoming the first British-born international ballet star, Markova paved the way for countless dancers to follow. One was a young girl named Peggy Hookham, who Markova took under her wing and mentored. Hookham is better known today by her more mellifluous stage name, Margot Fonteyn. Later in her career, Fonteyn paid tribute to Markova saying she “always remained my ideal and my idol.”

The Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois

The Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois

Women working together to succeed would also please Facebook COO Sandberg. Markova had the good fortune to have her own female mentor, the beautiful Irish-born ballerina Ninette de Valois (christened Edris Stannus). When Markova was a timid 14-year-old neophyte at the Ballets Russes, company impresario Sergei Diaghilev – who thought of Alicia as a daughter – asked the self-assured de Valois (then 26) to watch over his “Douchka,” (little darling). Markova couldn’t have been more fortunate. Years later, she offered her public gratitude in a radio tribute celebrating de Valois’s 100th birthday (she lived to be 102!): “I was put in your care and I thanked God every night because it wasn’t so much the dance part, but how you taught me what I should eat, what would be good for me, what would give me strength. Not only that, but how to go shopping and how to buy everything, because at that time, we all had very, very low salaries. And so really, in a few words, you tried to teach me how to deal with life.”

Markova in Giselle

Markova in Giselle

And it would be the pairing of de Valois and Markova that launched the Sadler’s Wells, known today as The Royal Ballet. The formidable de Valois was convinced she could form an all-British ballet company using her talents as a choreographer, teacher, and director. What she lacked was a star. Markova would become the first British prima ballerina to perform many of today’s most famous full-length Russian classics (Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker), putting de Valois’s fledgling company on the map. In her autobiography Come Dance With Me, de Valois wrote the following about her lifelong friend who she always called Alice:

The feisty Markova in Les Masques, 1933

The feisty Markova in Les Masques, 1933

“I think of all the artists that I have ever encountered she is the most self-reliant. Her strength of purpose and her courage run deep: when Alice says very quietly that something does not matter, that it is quite all right, she means, in one sense, exactly the opposite – for she does not trouble to explain that she considers it her own concern to set about rectifying the matter in question.”

Under de Valois’s tutelage, Markova learned to stand up for herself, and never shied away from asking for a higher salary – another Sandberg rule. When first partnered with Markova, the inexperienced choreographer Frederick Ashton was so impressed with her negotiating skills that he asked her to handle his salary dealings as well. But money was never the driving force in Markova’s career. She only asked for what she thought fair, and took less money than she could have received from large established companies in order to remain loyal to de Valois and their joint efforts to legitimize British ballet. Even more remarkable was Markova’s gutsy decision to become the first “free agent” prima ballerina in later years, an unheard-of choice when prima ballerinas remained with one or two companies throughout their entire careers.

Markova gladly traded career security for freedom.

Markova gladly traded career security for freedom

As the London News Chronicle said of Markova in 1955: She is to the dance what Menuhin is to music, but unlike the violinist, she has no competitors in her field, for all the other leading ballerinas, from Fonteyn to Ulanova, work in the framework of established companies. Indeed, it seems as though Markova may be the last of her kind—the “rebel” dancer who is prepared to carry the full responsibility for her career on her own delicate shoulders.

It meant far more work, but also complete freedom, enabling Markova to pursue her dream of bringing ballet to people everywhere. She became the most widely traveled dancer of her era, performing in parts of the world that had never seen any ballet, let alone one of its greatest practitioners.

Markova on tour in South Africa

Markova on tour in South Africa

As a freelancer, Markova became a de facto CEO, handling her own bookings, finances, and travel arrangements, as well as hiring dancers, costume designers, and musicians. It was a tall order for someone who devoted her life to perfecting her art, and something she kept hidden from the public. Markova feared that being known as a smart business woman would take away from her ethereality on stage.

This week in The Guardian, former ballet dancer Leigh Thomas discusses how her ballet training was the ideal preparation for becoming a CEO in the advertising business world that she works in today. Markova was also a brilliant marketer, as you can read in a former post: Markova Strikes Up the Brand.

Markova and partner Anton Dolin

Markova and partner Anton Dolin

For the British dance pioneer, generating “good copy” was not about self-aggrandizement. Popularizing her art form was Markova’s passion, and one she most certainly leaned in to. She would become the most highly paid prima ballerina in the world, the most famous, and a groundbreaker at every turn. Of course, her profession called for a little leaning on as well!

Matisse Makes Cut-Outs Dance


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Matisse began experimenting with cut-outs when designing for the ballet.

Matisse began experimenting with cut-outs when designing for the ballet.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fortunately, celebrated artist Henri Matisse was French. Wheelchair bound after debilitating stomach cancer surgery in 1941, the 72-year-old picked up a pair of scissors and never looked back.

“I came within a hair’s breadth of dying,” Matisse told Swiss art critic Pierre Courthion at the time. “Long live joy . . . and french fries!” (You can read the entire fascinating interview in a recently released book from Getty Publications.)

Matisse's paper cut-out designs for Léonide Massine's Rouge et Noir

Matisse’s paper cut-out designs for Léonide Massine’s Rouge et Noir

That new lease on life led to a jubilant new art form, currently on view in the exhilarating exhibit Matisse Cut-Outs at London’s Tate Modern (moving on to New York’s MOMA in October). “Bold, exuberant and often large in scale, the cut-outs have an engaging simplicity coupled with incredible creative sophistication,” the Tate makes clear.

Matisse pinned cutouts directly on Markova!

Matisse pinning cutouts on Markova!

Matisse had actually begun experimenting with painted paper cutouts just prior to his illness while working on the Barnes Foundation “Dance” mural and a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production called Rouge et Noir, which, incidentally, premiered 75 years ago this month. Choreographed by Léonide Massine, the work was a dramatic allegorical ballet set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Symphony. Matisse’s new use of cut-outs would become integral to the design, begun in 1938. Matisse went so far as to pin cutout shapes directly onto Massine’s star ballerina – Alicia Markova!

Massine was mulling over Rouge et Noir when he made one of his frequent visits to Matisse’s studio. Off in the corner were the artist’s “Dance” mural mock-ups for the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania. From the Making of Markova:

Matisse's mural for the Barnes Foundation

Matisse’s mural for the Barnes Foundation

Massine recalled, “I pointed out to him [Matisse] that they were very similar in conception to the ballet I was planning, which I visualized as a vast mural in motion, he became suddenly very interested.”

Arched set for Rouge et Noir

Arched set for Rouge et Noir

The high vaulted arches would become the formative background element in the backdrops for Rouge et Noir.

Matisse then produced a series of boldly colored mockups of his proposed set and costume designs by combining gouache and cut paper shapes painstakingly adjusted until perfect, then thumbtacked in place.

Matisse's cut-out-inspired curtain for Rouge et Noir

Matisse’s “signed” Rouge et Noir front curtain

Massine was so taken with Matisse’s work on the ballet that he had the artist boldly sign his name in large black lettering on the Rouge et Noir front curtain. The choreographer wanted the audience to know, even before the ballet began, who was responsible for the awe-inspiring design.

According to Grace Robert in The Borzoi Book of Ballets: “The most exciting feature of Rouge et Noir [briefly called L’Etrange Farandole] is the décor by Henri Matisse. The setting consists of a backdrop and several flat arches painted in primary colors, in front of which dancers dressed in suits of fleshings in red, blue, yellow, and black, with headdresses that covered their hair (with the most important group, including Man and Woman, in white), ebbed and flowed in changing patterns. It was extraordinarily effective scenically . . . The groups formed and came apart, making wonderful blocks of color like an abstract painting set in motion.”

Matisse drawings for his Rouge et Noir "cut-out" costumes

Matisse sketch for “cut-out” ballet costumes

Markova as "Woman" with Andre Eglevsky as "Man" in Rouge et Noir

Markova as “Woman” with Andre Eglevsky as “Man” in Rouge et Noir

As I explained in The Making of Markova:  Once again the themes were monumental: man and woman battling the spiritual and material worlds, with current political overtones. There was also a battle between Massine and his dancers, as his choreography was tremendously difficult (and often physically painful) to master. “On the call-board the first day, were three names – Theilade, Slavenska, Markova,” wrote dance critic Mary Mack of The Music News. “As the work progressed, two names were dropped, Markova remained.”

In discussing the process of learning new choreography, Markova confessed. ”I’ve rehearsed for a new ballet and haven’t been able to walk for two days.” She used Massine’s Rouge et Noir as a case in point:

photo by Maurice Seymour

photo by Maurice Seymour

“He decided he wanted to blend the classical technique with [Isadora] Duncan from the waist up, with acrobatics and some [Martha] Graham. That’s what I had to reproduce for him. The first day my legs were black and blue. I had two large black marks on my hips.

The second day, since my leggings had been splintered whenever I hit the wood floor, I came back wearing linen slacks. For the whole of the rehearsal for the ballet Rouge et Noir, I used to put cotton wool to pad my hip bones. I had kneecaps on, and I used to put a pair of linen slacks over the lot. I was well upholstered!

When it came time for the performance, all I had on was just white silk tights all over, no padding. I learned by that time where to put the strength, how to try to get the most effect and save myself. But even then, I used to have pads in the dressing room with witch hazel when I came off. There again, you see, I was willing to be bruised black and blue for Massine to achieve choreographically something superb. Now there were many dancers in the company who wouldn’t do it. This isn’t really fair.”

Matisse observed Markova in rehearsals so his cutout shapes would best emphasize here movements.

Matisse’s cut-outs added poetry to her movements.

Markova brought Matisse's dance cutouts to  life

Markova brought Matisse’s dance cut-outs to life.

Grace Robert certainly felt Markova’s efforts were worth it: “As long as Alicia Markova was Woman, Rouge et Noir had a strong emotional impact. A very abstraction of womanhood, yet she wrung the heart with her magnificently understated agony in the face of loss and adversity – a symbol and precursor of the hell that was already breaking out in Europe, to spread all over the world. As she was succeeded in this role by a dancer of considerably less (to put it charitably) artistic stature, Rouge et Noir lost any interest except as a piece of stage decoration.” But what a stage decoration!

Matisse & Massine first met at the Ballets Russes in 1919.

Matisse & Massine first met at the Ballets Russes in 1919.

Rouge et Noir was not the first time Massine and Matisse had collaborated on a ballet. In 1919 the two met at the famed Ballets Russes, where the unimaginably persuasive Serge Diaghilev talked a reluctant Matisse into designing Massine’s production of Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), with music by Igor Stravinsky. Though his rival Picasso had been working on sets and costumes with Diaghilev for years, Matisse didn’t want to take time away from his painting. “But I’ll only do one ballet and it’ll be an experiment for me,” he would later explain to Pierre Courthion. “And so I learned what a stage set could be. I learned that you could think of it as a picture with colors that move.

The decoration on Matisse's costumes for The Nightingale (1920) alluded to colored cutouts to come.

Matisse’s decorative Nightingale ballet costumes presage his later cut-outs.

“These colors are costumes. The colors move, but they mustn’t alter the expression conveyed by the set. They must be subordinated to a single grand expression and be able to interact without wrecking the harmony of the rest. The choreographer, Massine, was a great help to me; he understood my notion perfectly.”

The feathers on the Matisse-designed Nightingale costume for Tamara Karsavina molted off on opening night!

The feathers on the Matisse-designed Nightingale costume for Tamara Karsavina moulted off on opening night!

Unfortunately for Matisse, “the dressmakers said that they couldn’t understand his sketches,” according to John Russell’s Matisse: Father & Son. “Tamara Karsavina, who had the role of the live Nightingale (as opposed to the mechanical one), said that on the first night the feathers moulted off her costume.”

Markova in her pure white Nightingale costume by Matisse

Markova in her pure white Nightingale costume by Matisse

Though it looked sumptuous, the 1920 ballet was a flop. But four years later, the perennially broke Diaghilev decided Matisse’s designs were too beautiful to waste. All-new choreography was in order, and it was to be the first major effort from an untried 20-year-old talent – George Balanchine. Karsavina was replaced by the 14-year-old Alicia Markova, the youngest ever soloist at the company, with Matisse asked to create her new costume.

While Markova was dreamily picturing a brown feathered bird tutu, Matisse had other ideas. Uncharacteristic for the King of the Fauves, he dressed Markova in an all-white unitard head-to-toe with white osprey feathers covering a close-cropped bonnet. (For more on that amusing costume story, see my former post Alicia In Wonderland.) Balanchine’s Nightingale – with daring choreography for the young dance prodigy Markova – was a hit. Remarkably, Matisse would once again clothe Markova in a white unitard for Rouge et Noir some fifteen years later.

Matisse's oil, The Ballet Dancer, 1927

Matisse’s oil, The Ballet Dancer, 1927

When one thinks of artists and the ballet, Degas instantly comes to mind for his paintings and pastels, and perhaps Picasso for his set and costume designs. But during the time Matisse worked with Markova on The Nightingale, he too fell under the spell of ballet, producing a series of ballerina drawings called “Ten Dancers,” as well as several luscious Ballet Dancer oils.

However, Matisse had always been fascinated by the movement of dance, which he celebrated throughout his career in some of his most superb large scale works.

Matisse's magnificent La Danse, 1909

Matisse’s magnificent La Danse, 1909

“For me, a color is a force,” he told Pierre Courthion. “My pictures are made up of four or five colors that collide with one another, and the collision gives a sense of energy.”

"The Dance", 1938

Matisse cut-out The Dance, 1938

From his early dynamic Fauvist paintings to his delightfully original cut-outs, Matisse taught colors how to dance.







Costume Dramas: Ballet Wardrobe Mishaps


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Markova in The Water Lily, 1935 (photo by Gordon Anthony)

Markova beautifully costumed in The Water Lily, 1935 (photo by Gordon Anthony).

Pity the poor ballet costume manager. While researching Markova’s biography, I was continually amazed at the painstaking, and enormously expensive, process of designing, constructing, and maintaining dance costumes for an entire company. Just one loose sequin falling on the stage can cause a dancer to slip and be seriously injured. And even in the grand Ballets Russes days, a single extravagant costume needed to be repeatedly altered to fit each prima ballerina performing the same starring role.

Choreography demands greatly influence costume design. Markova in The Nutcracker, photo by Maurice Seymour.

Choreography demands greatly influence costume design. Markova in The Nutcracker (photo by Maurice Seymour).

Then there’s the original design. As London’s V & A museum explains, “Dance costume is a highly specialised field and as well as having to reflect the overall concept of the work, body movement, the demands of the choreography of a particular work and the effects of different fabrics in motion all have to be taken into consideration.”

And what happens if those precious costumes somehow never make it to the dancers’ dressing rooms by curtain time? Simply put: no costumes, no show.

Markova, Alexandra Danilova and Mia Slavenska buried behind their costume baggage.

Alexandra Danilova, Markova and Mia Slavenska buried behind their costume baggage.

As a star performer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Alicia Markova spent much of World War II criss-crossing the United States by train. The schedule was grueling, with the dancers often spending only one or two days in each city before moving on to the next venue.

And this went on for months.

Though they traveled with their scenery and costumes in a second railcar – quite a time-consuming project to pack and unpack at every stop – wartime needs sometimes intervened. As reported in the Arkansas Gazette in 1942: “Scheduled to give a performance at 8:30 P.M. at the Auditorium yesterday, the [Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo] troupe was unable to appear for the first time in 50 scheduled performances.

No costumes, no performance.

No costumes, no performance.

“Coming from Columbus, Missouri, scenery, props and wardrobes were sidetracked at Memphis to allow passage of troop trains. ‘Our performances have run late before due to delay of wardrobes, but we have never had to cancel a performance until now,’ Leon Spachner company manager said.'”

Though one would think modern air and overnight shipping would prevent such an event in today’s world, think again. As reported by the Chicago Reader this past February: “Costumes for one of the most anticipated offerings of the season, the internationally celebrated Hamburg Ballet, headed by onetime Chicagoan John Neumeier, were stuck on a storm-delayed freighter. They wouldn’t make it to [the Harris Theater in] Chicago in time for the performances.”

The Hamburg Ballet costumes never made it to the theater.

The Hamburg Ballet costumes for their signature Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler never made it to the theater.

Amazingly, “That crisis was resolved before the public heard about it, when the legendary Paris Opera Ballet, another recent visitor to the Harris and one of the few other companies with the piece in their repertoires, came to the rescue, shipping its own costumes to Chicago by air. The Harris popped for alterations, and everything was back on track.”

But the Hamburg Ballet was twice-cursed in the “Windy City.” During the pre-opening dress rehearsal, an electrical fire broke out in the theater forcing the dancers out into the cold, some wearing just ballet slippers and tights. The show never went on.

Modern ballet pioneer Martha Graham performing against a Noguchi-designed set in 1944

Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham performing against a Noguchi-designed set in 1944

The Martha Graham Company had even worse luck when Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and New York in 2012.

“In what has proved to be a fateful decision,” The New Yorker reported at the time, “the company’s sets and costumes—including pieces like the white throne from ‘Clytemnestra’ (1958) and the cloth set for ‘El Penitente’ (1940), both by [Isamu] Noguchi, as well as the Karinska gown from ‘Episodes’ (1959)—were placed in a series of rooms in the basement.”

Costume and set storage area for the Martha Graham Company following Hurricane Sandy.

Storage area for the Martha Graham Company following Hurricane Sandy.

Everything was later found to be submerged under six feet of water.

A similar waterlogged fate, but under very different circumstances, befell another historic ballet design when Markova was dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1939. From The Making of Markova:

André Derain's beautiful sets and costumes for Michel Fokine's L'Epreuve d'Amour were lost at sea.

André Derain’s exquisite sets and costumes for Michel Fokine’s L’Epreuve d’Amour were lost at sea.

Dubbed “the Riviera afloat,” the gargantuan S.S. Rex was too large to enter Cannes harbor, where the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was to disembark. That necessitated smaller boats being sent out to ferry the dancers, costumes, and cumbersome sets to the dock. As luck would have it, the Italian ocean liner was running late for its final destination, Genoa, so the captain decided to hurry things along. 

In their haste, remembered Markova sadly, the overzealous crew ended up dumping several crates overboard. One was filled with André Derain’s exquisite Chinoiserie costumes and sets for [Michel Fokine’s] L’Epreuve d’Amour. The dancers watched horrified as the packing cases sank into the Mediterranean Sea and were quickly washed away. The company was never able to perform the ballet again.

Markova had her own series of costume mishaps at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. As the first British prima ballerina in a predominantly Russian company, she was considered an interloper who had no right to “usurp” starring roles that “rightfully” belonged to the Russian ballerinas. (Markova’s great lifelong friend Alexandra Danilova, also a prima ballerina at the company, was happily an exception.) Not only did Markova have to contend with jealous dancers, but the all-Russian contingent of costume designers and seamstresses also had it in for her.

Only half of Markova's Seventh Symphony costume was ready by curtain time

Only half of Markova’s Seventh Symphony costume was ready opening night

The first costume debacle occurred on opening night of Léonide Massine’s glorious Seventh Symphony in 1938. Markova starred as the “Spirit of the Air and Sky,” with a lighter-than-air costume designed by French artist Christian Bérard. Topping an all-over white silk leotard was a sky blue silk chiffon skirt appliquéd with almost imperceptible horsehair pale pink clouds. A larger cloud was to be appliquéd across Markova’s breast and one shoulder, leading up to a delicate winged hair ornament.

Bérard to the rescue.

Bérard to the rescue.

On opening night, the Russian couturière Barbara Karinska (whose famous Martha Graham gown was destroyed in the above-mentioned flood) waited until the last minute to deliver Markova’s costume – or half a costume as it turned out. The ethereal skirt was finished but had no top or headpiece. Whether it was out of spite or poor planning, the result was the same. Markova couldn’t go on. Fortunately, the wildly creative Bérard came to the rescue. Rushing to Markova’s dressing room, he spotted a pale blue chiffon gown she had planned to wear to the after-party. Grabbing its matching scarf, the designer quickly draped and stitched the material into a top. Next he took a pair of scissors and cut wings from a piece of white paper, decorating them with black eyebrow pencil from the dressing table. The makeshift headpiece was fastened to her hair as Markova rushed on stage. The ballet was a triumph!

An unhappy pas de deux: egotistical Russian Serge Lifar had it in for the British Markova in Giselle (1938).

An unhappy pas de deux: egotistical Russian Serge Lifar had it in for the British Markova in Giselle (1938).

Markova’s next costume calamity was decidedly premeditated sabotage. Following her great success in Seventh Symphony, she was to star in the company’s debut performance of Giselle in London. It was Markova’s most acclaimed role to be danced in her hometown – sure to be a sellout.

But her partner was the egotistical Russian star Serge Lifar, who bizarrely re-choreographed the ballet to greatly expand his own role, that of Prince Albrecht. (A joke went around Paris that his Giselle should be renamed Albrecht!) Lifar wanted to dance London’s opening night with his fellow Russian, the beautiful Tamara Toumanova, a less fragile, curvier ballerina than the tiny Markova. The two Russian dancers were incensed that Toumanova had to play second fiddle to Markova. So too were the Russian seamstresses.

With constant costume sabotage, Markova kept a back-up Giselle costume under lock & key, like this one from 1934.

With constant costume sabotage, Markova kept a back-up Giselle costume under lock & key, like this one from 1934.

Quite nervous that her new costume wasn’t ready for the full dress rehearsal, Markova was nevertheless assured it would be in her dressing room opening night. When it finally arrived just a few minutes before curtain, lo and behold, the dress was way too big, having been “accidentally” made to fit Toumanova’s measurements. While this is a long and very entertaining story in all its detail (yes, you’ll have to buy The Making of Markova to find out!), Markova outfoxed everyone by bringing one of her old Giselle costumes to the theater as back-up. Lifar exploded, there were tears and screaming, but the show eventually went on.

Jealous ballerinas hid steel needles in Markova's Giselle costume underskirts, stabbing into her leg on stage.

Jealous ballerinas hid steel needles in Markova’s Giselle costume underskirts, stabbing into her leg on stage.

Despite such a ruckus, Markova received an astounding 24 curtain calls, but Lifar refused to let her take any center stage bows without him. He was not only booed by the audience, but had to be physically restrained in the wings by stagehands to appease the Markova-loving crowd. This led to a major donnybrook – death threats, fisticuffs, and even a proprosed duel! – when Markova debuted the same role with Lifar at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. For more on that story, see my former post “Dirty Work Afoot: Treachery at the Ballet.”

Markova continued to experience costume sabotage with the company: an Act II costume slashed while she was on stage in Act I, packing needles hidden in her tutus, and other nefarious plots to physically harm or unnerve her – all to no avail. She would become the most famous, widely traveled, and highest paid classical ballerina of her generation.

The "winged" Markova

The “winged” Markova in Les Elfes. (photo, Gordon Anthony)

One of my favorite “costume” stories took place in 1934, the year Markova made her London debut in Giselle. From The Making of Markova: . . . even people who had never been to the ballet now knew the name of Markova. One evening, a taxi driver escorted the ballerina, her flowers, and costume/makeup cases home from the theater. As the driver helped unload all her belongings, he suddenly called, “Ere, Miss, you’ve left your wings in the cab.” “My wings?” Markova asked.

The driver pointed to a single remaining case. ”They tell me you’re the dancer with the invisible wings, so I suppose you take ‘em round with you.”

Markova did indeed appear to effortlessly fly on stage, sometimes even letting her “wings” show, as when costumed for Les Elfes or Les Sylphides, one of her most celebrated roles. A pair she wore in 1926 as a sylph at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is carefully preserved for posterity in The Australian Ballet Collection.

Markova's wings on display in The Australian Ballet Collection.

Markova’s wings



The Television-ary Markova


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Markova rehearsing with choreographer James Starbuck for Your Show of Shows, 1953

Markova rehearsing with choreographer James Starbuck for Your Show of Shows, 1953

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 Showswith Imogene Coca. Markova working with slapstick comedians – on TV? Yes indeed.

Comedienne Imogene Coca's ballet  parodies were a stitch.

Comedienne Imogene Coca’s ballet parodies were a stitch.

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.

Markova was as elegant off-stage as on. Her hosting a comedy-variety show was inspired television.

Markova was as elegant off-stage as on. Her hosting a comedy-variety show was inspired television.

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.

Markova performed Les Sylphides for an audience of 30,000,000!

Markova performed Les Sylphides for an audience of 30,000,000!

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!)”

Markova's televised Dying Swan brought tears to viewers eyes.

Markova’s televised Dying Swan brought tears to viewers eyes.

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.

Television pioneers in the '50s. Markova had them beat by two decades!

Television pioneers in the ’50s. Markova had them beat by two decades!

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.”

TV studios were so small in 1932 that Markova had to choose ballets like the polka in Facade with little side to side movement.

TV studios were so small in 1932 that Markova had to choose ballets like Facade’s polka with little side to side movement.

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 former post 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.

Markova became so associated with TV appearances in the US, that a scene of her dancing was featured in in ad for Farnsworth televisions

Markova became so associated with TV appearances in the US, that a scene of her dancing was featured in in ad for Farnsworth televisions in 1946.

“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.

In the early years of TV, Markova was asked to instruct camera men on the best angles to capture ballet.

In the early years of TV, Markova was asked to instruct camera men on the best angles to capture the ethereality of ballet.

” . . .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.

Markova often addressed biers directly prior to performance on TV.

Markova often introduced her televised performances, enhancing viewers’ understanding and enjoyment of ballet.

“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.”

The glorious Margot Fonteyn as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, 1950

The glorious Margot Fonteyn as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, 1950

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.

Markova and Erik Bruhn in a BBC production of Giselle, 1955

Markova and Erik Bruhn in a BBC production of Giselle, Act II (1955)

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.”

Markova and Bruhn were magical in Giselle

On and off stage, Markova was impossible to hold still.

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.

Tipping the Scales with Markova


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Markova ate all day long to keep up her strength

Markova ate all day long to keep up her strength

“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.”

The womanly figure of Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina was the ideal in the early 1900s

The womanly figure of Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina was considered the ideal in the early 1900s

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.

Lilian Alicia Marks when she joined the Ballets Russes

The tiny Lilian Alicia Marks when she joined the Ballets Russes

Lydia Sokolova seekingly easy to life by partner Léon Woizikovsky in Le Train Bleu (1924)

The muscular Lydia Sokolova apparently lifted with ease by partner Léon Woizikovsky (Le Train Bleu 1924)

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 at the Ballets Russes (Apollo, 1928)

Danilova at the Ballets Russes (Apollo, 1928)

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.

When Alexandra Danilova put on a few pounds, Anton Dolin remarked when lifting her," What do you think I am, a piano mover?"

“Piano Mover” Anton Dolin with Alexandra Danilova, (Le Bal, 1929)

Best friends Markova and Danilova shared a healthy appetite

Best friends Markova and Danilova shared a healthy appetite (Photo from The Making of Markova)

“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.

George Balanchine when he joined the Ballets Russes

George Balanchine at the Ballets Russes

“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.

The featherweight Markova ate prodigiously (photo by Constantine)

The featherweight Markova ate prodigiously (photo by Constantine)

Markova’s own diet proved shocking to peers, but for very different reasons. From The Making of MarkovaPaper-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:

Markova "flying" in Giselle

Markova “flying” in Giselle

“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. 

the other-worldly Markova in The Haunted Ballroom (1934)

The other-worldly Markova in The Haunted Ballroom (1934)

“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.

Markova at the Ballet Club in Les Masques (1933)

Markova at the Ballet Club in Les Masques (1933)

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.

Markova photographed while eating a bountiful tea

Markova photographed while eating a bountiful 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.’

Markova was known for her poise on and off stage

Markova was known for her poise and “stillness” on and off stage

“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!)

Markova vigorously rehearsing with partner Anton Dolin

Markova ate more than partner Anton Dolin

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.”

"Chocolates, starch, stout, five-course meals - I've tried the lot," says Markova.

“If you still believe from the look of me that I live on butterfly wings, come out to dinner with me. But make sure you’ve got plenty of 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.IMG_2713

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.”

After performing in a boxing ring, Markova offered to "weigh-in" again at London's Royal Albert Hall

After performing in a boxing ring, Markova offered to “weigh-in” again at London’s Royal Albert Hall

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.” . . .images “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.

Markova Strikes Up the Brand


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Markova's career independence streak started in the 1930s.  Here in Nijinska's House Party (1936).

From a shy dance prodigy at Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes, Markova would become the most independent prima ballerina of her generation.

Brand new year – brand new you, tout January advice columns. But while “you are your own brand” is a decades-old business mantra, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the high-culture world of ballet.

Natalia Osipova astounds with her jumps in the air - and from company to company

Natalia Osipova astounds with her jumps – both in the air and from ballet company to company

Call them footloose and fancy-free agents – a new generation of ballet talents who maintain “jeté setting careers,” according to a New York Times article by Roslyn Sulcas and Michael Cooper. “A wave of international ballet stars are increasingly leaping from company to company, creating their own brands and becoming more like world-traveling conductors and opera stars. In doing so, they are upending ballet’s traditional professional path and changing an art form long defined by national styles that dancers perfected as they grew up with — and stayed loyal to — a single company.”

Markova in mirror - older

But “upending ballet’s traditional professional path” is not a new phenomenon. Over 70 years ago, Alicia Markova startled peers by becoming the first, and only freelance prima ballerina of her generation. As the London News Chronicle reported in 1955, Markova “is to dance what Menuhin is to music, but unlike the violinist, she has no competitors in her field, for all the other leading ballerinas, from Fonteyn to Ulanova, work in the framework of established companies. Indeed, it seems as though Markova may be the last of her kind – the ‘rebel’ dancer who is prepared to carry the full responsibility for her career on her own delicate shoulders.”

"Ballet Brands" David Halberg and Polina Seminova . (photo: Andrea Mohin/New York TImes)

David Hallberg and Polina Seminova dance for more than one company. The New York Times calls them “Ballet Brands.” (photo: Andrea Mohin)

Not only was Markova’s declaration of independence far ahead of her time, but her motivations were equally remarkable, and quite different from today’s “rebels.” As celebrated dancer Alina Cojocaru told the Times, “Ballet careers are relatively short and require years of training that pose the risk of injury, yet the world’s top dancers earn far less money than their counterparts elsewhere in show business. Belonging to two companies or making numerous guest appearances increases earning power.”

Paris Opera Ballet Director Benjamin Millepied sniffs the air at YSL

Paris Opera Ballet Director Benjamin Millepied (and husband of Black Swan star Natalie Portman) sniffs the air at YSL, and has made a television commercial for Air France.

Also increasing dancers’ earning power – not to mention name recognition – are advertising endorsements. More from the Times: “top-level dancers, thanks to social media and advertising contracts, are increasingly able to capitalize on their own brands. Ms. [Polina] Semionova recently appeared on billboards alongside the tennis star Novak Djokovic in a Uniqlo advertisement; Mr. [Benjamin] Millepied has appeared in advertisements for Dior and Saint Laurent; Yuan Yuan Tan, a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, is a brand ambassador for Van Cleef & Arpels and Rolex. ‘Why can’t a ballerina be as public as a tennis figure?’ asked Sara Mearns, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet.”

San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan shines for The Gap

San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan fills the salary Gap with ads

Why indeed? Appearing in a mainstream Gap ad introduced San Francisco Ballet dancer Yuan Yuan Tan to a whole new audience, potentially leading to higher ticket sales for her performances. But such tie-ins are not modern concepts. A century ago, the legendary Anna Pavlova happily endorsed Ponds Vanishing Cream for a tidy sum: “I find it is very good for softening and whitening my skin,” she claimed.

But Markova topped them all as an international brand magnet for a wide variety of products. Hers was a household name around the globe, and advertisers continually came calling to borrow a cup of the ballerina’s fame.

Markova's signature "Dying Swan" made audiences all over the world swoon. (1950, © Gordon Anthony)

Markova’s signature “Dying Swan” made audiences all over the world swoon. (1950, © Gordon Anthony)

As New York Herald Tribune columnist Art Buchwald wrote in 1953, “Miss Markova, considered by many as the greatest living ballerina, and by others as the greatest ballerina who ever lived, flew to Paris to appear in six ballets . . . Because of her fame, experience, and talent, she is one of the few ballerinas in the world who can free-lance, go where she wishes, do what she wants and demand the salary she believes she justly deserves.”

Markova on tour in South Africa

Markova on tour in South Africa

Though she became the highest paid ballet dancer of her time, a pile of money was not Markova’s objective. “We come from a family of inventors and pioneers and this spirit seems embodied in Markova,” wrote the ballerina’s sister and frequent business manager Doris Barry. “As often when she could accept a lucrative engagement in London or New York, an offer comes from a new national company struggling to establish itself, and though she knows it means physical discomfort from climate, hotels, etc., we find ourselves in a plane and my sister turns to me and says, ‘Well, here we go again – another new country to conquer.'”

Markova's image enhanced sales of a 1958 Paris orchestra concert album of Les Sylphides, one of her more famous roles.

Markova’s image enhanced sales of a 1958 Paris orchestra concert album of Les Sylphides, one of her more famous roles.

Markova was an egalitarian. She thought ballet should be for everyone everywhere, no matter where they lived or how much money they made. She used her sizable earnings not to buy a country home or luxury residence – she lived with her sisters in a rent-controlled flat in London! – but rather to subsidize her far-flung travels and charity work. When the Royal Winnipeg Ballet asked Markova for help raising funds for their deeply in debt company in 1954, she didn’t hesitate. RWB member Betty Farrally fondly recalled that Markova “took time to teach and coach the dancers, and when the costumes for Les Sylphides failed to meet with her approval, she dug into her own pocket and paid for new top layers.”

Markova was a favorite of fashion photographers like John Rawlings of Vogue

Markova was a favorite of fashion photographers like John Rawlings of Vogue

Cadbury came calling after discovering Markova's addiction to chocolates

Cadbury came calling after discovering Markova’s addiction to chocolates

Though Markova was called the “spirit of the air” by dance critics, it was her down-to-earth interviews that endeared her to the public. So while she was often photographed wearing couture fashions and jewels for style magazines, it was mainstream, rather than luxury, advertisers that sought her endorsement. (Markova’s romance with the dashing Van Cleef & Arpels scion Louis Arpels being a different sort of endorsement entirely.) As early as the 1930s, Markova was approached by a popular chocolatier: “Cadbury chocolates keep you on your toes!” says famous ballerina.

An apple a day, or perhaps a potato? (Photo by Dorothy Wilding, 1955)

An apple a day, or perhaps a potato? (Photo by Dorothy Wilding, 1955)

Even more amusing was Markova’s serving as an unpaid spokesperson for England’s “Potato Council.” That’s right – potatoes! It seems the ailing British agricultural industry was desperately in need of a boost when Markova revealed to a London newspaper that she ate a steak and potatoes after every performance to get her energy back. A lightbulb went off in “spudville,” and a new impresario was born: Potato Pete, a jovial cartoon drawing that “presented” an elegantly dressed Markova in a promotional brochure offering up her favorite potato recipes.

IMG_2659Markova’s exceptionally beautiful hands and feet starred in two different ads, one glamorous, one not so much.“Whose hands are these?” inquired La Cross fine nail polish. Markova “was talented to her fingertips,” came the playful answer.IMG_2662

A similar question was posed by Morlands footwear, with the headline “Whose famous feet are these?” But Morlands didn’t design fragile glass slippers – just practical sheepskin-lined boots. The copy began, “In my walk or should I say dance of life,” says Alicia Markova, “a cold can spread calamity,” going on to extoll Markova’s sensible approach to winter footwear. A writer for World’s Press News wrote of the ad: “Testimonial advertising has never been my cup of tea. But this ad does it so cleverly, that I think my next slippers will be from Morlands.”

IMG_2652But perhaps the best use of Markova’s name and passion was in an ad for Basildon Bond stationery. “I chose the ‘Bunch of Amateurs,'” says Alicia Markova, read the headline. The body copy continued: “In the autumn of 1931, my life was at a crossroads,” says Alicia Markova. “I could either go to join Massine in his world-famous Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo, or I could join Ninette de Valois as Prima Ballerina at Sadler’s Wells in the embryo Vic-Wells Ballet. Superficially Massine’s was the more attractive offer, but I wanted to prove that ballet could succeed in Britain, so, after much thought, I wrote to accept Ninette de Valois. Some of my friends laughed at me for joining, as they put it, ‘a bunch of amateurs in the suburbs.’ But the laugh was on them. That ‘bunch’ put British ballet on the map and became eventually the brilliantly successful Royal Ballet, renowned throughout the world.” You never know which of your letters may turn out to be important, Basildon Bond concluded.

Los Angelos Times crossword puzzle.

A Markova-themed Los Angeles Times crossword

Markova in the "50 of the Greatest Britons" commemorative card set

Markova in the “50 of the Greatest Britons” commemorative card set

The range of brands asking to be associated with Markova was mind-boggling – everyone from Reader’s Digest and El Al Airlines to Farnsworth Television and Craven ‘A’ cigarettes (though the health-conscious ballerina never smoked). Before the internet and social media, it’s hard to imagine the worldwide recognition of Markova’s name. Her image was featured on postcards, in crossword puzzles, and as one of Brooke Bond Tea’s collectible “50 of the Greatest Britons” picture cards (alongside the likes of Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Florence Nightingale, and George Bernard Shaw).

Markova and sister Doris shipboard bound for a European booking.

Markova and sister Doris crossing the Atlantic by ship

Royal Mail MenuA frequent trans-Atlantic ship traveler, Markova soon found her photo on the Royal Mail Lines menu. She was clearly an appetizing entree.

And Markova’s fame was hard-earned. Unlike all her movie star friends – from dancers Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, to fellow Brits Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh – Markova didn’t appear in films that reached millions of viewers internationally. The prima ballerina personally traveled the globe performing to sold-out crowds in a startling number of countries, an impossible feat had she not chosen to self-manage her career.

Markova and Erik Bruhn made ballet history in Giselle, 1955

Critics went wild for  the pairing of Markova and Erik Bruhn in Giselle (1955). Markova was 44, Bruhn, 26

“It is usually believed that guest ballerinas invited to appear with major companies have an easy time in comparison with the day after day performances of the regular stars of those companies,” reported Dance News in 1955. “But just take a look at Alicia Markova’s schedule for the next two months and see what she has lined up for herself.” The list included a BBC production of Giselle in London with the 18-years-younger Danish star Erik Bruhn, partnering with Bruhn again in Copenhagen for the Royal Danish Ballet, performances at Stockholm’s Royal Opera House, a gala opening of the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris, and the opera season in Chicago. For that same time period, she had to turn down offers from Helsinki, Amsterdam and Brussels, but made sure to attend the annual children’s hospitals charity ball in Deauville, performing with friends Gene Kelly and Maurice Chevalier.

The Markova comic book - a ballerina super hero for the next generation of bun heads

The Markova comic book: a ballerina superhero for the next generation of bunheads

Markova was a much loved and revered brand if ever there was one, but her most cherished fans were too young to understand the concept. They were all the ballet students who took lessons with a photo of the great Markova up on the wall for inspiration. Perhaps a few of those bunheads owned the comic book at left, illustrating Markova’s trials and tribulations on the way to becoming a ballet superstar.

Even without a cape, Alicia Markova could leap tall buildings with a single bound!


Markova Entertains the Troops


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Markova was dancing Giselle in N.Y. when Pearl harbor was bombed.

Markova was dancing Giselle in N.Y. when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Seventy-two years ago today the Japanese bombed the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii. Over 2,400 people were killed – sailors, soldiers, civilians – and nearly 1,200 wounded. Within an instant, the United States was at war. At the very moment Pearl Harbor was under attack, prima ballerina Alicia Markova was in New York City dancing a sold-out matinee performance of Giselle. The audience would hear the horrific news at intermission. When they silently returned to their seats for Act II, the poignancy of Markova’s performance brought a flood of cathartic tears.IMG_2561

The British dancer would spend the next three years supporting the American war effort in every way she could: raising money and donations, entertaining the troops, and offering a brief escape from the world’s worries. “Little 96-pound Alicia Markova, who admits her heart is tangled up with an Englishman now making uniforms for the R.A.F., thinks the ballet has a definite war mission,” revealed a Philadelphia newspaper. “‘Escape,’ she says . . . ‘and it’s good in time of war.'”

Markova was under contract to Sol Hurok during the war years

Markova was under contract to Sol Hurok during the war years.

When the U.S. entered World War II on December 7th, 1941, Markova’s homeland of Great Britain had been under siege for over two years. She had wished to remain in London to be with her family and loved ones, but was contractually obligated to dance in the United States with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Impresario Sol Hurok threatened legal action to prevent her from performing anywhere if she refused to go. As Markova was supporting her widowed mother and sisters, she had no choice.

Upsetting war news from home was inescapable.

Upsetting war news from home was inescapable.

Though dancing in the U.S. brought solace to the celebrated ballerina, worries about her family and friends were omnipresent. “Mr. Massine [artistic director Léonide Massine] won’t allow newspapers in the studio,” Markova told a newspaper reporter in 1940. “And a good thing, too. I was trying to take my mind off what I had read at breakfast one morning. Suddenly one of the corps de ballet opened a paper. ‘London Bombed!’ I felt quite sick. I forgot my entrance and things got pretty blue. . . . The knowledge that your country is at war, that your family is in it, is always with you. While working you can get away from it for a few moments.”

The news only got worse, as Markova told another interviewer in January 1941: “I picked up the newspapers the morning after my New York debut in ‘The Nutcracker.’ In one hand I held the most wonderful compliments from the critics – and in the other, a cable from my mother, telling how a bomb had gone through our apartment. Fortunately,” went on the soft-voiced star of the ballet, “my mother and three sisters were away at the time.”

Markova volunteered at Stage Door Canteens throughout the country

Markova volunteered at Stage Door Canteens throughout the country.

Throughout the war, wherever she was performing, Markova made time to visit Stage Door Canteens across the country. The lively nightspots offered wholesome evenings out for enlisted men and women (no officers!), with free food and the company of cheerful volunteers. Some were rather famous, especially at the Hollywood Canteen founded by actors Bette Davis and John Garfield. (“No liquor, but damned good anyway,” reported one sailor.) Markova had a fine time socializing with the American G.I.s: pouring coffee, chatting amiably, and tripping the light fantastic. The ballerina taught ballroom dancing to the servicemen and they in turn showed her how to jitterbug.

Markova jitterbugged with Mickey Rooney at The Hollywood Canteen

To entertain G.I.s, Markova jitterbugged with Mickey Rooney. (Photo from The Hollywood Canteen, an entertaining book by Lisa Mitchell & Bruce Torrence.)

Markova became so adept that one night she entertained the troops by jitterbugging with film star Mickey Rooney; but an over zealous G.I. named “Killer Joe” almost did her in with his exuberant dance moves. Markova loved it all, and so did the countless grateful soldiers who sent her thank you letters and requests for photos. The bone-thin ballerina couldn’t believe anyone would consider her “pin-up girl” material! But Markova managed to touch the soldiers’ lives in a very different way than Hollywood glamour girls like Rita Hayworth.

Markova, the ethereal "pin-up" girl."  © Cecil Beaton

Markova, the ethereal “pin-up” girl.” © Cecil Beaton

Performing for departing or wounded soldiers, Markova’s magical stage presence was an unforgettable experience that lived long in one’s memory. Headlines in many newspapers spoke of her power to enthrall servicemen with classical dance: “Ballet Their Escape From War Jitters,” read one; “Ballet Hailed as War Outlet” read another. And Markova always made time to sell war bonds while on tour, once even appearing on the radio in the window of I. Magnin’s department store.

Markova photographed by friend Carl Van Vechten

Markova photographed by friend Carl Van Vechten

Markova also supported the women that the soldiers left behind. From The Making of Markova: She was willing and able to put herself in the place of average American women whose lives had changed drastically after the Untied States entered the war. Not only were their loved ones drafted, but in a way, they were too. Women who had never held jobs in their lives were needed as factory workers and fill-in employees for all the men now overseas. Many were scared, tired, and feeling neglected. Markova was a Jewish woman at a time when her religion had horrific consequences. She knew what it was like to feel insecure and afraid. And that attitude won her many female fans.IMG_2564

Her interviews were filled with practical beauty and health tips to make women feel better in those tough times. It was hard to feel attractive while doing factory work. Markova knew how happy her sisters were to receive her care packages of lipsticks and nail polish, which they were unable to get in war-torn England. And Markova always reserved some of her war rations for friends back home, sending weekly food packages and much-needed supplies. Thanks to Markova’s parcels of metal hairpins and ribbons, the corps members at London’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet (today’s Royal Ballet) were able to remain”bunheads!”

Markova dressed simply for press photos during the War. American women loved her for it.

Markova dressed simply for press photos during the War. American women loved her for it.

Markova also understood that times of war required restraint in appearance. “Miss Markova is not, she insists, a glamour girl,” reported the New York World-Telegram. “She’s a simple, quiet English girl who happens to be a good dancer. Her press agents have asked her to dress more snakily, let down her hair and throw off her natural reticence. But Miss Markova insists that being herself and a good dancer into the bargain is ‘Quite Enough.'”

The trend-setting Markova in 1941

The trend-setting Markova in 1941

The quietly chic dancer still managed to set fashion trends. Out to dinner in 1941 with friends from the Ballet Theatre (today’s American Ballet Theatre), Markova was photographed wearing a beret and fitted houndstooth suit with padded shoulders, nipped in waist, and knee-grazing hemline.

Lauren Bacall in the same outfit three years later in To Have and Have Not.

Lauren Bacall in the same outfit three years later in To Have and Have Not.

Three years later, 19-year-old Lauren Bacall would wear an almost identical outfit in her first film, To Have and Have Not. Though female movie-goers loved the fashions, far more memorable today is Bacall’s repartee with soon-to-be-husband Humphrey Bogart: “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”

Markova got her share of whistles too, accompanied by standing ovations at curtain calls across the country. The popularity of ballet actually increased during the war years, as famous American dance critic Edwin Denby explained: “Wartime, here as abroad, made everyone more eager for the civilized and peaceful excitement of ballet. More people could also afford tickets. And in wartime, the fact that no word was spoken on the stage was in itself a relief. Suddenly the theaters all over the country were packed.”

During the war years, Markova practically lived on trains.

During the war years, Markova practically lived on trains.

In order to accommodate audiences nationwide, the company practically lived on trains. Outside of the big cities, performances were often one-night stands held in odd venues such as high school gymnasiums, American Legion auditoriums and Town Halls. As Markova recalled, “Just before we were leaving the Metropolitan (Opera House in New York), the list – the tour list – went up, and I remember looking at the list and I couldn’t understand it because for three whole weeks we never slept in a hotel.” Fortunately Markova was adept at sleeping on trains, and she laughingly remembered inventing “the Army Game” so the company could bathe. The wily “maneuver” involved taking advantage of hotel day rates while the stage crew unloaded and built sets. One dancer would check in to a single suite, with six more sneaking up afterwards. They would tip the maid to bring extra towels and take turns bathing, eating, and napping. It was like a Marx Brothers movie!

Markova with fellow Ballet Theatre  Brits Hugh Laing (at left) and Antony Tudor (at right).

Markova with fellow Ballet Theatre Brits Antony Tudor (at left) and Hugh Laing (at right).

For the Ballet Theatre’s British contingent, mastering new choreography helped take their minds off war worries back home. Antony Tudor’s Romeo & Juliet co-starring Hugh Laing (with Tudor as Tybalt) was one of Markova’s most rewarding roles. Though 32 years old when the ballet debuted in 1943, she had no trouble embodying a love-struck girl of 14.  In preparation, Markova memorized the entire Shakespeare play so she would have Juliet’s thoughts, words, and actions in her head as she danced.

Markova and Hugh Laing in Romeo & Juliet (Life Magazine)

Markova and Hugh Laing in Romeo & Juliet (Life Magazine)

“Her new Juliet,” wrote Edwin Denby in the New York Herald Tribune, “is extraordinary. One doesn’t think of it as Markova in a Tudor part; you see only Juliet. She is like no girl one has ever seen before. She is completely real. One doesn’t take one’s eyes off her, and one doesn’t forget a single move.” Added dance critic Grace Roberts, “For once, there was a Juliet who made Romeo’s quick reactions believable. Her light darting steps barely seemed to touch the ground . . . Markova’s deer like shyness in the first scene, her tragic controlled despair, her exquisite movement of her hand as she wakes up in the tomb scene, are all unforgettable in their subtlety.”

For the transported audience, it was indeed an escape from the worries of the world.

Alicia Markova: America’s First Nutcracker Suite-heart


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Markova was England and America's first Sugar Plum Fairy

Markova was England and America’s first Sugar Plum Fairy

Alicia Markova had a career filled with firsts: the first British-born – and first Jewish – prima ballerina assoluta, the first to appear on television (in 1932!), the first self-managed “freelance” prima ballerina, and the first to appear on stage in just a leotard without a tutu – quite a scandal in 1925!

But one of Markova’s most charming firsts was introducing England and America to a now-ubiquitous holiday role: The Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy. In fact, Markova starred in the first-ever full-length Nutcracker outside of Russia, which was presented in London in 1934. As British dance historian and critic P.W. Manchester wrote,

Markova partnered with Stanley Judson in the first full-length Nutcracker outside of Russia. London, 1934

Markova partnered with Stanley Judson in the first full-length Nutcracker outside of Russia. London, 1934

“To most of us, [Markova] was, is, and always will be the one and only Sugar Plum Fairy. She was brittle and sparkling, like the frosted icing on a Christmas cake. There was a crystalline purity in every movement, and she made the most beautiful adagio an unforgettable experience.”

In 1940, Markova would also become America’s first Sugar Plum Fairy, but more about that shortly. How Markova came to master the original 1892 choreography is quite a story in itself, and it begins with a man who would become infamous in Russian ballet circles: Nicholas Sergeyev (1876-1951).

Sergeyev joined the Imperial Ballet in 1894, two years after The Nutcracker (Casse Noisette) premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.



Marius Petipa

Marius Petipa

Set to an enchanting score by Piotr Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker was a shared choreographic effort by the company’s Premier Maître de Ballet Marius Petipa, and his talented assistant Ballet Master Lev Ivanov (who took over when Petipa became ill). The ballet was not initially popular, falling far short of the success of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky classics The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake  (the latter also with contributions by Ivanov), and Petipa’s magnificent reimagining of the French romantic ballet Giselle (Markova’s signature role).

Russian ballet master Nicholas Sergeyev

Russian Imperial Ballet Master Nicholas Sergeyev

To preserve the choreography of all those time-honored works (and countless others), the Imperial Ballet undertook a 20-year documentation project painstakingly executed by a variety of ballet masters. Their detailed notations contained analysis and deconstruction of every step and movement in relation to the musical accompaniment.  When finished, it was a virtual bible of Russian classical ballet. Sergeyev – first a dancer, then a soloist, and finally régisseur-général (chief stage manager) at the company – supervised the tail-end of the documentation. Due to his dictatorial manner, he was unpopular with the dancers, and later, the government. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Sergeyev would be forced to flee his homeland – but not before spiriting away the bulk of the invaluable choreographic material.

Needless to say this scandalous theft did not sit well with the Imperial Ballet (later the Maryinsky), causing as much outrage in Russian cultural circles as London’s plundering of the Elgin Marbles elicited in Greece. (FYI: Renamed “The Sergeyev Collection,” the historical ballet papers are now housed in the Harvard University Theatre Collection.)

Markova at the Sadler's Wells (today's Royal Ballet)

Markova, 1930s star of the Sadler’s Wells (today’s Royal Ballet)

While Sergeyev later found employment at Sergei Diaghilev’s grand Ballets Russes, by 1932 he was poor, unemployed, and living in exile in Paris. It was at this time that British balletomanes decided to form a homegrown company. Made aware of Sergeyev’s situation, they asked if he’d consider re-staging the famous Russian classics in London. Sergeyev happily complied and taught the original choreography of GiselleThe Nutcracker, and Swan Lake to the reigning star of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (today’s Royal Ballet), Alicia Markova.

Nikolai Legat starred in the original Nutcracker

Nikolai Legat starred in the original Nutcracker in Russia, 1892

Markova’s Sugar Plum Fairy benefited from another master teacher as well: Nicholai Legat. The prolific choreographer and former Imperial Ballet dancer had starred in the Russian premiere of the Nutcracker in 1892. As he was living in London, Legat agreed to give Markova private lessons in mastering the extremely difficult original classical variations in the last act. “Some of us would call it a ‘killer’ under our breath,” Markova explained. “There are certain steps in that, which today are never done in the last movement, such as a double gargouillade.”

By 1939, Markova was a star ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and performing throughout Europe and the United States. The following year, Alexandra Fedorova  (a former Maryinsky dancer and the sister-in-law of famed choreographer Michel Fokine) was asked to choreograph a shortened version of the Petipa/Ivanov Nutcracker for American audiences. The sets and costumes were designed by Alexandre Benois, a former Ballets Russes favorite living in France. As the 14-year-old Markova had been the youngest-ever soloist at the Ballets Russes, she greatly enjoyed the reunion.

Alexandre Benois set for Nutcracker opening scene

Benois set for Nutcracker opening scene

The Nutcracker premiered at the Boston Opera House in the fall of 1940, with Markova mesmerizing audiences as the country’s first Sugar Plum Fairy. As Jack Anderson explained in his entertaining book The One and Only: The Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo: “… the Ballet Russe Nutcracker was a truncated version capable of serving as one item on a mixed bill. A brief first scene showed the Christmas party, after which Clara fell asleep and . . . journeyed immediately to the snow country and the land of sweets. Yet this was the first Nutcracker most American balletgoers had ever seen and it was extremely popular on tour.”

Markova starring in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's Nutcracker Suite

Markova starring in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Nutcracker 

Markova, age 43,  dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy with the 25-gar-old Milorad Miskovitch

Markova, age 43, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy with the 25-year-old Milorad Miskovitch

While Markova’s Giselle was always a must-see night at the ballet, her Sugar Plum Fairy enchanted audiences throughout her entire lengthy career. In 1952, she performed the role for an audience of 30 million when she danced the snowflake scene on the hugely popular TV program Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. And the Sugar Plum Fairy was part of her repertoire the following year, when the 43-year-old bewitched audiences throughout Great Britain and Ireland partnered with the sensational Milorad Miskovitch (18 years her junior!).

Ben Steveson's Nutcracker for the Houston Ballet, photo by Amitava-Sarkar

Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker for the Houston Ballet (photo by Amitava-Sarkar)

In 1955, 18-year-old Ben Stevenson got the thrill of his young life performing scenes from The Nutcracker with Markova in London’s West End. After an illustrious dancing career in England (including stints at The English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet), Stevenson became a very successful choreographer and artistic director – a position he held at the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2003. The talented Brit is credited with developing the small regional Texas troupe into an internationally acclaimed company. I had the pleasure of speaking at the wonderful Houston Ballet last week (thanks to the delightful Maxine Silberstein, Hilda Frank, and Chase Cobb) and meeting many of the marvelous dancers and students. This being November, the company is about to celebrate its 26th season performing Stevenson’s Nutcracker choreography, described in the press as “impeccably beautiful, alluring, and altogether magical from the opening to the close.”

Baryshnikov's 1977 Nutcracker remains an annual viewing favorite

Baryshnikov’s 1977 Nutcracker remains an annual viewing favorite

Growing up in New York, my introduction to The Nutcracker was George Balanchine’s sumptuous production for the New York City Ballet. First performed on February 2, 1954, this resplendent annual treat made me a ballet fan for life. (And Tina the Ballerina sounded so lovely when I was 5 years old.) As an adult, I felt the same magic while watching Mikhail Baryshnikov fly through the air in his own lauded Nutcracker for the American Ballet Theatre. Filmed in 1977, it is one of the mostly widely viewed Nutcrackers in the world.

Even today, The Nutcracker never ceases to enchant me. Living in Boston, I have the pleasure of attending the internationally acclaimed Boston Ballet. Last year, the company’s longtime Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen spearheaded an entirely re-designed, re-choreographed Nutcracker that simply dazzled with breathtaking new sets and glorious costumes by the award-winning designer Robert Perdziola. And like Markova’s very first Nutcracker in the United States, the company performs at the Boston Opera House. (O.K. – it’s a replacement for the original theatre, but why quibble?)

Alicia Markova - America's Nutcracker Suite-Heart © Maurice Seymour

Alicia Markova – America’s Nutcracker Suite-heart © Maurice Seymour