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Alicia Markova, age 14, at Diaghilev's Ballets Russes

Alicia Markova, age 14, at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes

“Who would pay to see Marks dance?” Sergei Diaghilev asked the youngest-ever soloist at his famed Ballets Russes. She was Lilian Alicia Marks, a tiny and timid British girl, just turned 14. She knew what was coming next. Ballet was a world of classically-trained Russians: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, Danilova. So Diaghilev rechristened his little dance prodigy Alicia Markova. Lily Alicia was actually disappointed. It was only a few letters tacked onto her last name. Why not the more dramatic Olga Markova, in honor of her hero, ballet legend Olga Spessitseva? But uh-LEE-see-ah MAR-kova it would be.

“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other would smell as sweet.” But does a delivery of rosa berberifolias fill you with joy? The flower’s latin name sounds more like a skin rash than a romantic bloom. So with all due deference to the Bard, there’s a lot in a name, especially for performers.

Eugene Curran and Tula Ellice

Eugene Curran and Tula Ellice: not ideal marquis names

One of the most popular dance couples of all times might have had trouble enticing American movie audiences as “McMath & Austerlitz,” a name more befitting an accounting firm. Much catchier is Rogers & Astaire. And Eugene Curran Kelly smartly went with the jauntier Gene. (Fun fact: Markova and Gene Kelly liked to play charades together.) Then there’s Kelly’s impossibly long-limbed partner Cyd Charisse. Would she have ever seen her name up in lights if she stuck with Tula Ellice Finklea?

In a recent New York Times article, the paper’s dance critic Alastair Macaulay wondered if today’s talented American ballerinas would be given more roles if they too considered changing their names:

Gillian Murphy at ABT

Gillian Murphy dancing with American Ballet Theatre

“For many people, a ballerina must also be an embodiment of the Old World,” writes Macaulay. “Today that opinion seems shared by American Ballet Theater, whose idea of ballet theater often seems none too American. In its eight-week season, which just concluded at the Metropolitan Opera House, only 2 of its 11 principal women were from this country. The younger of them, Gillian Murphy, is reaching the zenith of her powers; but would she be more revered if — following the practice of Hilda Munnings (Lydia Sokolova), Lilian Alicia Marks (Alicia Markova) and Peggy Hookham (Margot Fonteyn) — she changed her name to Ghislaine Muravieva and claimed to come from Omsk?”

Markova starred with the American Ballet Theatre (then called just Ballet Theatre) in its start-up years in the early 1940s. Previously, she had made her stellar reputation by pioneering British ballet at a time only Russian companies were considered true ballet artists. When interviewed by a London newspaper in 1933, Markova posed the question, “Are we becoming ballet-minded?” As excerpted in The Making of Markova: 

Lily Marks and Patte Kay

Lily Marks and Patte Kay: better names for vaudeville than ballet

“British Ballet has had to work hard, but I think we have come through,” Miss Markova told the Daily Sketch. “It is becoming so popular in theatres and cinema houses that thousands of British girls are going into training. Soon we shall be able to leave off our ‘Russian’ names – and be just plain Jones and Smith,” laughed Miss Markova. “I got my early training with Diaghileff, and, of course, he wouldn’t let us have any but Russian names.” . . . It made all the difference, though, no doubt, the dancing was the same.

Lest anyone think this was entirely a female prejudice, male dancers also changed their names. Markova’s most frequent partner, Anton Dolin, was christened Francis Patrick Chippendall Healey-Kay. When starting to dance professionally, he took the first name Anton, after Chekhov, with Diaghilev suggesting Patrikayev for his last. But after a few years, Patte, as everyone called him, changed it once again, this time to Dolin, which stuck. Even celebrated dancer/choreographer Léonide Massine, who was Russian by birth, got a name change courtesy of Diaghilev. The impresario thought Leonid Fyodorovich Myasin too difficult to pronounce.

Jewish Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst painted by fellow Jewish artist Modigliani

Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst changed his name to sound less Jewish. Here painted by fellow Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani.

The illustrious Ballets Russes artist Léon Bakst changed his Russian name for a very different reason. Born Lev Samoilovich Rosenberg, he “renamed himself Léon Bakst after moving to St. Petersburg, where he quickly established a reputation both as a painter and as a sophisticated and much revered set and costume designer,” explains author Jonathan Wilson in his 2007 biography of Marc Chagall, one of Bakst’s pupils. “Bakst, who had worked hard to erase at least some elements of his Jewishness – had converted to Lutheranism in 1903 so he could marry a wealthy Christian – but converted back seven years later after the marriage fell apart.” (The Jewish Chagall would also change his name to better fit in with his new artistic home in Paris. Thus Moishe Shagal became Marc Chagall.)

Many Jewish artists and performers experienced virulent anti-Semitism in Russia and Europe throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, including Alicia Markova, who always remained fiercely open and proud of her religion.

Ballet Theatre's unpopular business manager, German Sevastianov

Ballet Theatre’s ruthless business manager, German Sevastianov

When Markova signed with New York’s Ballet Theatre in 1941, German Sevastianov was the newly named business manager brought on by booking impresario Sol Hurok to “Russify” the company. As Ballet Theatre’s then managing director Charles Payne recalled in his fascinating book American Ballet Theatre, it was like the “Russian Occupation,” all part of Hurok’s master plan for billing the American company as “The Greatest in Russian Ballet.”

From The Making of Markova: “Sevastianov saw to it that dancers who were formerly principals would now be demoted to soloists,” writes Antony Tudor biographer Donna Perlmutter. “He cast a jaundiced eye on the likes of Miriam Golden, Nora Kaye, Muriel Bentley, David Nillo and more – most of them Jews – and brought in dancers, along with Baronova (Sevastianov’s wife, prima ballerina Irina Baronova) from the Ballet Russe [de Monte Carlo]. It was said that he was anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-Tudor.”

Markova as Giselle at Ballet Theatre, 1941

Markova as Giselle at Ballet Theatre, 1941

But when it came to Markova, Sevastianov had no choice. The “Jewess” was to share the limelight as principal ballerina with his wife Irina.

She was just too big a box-office draw to ignore.

Ironically, despite being anti-Semitic, Sevastianov would change his own name due to American prejudices against Germans at the outbreak of World War II. So “German” Sevastianov became the friendlier “Gerry.” But another white lie would force him to actually defend the Jewish cause on the front lines, according to Ballet Theatre’s Charles Payne. In order to obtain Baronova’s parents’ permission for the couple to marry – Irina was only 17, and Sevastianov nearly twice her age –  he had claimed to be born in 1906, rather than 1904, as 29 sounded much younger than 31. Sevastianov even maintained the falsehood on his American passport. Those few years unfortunately made him eligible for the draft in 1944, though he was actually past the age 35 cut-off. But when “Gerry” informed the draft board of his real birth year, he was offered two options: spend the war years in jail for perjury, or serve the country. Suddenly the armed forces didn’t seem so bad.

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