Think ballet is the most genteel of arts? Think again.
Throwing acid in the face of Bolshoi Ballet artistic director Sergei Filin may have been one of the most horrific examples of professional sabotage, but hot-blooded Russian dancers have a history of taking matters into their own hands when they don’t get their way. Broken glass hidden in toe shoes, needles stuck into tutus, dressing room costumes ripped to shreds between acts – ballet legend Alicia Markova experienced it all.
As I wrote in my biography The Making of Markova, “Intrigues, jealousies, death threats – even a proposed duel! This wasn’t ballet, it was a Wagnerian opera, and Markova was cast as the doomed heroine.”
That tale begins in 1938 when England’s most celebrated classical dancer – Alicia Markova – joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The resident Russian contingent – beautiful young ballerina Tamara Toumanova, egotistical male lead dancer Serge Lifar, and their loyal company seamstresses – was incensed at the British interloper being given star status. Never mind that Markova had begun her career at Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes in 1924.
Though the sabotage began on a small scale – the top of Markova’s tutu went missing just before curtain, her costume was “mistakenly” tailored to Toumanova’s measurements so she had nothing to wear on stage, etc. – it escalated when Serge Lifar “accidentally” dropped Markova during a performance and turned her ankle. Given that it happened after she had received 24 curtain calls and he was booed for not allowing her to take the spotlight alone was likely not a coincidence. Lifar was known for overacting on stage as well as off (see photo below).
Things really got ugly when the company left Europe for New York where the theatre run was sold out in anticipation of the great Markova dancing Giselle in America for the first time.
Toumanova thought she should star on opening night. Lifar agreed. And so did Mama and Papa Toumanova – a stage mother for the ages married to an ex-military man – who accompanied their daughter on the trip.
Though impresario Sol Hurok liked a pretty face as much as the next person – and Toumanova was truly lovely (see photo) – she couldn’t hold a candle to Markova when it came to the emotionally complex role of Giselle. Hurok only saw dollar signs, and Markova was the big box office draw.
It was obvious things weren’t going well when Markova witnessed Papa Toumanova – incensed that Tamara wasn’t the company’s star – sucker-punching art director Léonide Massine and knocking him to the ground at rehearsal. Though the ex-military man was promptly banned from the theatre, things only got worse.
A few days later Markova was leaving the theatre when someone pressed a note into her hand and dashed off into the crowd. The note read: “DON’T DANCE TOMORROW NIGHT, OR . . . “
Everyone was in a tizzy; Markova was assigned a bodyguard; Markova wanted to back out; Sol Hurok begged her not to. Opening night finally arrived.
From The Making of Markova:
Taking no chances, Hurok set about securing the theatre, beginning with special identification badges issued to every Metropolitan Opera House employee – the first time that had ever been done. ‘A threat of possible violence caused me to take the precaution to have detectives, disguised as stage-hands standing by,’ Hurok added. ‘I eliminated the trap-door and understage elevator used in this production as Giselle’s grave, and gave instructions to have everything loose on the stage fastened down.’ It was like the first half of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Bu what would be the denouement?
Hurok’s final order caused its own set of problems. Already shaken by the sight of security guards in the wings watching her every move – not to mention making her American premiere! – Markova found herself equally agitated while on stage. As she tells the story:
In Act II, Giselle has to pick two flowers from the ground row at the back of the stage during the pas de deux and toss them to Albrecht. It is beautifully timed musically: Giselle has to do a glissade, a temps levé and a run, plucking one lily and then the next.
As I performed the step, I found the lilies had been nailed to the ground: battened down like everything else for security. They seemed immovable. The company later told me they had never seen anything like the way the ethereal spirit of Giselle gave one wrench and then another wrench, and tore the lilies from the ground with superhuman – perhaps supernatural – strength – and got back to centre stage in time to carry on.
I sometimes wonder why I never developed an ulcer!
The above photo of Markova gracefully holding the lilies as Giselle will give you an idea of the ridiculousness of the above scene. Despite all the melodrama before and after her first American opening night, Markova brought the house down, with critics describing her in the press as “breathtaking,” “phenomenal” and “incomparable.”
Toumanova and Lifar were incensed.
At the next night’s performance of Giselle, Lifar seemed to lose his balance when lifting Markova, dropping her down so hard she fractured her foot. It was another “accident” of course. Next came the challenge to a duel in Central Park – but that’s a story for another day.