What’s in a Name? Fame!


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Mastering Stravinsky: Markova’s Rite of Passage


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stravinsky & Nijinsky shocked the world with The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky & Nijinsky shocked the world with The Rite of Spring

No one said breakthrough art is easy, either for the creator or the initial audience. When Igor Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring (Le Sacré de Printemps) for the Ballets Russes 100 years ago, it spearheaded a revolution in contemporary music – and a revolt in the theatre. Ballet patrons physically rioted when faced with the cacophonous score accompanying Vaslav Nijinsky’s equally provocative choreography. Though police were called in, impresario Sergei Diaghilev couldn’t have been happier. The more his ballet company shocked, the more press he got, and the more tickets he sold.

“No composer since can avoid the shadow of this great icon of the 20th century, and score after score by modern masters would be unthinkable without its model,” British composer George Benjamin wrote of Stravinsky in The Guardian this past May. “This, in a way, is cubist music – where musical materials slice into one another, interact and superimpose with the most brutal edges, thus challenging the musical perspective and logic that had dominated European ears for centuries.”

Picasso's cubist cardboard costume for Parade (1917)

Picasso’s cubist cardboard costume for Parade (1917)

Diaghilev was a genius at choosing artists who challenged the status quo. Who but the avant-garde Russian would have asked Picasso to create cubist ballet costumes – out of stiff cardboard no less!

A surreal Bronislava Nijinska at the Ballets Russes

A surreal Bronislava Nijinska at the Ballets Russes

– or applaud Bronislava Nijinska’s startling surrealist make-up for Léonide Massine’s Kikimora in 1917?

When Diaghilev invited Alicia Markova to join the Ballets Russes as its youngest-ever soloist in 1923, she was a shy, unsophisticated 14-year-old. (See photo below.)

Alicia Markova at age 14, the newest member of the Ballets Russes (1923)

Alicia Markova at age 14, the newest member of the Ballets Russes (1924)

Her first starring role was in Le Chant de Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), with choreography by George Balanchine – his first major commission for Diaghilev – and music by Igor Stravinsky. While the tiny dance prodigy had no problems mastering Balanchine’s complicated and supremely athletic dance sequences, Stravinsky’s music was another matter. As Markova reminisced in The Making of Markova: I remember the very first rehearsal with Balanchine. I started to cry and they said what’s the matter? I said I’m never going to be able to learn this. You know, this isn’t music to me. What am I to do? And Stravinsky was so wonderful. . . . He said, “There’s no worry. I’ll be there for all the rehearsals, and I will conduct, [unheard of for the celebrated composer!] and as long as I’m here, you mustn’t worry, but there’s one thing you have to promise me . . . You’ve got to learn the scores by ear. You must learn the instrumentation, orchestration and everything by ear,” he said, “and then you’ll never have any worry for the rest of your life.” And he was so right.

Markova's star-maker Sergei Diaghilev, with her music teacher Igor Stravinsky

Markova’s star-maker Sergei Diaghilev, with her music teacher Igor Stravinsky

Not only did Stravinsky become Markova’s music instructor, but he accompanied her, Diaghilev, and Henri Matisse (the lucky Alicia’s art teacher!) to the studio of Nightingale costumier (and former ballet dancer) Vera de Bosset Soudeikine, who incidentally, would become Stravinsky’s second wife. Matisse was responsible for Markova’s costume design, with Mme. Soudeikine charged with bringing his creation to life.

Stravinsky happily married to  second wife Vera Soudekina, both subjects of a fascinating new play Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center last spring

Stravinsky happily married to second wife Vera de Bosset Soudeikine, both subjects (along with Balanchine), of Richard Nelson’s fascinating play Nikolai and the Others, performed at Lincoln Center last spring.

When Matisse announced his plan to cover Markova’s little girl hair bob with a white bonnet trimmed in osprey feathers – an extravagantly expensive trim – the budget-minded Diaghilev emphatically cried ‘No!” As Markova finishes the story in The Making of MarkovaBut please Sergevitch,” pleaded Matisse, “the little one needs them round her face to soften the hard line of the bonnet and make her a little bird,” protested Matisse. “No ospreys,” repeated Diaghilev. Then Stravinsky entered the argument. He too thought they were necessary, but Diaghilev was adamant and refused, and unexpectedly Stravinsky turned to Matisse and said, “Henri, we buy the ospreys between us, 50-50, yes?” “Yes!” echoed Matisse, and so I had my ospreys, and how I guarded them, as if they were gold.

Balanchine and Stravinsky collaborated on a gargantuan task 1942 . . .

Balanchine and Stravinsky collaborated on a gargantuan task 1942 . . .

While Markova never again had trouble with Stravinsky’s unique musical phrasing, others were not so lucky, as when the composer collaborated again with Balanchine in New York in 1942. The mystified dancers? Pachyderms at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus! As Matthew Wittman explained in Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010: “‘The Ballet of the Elephants’ production was an attempt by John Ringling North to bring high culture into the circus and featured fifty elephants in pink tutus accompanied by female dancers. The rhythm changes in Stravinsky’s Circus Polka proved difficult for the elephants to grasp, and it was only performed intermittently.”

Apparently circus elephants do forget when it comes to dancing to Stravinsky

Apparently circus elephants do forget when it comes to dancing to Stravinsky

Evidently pigeons and songbirds don’t care much for Stravinsky’s dissonant compositions either, according to a research study posted on Discovery.com. The classical cadences of Bach are more to their liking. Fish, it appears, are musically non-judgmental – if listening to either composer’s music results in more food.

The very human Markova, however, was an ardent and vocal Stravinsky fan – of both the man and his exhilarating music. The two remained lifelong friends and visited each other often in the United States where Stravinsky moved with Vera during World War II.

In 1945, Markova starred in The Firebird at Ballet Theatre, with music by Stravinsky,

Markova starred in The Firebird at Ballet Theatre (1945), with music by Stravinsky

Markova asked Stravinsky to compose music for her Broadway debut – to which he happily consented – and she delighted starring at the Ballet Theatre (today’s American Ballet Theatre) in the 1945 revival of The Firebird, the composer’s first commission for the Ballets Russes back in 1910. (Though Michel Fokine choreographed the ballet for Anna Pavlova, she refused the role proclaiming Stravinsky’s music “noise!”) Marc Chagall (currently the subject of a illuminating new exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York) designed Markova’s breathtaking Firebird costume, which was covered in shimmering gold dust and topped with a dramatic headdress of bird of paradise feathers. One wonders if osprey plumes were still just too expensive!

Ballet in a Boxing Ring? It was a knockout!


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Markova dancing outdoors at Jacob's Pillow, 1941

Markova dancing outdoors at Jacob’s Pillow, 1941

She may have been honored as only the third prima ballerina assoluta in history, but Alicia Markova was no elitist. While she often graced the stages of the grandest theaters and opera houses in the world, the down-to-earth dancer was just as happy pirouetting in an open field or baseball stadium (yes, baseball stadium!) if it meant bringing ballet to a new audience.

At Jacob’s Pillow, Markova mesmerized audiences in a rustic outdoor amphitheater with the top ticket price a very affordable $1.50. In the Philippines, she performed in a barren outdoor cinema on a stage made of canvas-covered lemonade cases. (The scenic backdrop was a crazy quilt of old grain sacks, beautifully embellished with fragrant tuberose flowers.) And during World War II, she danced in a cavernous airport hangar near a San Diego military hospital. Her enthralled audience was composed entirely of injured soldiers laid out on white stretchers as far as the eye could see.

Markova and partner Anton Dolin pose in war-torn Manila, 1948

Markova and partner Anton Dolin pose in war-torn Manila, 1948

But perhaps the strangest outdoor “stage” was during Markova’s visit to war-torn Manila, a city in ruins after the Japanese bombing and shelling raids during the Battle of Manila in 1945. Evidence of that destruction can be seen in this photo of a decimated historic building where Markova and Anton Dolin posed in ceremonial dress presented to the pair by the grateful Filipinos.

After dancing to rapturous audiences at the Manila Opera House (amazingly still standing), Markova wanted to add one additional performance for the stationed army soldiers and local residents who couldn’t afford tickets. As I wrote in The Making of Markova:

Markova could mesmerize audiences anywhere.  © Baron

Markova could mesmerize audiences anywhere. © Baron

“The fee would be just one dollar. Markova and Dolin would dance for free and donate all proceeds to the local symphony orchestra, which was desperately in need of new instruments. So many tickets were sold that the only venue big enough to hold them all was the local baseball stadium. Someone had the bright idea of bringing a boxing ring to the arena for a stage, and Doris [Markova’s sister and manager] went to work on the lighting. With a large contingent of U.S. Army soldiers in attendance, several officers volunteered their searchlights as follow spots. The evening was completely magical.”

Markova jokingly referred to herself and Dolin as "pioneers of arena ballet." Here shown rehearsing in 1945.

Markova jokingly referred to herself and Dolin as “pioneers of arena ballet.” Here shown rehearsing in 1945.

Even indoors, Markova often danced in some rather unorthodox venues. She dazzled a sold-out stadium of 6000 at London’s Empress Hall at Earl’s Court, home to ice-dancing extravaganzas and ice-hockey matches. (She had to contend with a bitterly cold stage covering the ice!) She filled all 9000 seats nightly at North London’s Harringay Stadium, which more often played host to greyhound races and the circus. Markova laughingly recalled the smell of horses and elephants around every corner!

© Hirschfeld

© Hirschfeld

And she agreed to co-star in a Billy Rose Broadway spectacular called The Seven Lively Arts (caricatured at left by Al Hirschfeld), which also featured Benny Goodman, Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr (known best as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz). Partnered with Dolin, Markova thought performing in a Variety Show on Broadway (1944-45) would bring in a whole new audience for ballet. As always, she was right.

Dancer Leah Gerstenlauer as "Absinthe" (photo by Nico Malvaldi)

New York dancer Leah Gerstenlauer as “Absinthe” (photo by Nico Malvaldi)

Recently, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by New York dancer Leah Gerstenlauer for Dance Informa magazine. When I asked Leah about her own career, I was fascinated by her association with Marilyn Klaus’s imaginative Ballets With a Twist. Last year the company got rave reviews for its enterprising marriage of unorthodox ballet venue – the buzzy Manhattan XL Nightclub/Cabaret/Lounge – with like-themed “intoxicating” choreography – Klaus’s Cocktail Hour. “Conceived and choreographed by critically acclaimed dance-maker Marilyn Klaus, each piece is inspired by a well known cocktail and brings one of the highest art forms to the masses in a fresh playful way,” commented Shelly Ng, for WPIX 11 TV.

“Leah Gerstenlauer, [above right], was the latest specter flitting through the shadows of ‘Absinthe,’ a tribute to the green wormwood-flavored liquer associated with hallucination, addiction, and 19th century Paris,” wrote Stephanie Woodard for The Huffington Post.

Cyndi Lauper performed with Ballets With a Twist

Cyndi Lauper

“Klaus blasts the boundaries between high art and entertainment. . . . We have seen the future of dance, and it is fun!” Cyndi Lauper, the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” gal herself, joined Ballets With a Twist for a charity event at XL to benefit her True Colors Fund.

The award-winning Ballets With a Twist

The award-winning Ballets With a Twist

And a recent Ballets With a Twist performance at the Queens Public Library in Flushing was an equally engaging venue – one Markova would have undoubtedly delighted in. She would also have been wowed by the wonderfully creative production, melding ballet with mainstream wit and avant-garde Surrealism.

And speaking of Surrealism, the ingenious cocktail dance costumes by talented designer Catherine Zehr reminded me of another fanciful drink-themed outfit created by legnendary artist Salvador Dali, the subject of my last blogpost.

Salvador Dali's creme de menthe "aphrodisiac jacket"

Salvador Dali’s creme de menthe “aphrodisiac jacket”

It was 1936 when Dali decided to embellish his formal dinner jacket with eighty-one glasses of creme de menthe, each containing a straw and dead fly. He dubbed it his “aphrodisiac jacket,” though the flies kind of kill the mood for me.

Markova had her own ballet cocktail experience when dancing in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1949. With ballet fever in full force, the local bar named a drink after her. A teetotaler, Markova never learned the chosen liqueur, but “crème de la crème” sounds about right.

Dali himself in a later version of the aphrodisiac jacket

Dali himself in a later version of the aphrodisiac jacket

Goodbye Dali: A Surreal Experience at the Ballet


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Though Markova was dressed by many modern artists, here by Matisse, Dali was the one that got away. © Maurice Seymour

Though Markova was dressed by many modern artists, here by Matisse, Dali was the one that got away. © Maurice Seymour

As a longtime art lover, I was continually fascinated by Markova’s friendships and working relationships with many of the most famous modern artists of her day. While my last post dealt with the enormously complicated construction of classical ballet costumes, Markova was also a star of avant-garde contemporary works, with costumes and sets as cutting-edge as the startling dance sequences. In addition to wearing costumes by Matisse and Chagall (as discussed in earlier posts), Markova was dressed by Giorgio de Chirico, Marie Laurencin, and Andre Derain, among other modernists.

Salvador Dali - the very definition of surreal

Salvador Dali – the very definition of surreal

Salvador Dali was almost one of them, and here’s the amusing behind-the-scenes story.

Dali's theatrical "Mae West" room, recently exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

Dali’s theatrical “Mae West” room, recently exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

The Spanish-born Dali (1904-1989) is so famous for his surrealist works that his name has become short-hand for the term. (Check out the fantastical food imaginings of Catalan chef Ferran Adria, which led to his nickname “Salvador Dali of the kitchen.” An exhibit of his edible art renderings is currently on view at Somerset House, London, coming next to the Boston Science Museum.)

Dali's disconcerting painted backdrop for Massine's ballet Labyrinthe (1941)

Dali’s disconcerting painted backdrop for Massine’s ballet Labyrinth (1941)

Even 24 years after Dali’s death, a blockbuster retrospective of his work, first at the Pompidou Center in Paris and currently at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, has broken all previous attendance records. The artist who once famously said, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs,” never lacked for attention alive or dead. So it’s only natural that Dali’s theatrical public persona would have given rise to commissions for theatrical set design.

Dali's set for Massine's Bacchanale (1939). The dancers emerged from the swan's breast.

Dali’s set for Massine’s Bacchanale (1939). The dancers emerged from the hole in the swan’s breast.

In 1939, the ever-inventive choreographer Léonide Massine hired Dali to design the set and costumes for his one act ballet Bacchanale, set to music by Richard Wagner. As Jack Anderson writes in The One and Only: The Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo“The season’s scandal was Bacchanale . . . Dali’s decor was dominated by a huge swan with a hole in its breast through which dancers emerge, some in remarkable costumes.

As Dali's Venus in Bacchanale, ballerina Nini Theilade appeared to be nude

As Dali’s Venus in Bacchanale, ballerina Nini Theilade appeared to be nude

 “There was a woman with a rose-colored fish-head. Lola Montez wore harem trousers and a hoop skirt covered in teeth. The Knight of Death turned out to be an immense perambulating umbrella.. . . Prudish audiences blushed to behold the male ensemble with large red lobsters (as sex symbols) on their thighs, and Nini Theilade, portraying Venus, created a sensation because she seemed totally nude. In actuality, she wore flesh-colored tights from her neck to her toes.”

As Dali’s contribution to Bacchanale made the only lasting impression in Massine’s less-than-stellar work, it only added to the artist’s legend. As the egotistical Dali once said of himself, “There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”

The always amusing Salvador Dali

The always amusing Salvador Dali

But the great surprise in this tale is not that Massine continued to work with Dali, next on Labyrinth in 1941, but rather that the crazy Catalonian was hired by British choreographer Antony Tudor for his planned “intimate” new staging of Romeo & Juliet at Ballet Theatre (today’s American Ballet Theatre). Perhaps Tudor never heard Dali’s comment: “It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilize and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.”

One of Dali's proposed "crutch-themed" set designs for Tudor's Romeo & Juliet.

One of Dali’s proposed “crutch-themed” set designs for Tudor’s Romeo & Juliet.

Alicia Markova was Tudor’s choice for Juliet and his choreographic muse. She laughingly remembered their meeting with Dali to view his proposed set designs. Crutches were everywhere to symbolize doomed love, but perhaps the most memorable suggestion was that the famous balcony be constructed as a giant set of false teeth (your sexual innuendo goes here) supported by gigantic sky-high crutches.

At Markova's suggestion, Botticelli's Primavera inspired the set/costume designs for Tudro's Romeo & Juliet (1943)

At Markova’s suggestion, Botticelli’s Primavera inspired the set/costume designs for Tudor’s Romeo & Juliet (1943)

Though Markova always wondered what Dali had in mind for her Juliet (perhaps a leg cast?) it was the ballerina herself who inspired the eventual design theme executed by the Russian Surrealist (and Neo-Romantic) Eugene Berman. At Sergei Diaghilev’s urging, the teenaged Markova had spent hour upon hour at the Uffizi Museum in Florence studying Renaissance art. As I wrote in The Making of Markova: “The way the female figures in the paintings held their hands in repose, and the subtle tilt of their heads were poses Markova later incorporated into her own delicate dance movements. 

Botticelli's central figure inspired Markova's Juliet costume

Botticelli’s central figure in Primavera inspired Markova’s Juliet costume

Markova and Hugh Laing in Romeo & Juliet, 1943

Markova and Hugh Laing in Romeo & Juliet, 1943

“Her favorite Renaissance artist was Sandro Botticelli, especially his euphoric Primavera. A rapturous work of tremendous scale, the well-known painting provided endless inspiration for the ballet’s saturated palette, costume detailing, and floral motifs.”

To capture the innocence of youth, Markova, aged 32 when she played the teenaged Juliet, had a red wig made to resemble the Botticelli beauty above. The ballerina won rave reviews for her portrayal. But the attention didn’t stop there. The attendant publicity for the much praised ballet caught the eye of several couturiers who immediately turned Markova’s diaphanous, empire-waist gowns into the next season’s big fashion trend.

Dali-inspired shoe hat by Elsa Schiaparelli

Dali-inspired shoe hat by Elsa Schiaparelli

Dali's surrealist jewlery

Dali’s surrealist jewlery

Who knows what trends Dali’s Romeo & Juliet might have inspired? He collaborated with great friend and couturier Elsa Schiaparelli on her infamous shoe hat and lips-pocket suit seen here. And Dali’s own Surrealist jewelry designs – weeping eyes with clock-dial pupils and Mae West’s sexy smile in rubies and pearls – still fetch great sums at auction.IMG_2173

More recently, Women’s Wear Dali (I mean Daily) noted the artist’s continued influence on fashion accessories. Perhaps if Dali’s Romeo & Juliet designs had been used, stylish crutches would have hobbled down runways – something quite useful when wearing today’s sky-high stilettos, don’t you think?

Tulles of the Trade: lifting the veil on ballet costume design


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Markova considered the right tulle as important as toe shoes

Markova considered the right tulle as important as toe shoes

In the close to 10 years I’ve been writing about fashion trends for The Boston Globe, I don’t think a year has gone by without a runway show influenced by the ballet. Those dreamy gossamer fabrics and figure-enhancing silhouettes are catnip to both designers and the their amply-funded clientele.

While researching The Making of Markova, I learned a great deal about the fascinating intricacies of ballet costumes. To enraptured audiences, the legendary ballerina seemed to float effortlessly in the air – her tutu as featherweight as the dancer herself. That combination of otherworldliness, fragility, and seductive transparency – now you see flesh, now you don’t! – has inspired countless fashion interpretations over the years, from breathlessly romantic to rather scandalously modern.

Fall 2013 is no exception. Numerous collections incorporate ballet design elements in show-stopping evening wear, with corset tops, short flounces, veiled headpieces, transparent armlets, and multi-tiered pouf skirts plentiful.

Markova as the Sugar Plum Fairy

Markova as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker Suite, 1950

Tutu-like couture. Giambattista Valli, Fall 2013

Tutu-like couture. Giambattista Valli, Fall 2013

Ballet-inspired fashion Alexander McQueen Fall 2013

Ballet-inspired fashion. Alexander McQueen, Fall 2013

Markova as the otherworldly spirit of Giselle (1939)

Markova as the otherworldly spirit of Giselle (1939)

But as costly and elaborate as those designer gowns may be, they pale in comparison to the complexity of classical ballet costumes. First is the issue of fabric choice. A form-fitting corset of lustrous satin might look magnificent but can also cause a ballerina to slip from her partners hands during a lift. Markova sometimes had two different tops made for the same skirt (at her own expense, I might add): shiny satin for important press photos, and a matte version to perform in. Textured silk taffeta can present a different problem, especially in a layered full skirt. Markova laughingly remembered a corps of taffeta-clad ballerinas rustling so loudly that they could no longer hear their music cues! And then there’s ornamentation. Every sequin, silk flower, and bead needs to be hand-sewn and carefully fastened tight. If one were to fall on the stage during a performance, a dancer could easily slip and injure her foot.

There are 34 yards of fabric in this ethereal ballet skirt.  Markova and Anton Dolin in Gislle.

This ballet skirt required 34 yards of fabric! Markova with Anton Dolin in Giselle.

But most complicated of all is proper tutu construction, truly an architectural marvel. There are 34 yards of net in each traditional ballet skirt like the one at left, and 18 yards in a short tutu. For each skirt, Madame Manya, Markova’s longtime costume designer (and Anna Pavlova’s before her), created nine different layers of tarlatan (a kind of muslin) topped with several more of diaphanous tulle. In between, a crinoline hoop was carefully hidden between the folds to give the skirt body without stiffness. Before the days of beautiful man-made materials, the fabric costs for ballet costumes could be exorbitant and beyond the budget of fledgling companies. That was the case when Markova pioneered British ballet in the early 1930s, dancing at one of the first London-based companies, the Ballet Club.

Budget fabrics lack ethereality. Markova, left In Foyer de Danse, )Ballet Club (1932

Budget fabrics lacked an ethereality on stage, said Markova, seen here at left in Frederick Ashton’s Foyer de Danse at the fledgling British company Ballet Club (1932)

Its founder was ex-Ballets Russes dancer/teacher Marie Rambert, who formed a combined school and performing troupe. One of Rambert’s money-saving tricks was to buy the cheapest tarlatan material she could find for the tutu underskirts, and then add just a single top layer of fine tulle. That might have fooled the audience, but the under layers itched the dancers like crazy!

Markova lamented that cheap fabrics cheated the audience, as they took away from the magical, dreamlike quality of ballet. Whenever she could afford it, she used her own money to buy quality fabrics so her costumes would look more luxurious and ethereal. In the early days, she hand-sewed the elaborate skirts herself (a talent she quickly mastered), later turning to experts like Manya when her salary improved. After Markova became famous – and well-paid – she insisted upon buying beautifully-made costumes for other dancers as well, as she once did for an entire ballet company in financial trouble.

Léonide Massine masked his problematic bowed legs with pants or knickers

Léonide Massine masked his problematic bowed legs with pants or knickers

While Markova’s main concern with costuming was to create a transportive illusion for the audience, many male soloists were driven more by personal vanity. The inventive dancer/choreographer Léonide Massine was bowlegged, not ideal for a male ballet star. Given that Massine’s strength was not in classical roles, but rather in showy character-driven parts (which he often created for himself), he was able to avoid second-skin tights, opting instead for camouflaging knickers and pants.

Rudolf Nureyev had his costume jackets cut short to make his muscular legs look longer

Rudolf Nureyev had his costume jackets cut short to make his muscular legs look longer

On the other hand (or foot), there was absolutely nothing wrong with the legs of Rudolf Nureyev, considered one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century. Many of the celebrated star’s costumes were recently on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Rudolf Nureyev's costumes  (de Young Museum in San Francisco)

Nureyev’s regal costume bodices (de Young Museum in San Francisco)

“He made it [ballet] sexier and more electrifying,” wrote Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post in her review of the de Young Museum exhibit Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance. “Nureyev’s costumes could have been a fantasy king’s couture, made to measure for an extraordinary slim waist and broad shoulders in silk, velvet and lace. As Cary Grant was with his suits and shirts – sending them back for fractional faults – so was the sharp-eyed ballet star with his stage attire.”

Markova and partner Stanley Judson in The Nutcracker, 1934

Markova and partner Stanley Judson in The Nutcracker, 1934

Russian-dance inspired Paris couture Alexis Mabille, Fall 2013

Russian-dance inspired Paris couture Alexis Mabille, Fall 2013

Interestingly, the elaborate ballet costumes of male soloists (see Markova’s partner Stanley Judson above left) also inspired Paris couture fashions this fall. The outfit, however, was for a woman.

Unmasking Markova: The first peek into her personal archives


, , , , , , , ,

Markova in Les Masques (1933)

Markova in Les Masques (1933)

Alicia Markova was a pack rat. The woman saved everything, from costume invoices and injury X-rays to rare music scores and her first evening gown. (It was Lanvin – a gift.) And then there were the letters: file upon file overflowing with a lifetime of correspondence from famous (and infamous) dancers and choreographers, ardent fans, and some of the greatest creative artists of her day.

While I was writing my biography of the ballet legend, many of those letters proved revelatory, but so did countless other objects, professional materials, and extraordinary photographs (see below) that are part of the Alicia Markova Collection entrusted to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

Markova in Hollywood (1945) © John E. Reed

Markova in Hollywood (1945) © John E. Reed

At 14, Markova was the youngest -ever dancer the Ballets Russes (1925)

At 14, Markova was the youngest-ever dancer at the Ballets Russes (1925)

Though I was privileged to be the first person given access to Markova’s treasure trove of personal memorabilia, many illuminating items from those archives are now on public view for the first time in the Gotlieb Memorial Gallery on the first floor of Mugar Memorial Library on the Boston University campus (July through November 2013).

For me, assisting the Gotlieb’s resident artist and exhibition wizard Perry Barton was a fond reminder of the lengthy, yet rewarding process of organizing the vast collection. It was such a joy to suddenly discover a long-hidden gem. One of my most cherished “finds,” now on exhibit, is an original Matisse pencil self-portrait given to Markova during her Ballets Russes days.

As you can tell from the photo above, Lilian Alicia Marks was just a child when Sergei Diaghilev invited her to join his illustrious company. She was so much younger, smaller, and less worldly than all the other dancers that the older artistic geniuses in her midst took little Alicia under their collective wings.

Matisse self-portrait

Matisse self-portrait

To Markova, he was "Uncle" Henri Matisse (1925) at the Ballets Russes

“Uncle Henri” Matisse (1925) at the Ballets Russes

The 56-year-old Henri Matisse was completely enchanted by the sweet, shy girl who called him “Uncle Henri.” In addition to designing the costume for her first major role, the groundbreaking painter took the time to teach Markova about modern art. Alicia was a very serious, earnest pupil, and perhaps to amuse her one day, Matisse sketched a humorous self-portrait (similar to the one at right), which he then initialed and presented to her. The grateful student then folded it in half and carefully placed it inside one of her Ballets Russes programs for safekeeping. There it remained until I discovered it over eight decades later.

Markova had many amazing headpieces. From Cimarosiana, 1927.

Markova had many amazing headpieces. From Cimarosiana, 1927.

Reading Markova’s journals made me look at many of her keepsakes in rather different ways. For example, the legendary ballerina saved many exquisite headpieces, several of which she made herself. They were all carefully wrapped in tissue paper, something she did before and after every performance. One in particular appeared rather scruffy inside, and I later discovered why.

Markova kept her headpieces in place with glue!

Markova kept her headpieces in place with glue!

When Markova was at the Ballets Russes, her hair was in the page boy style of a young girl, as seen above left. Diaghilev insisted she wear a headband on stage to keep it neatly in place until long enough to smooth into a dancer’s bun. During one of her astounding spin combinations one evening, the headband flew off, eventually encircling her neck like a hula hoop. Though Diaghilev was impressed that she continued to dance impeccably, he warned her it must never happen again. From then on, Markova actually glued her headpieces on. Though it was a special, non-permanent glue, it still managed to grab hair and skin upon removal, remnants of which were clearly visible inside a feathered crown I unwrapped (similar to the one above). Lucky for Markova, she had a thick head of hair.

Markova volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen throughout WWII

Markova volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen throughout WWII

Though Markova’s archives contain many priceless, historic items, my favorite was much more personal. It was a tiny pale pink leather pouch. From the contents (which included hernia clips and a removable tooth bridge!) it was clear the ballerina carried it with her everywhere while dancing across the United States in the late ’30s and ’40s. Also inside was a war ration book dated 6/21/43. I later learned Markova used the bulk of her weekly rations to buy goods that were impossible to procure in England during the war, sending weekly care packages to her family and friends in London. A small black and white photo of Markova’s mother and sisters was attached to the ration book.

Alicia in Wonderland: Markova at the Ballets Russes


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Picasso's startling 34-foot front curtain for Le Train Bleu (1924)

Picasso’s startling 34-foot front curtain for Le Train Bleu (1924)

Anyone even marginally interested in ballet, art, or fashion should head to Washington D.C. this summer for the knock-out blockbuster exhibit “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music” at the National Gallery of Art. Adapted from a stellar 2010 exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (curated by Jane Pritchard), the wildly colorful, entertaining, and often astonishing show celebrates one of the most innovative dance companies of all times. As the National Gallery explains, the Ballets Russes “propelled the performing arts to new heights through groundbreaking collaborations between artists, composers, choreographers, dancers, and fashion designers,” an unheard of phenomenon in the early 20th century.

Léon Bakst costumes for Fokine's Daphnis and Chloé (1912) © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Léon Bakst costumes for Fokine’s Daphnis and Chloé (1912) © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Sergei Diaghilev

Sergei Diaghilev

It was visionary Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev who brought together a Who’s Who of creative geniuses – Nijinsky, Pavlova, Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, Bakst, Fokine, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Chanel, and countless others – creating nothing less than an aesthetic firestorm that electrified the world. The youngest-ever member and soloist of this illustrious company was 14-year-old Lilian Alicia Marks. Though known to dislike children, Diaghilev developed a close bond with the frail British dance prodigy after first seeing her perform as a 10-year-old.

A very youthful 14-year-old Markova at the Ballets Russes

A very youthful 14-year-old Markova at the Ballets Russes

Surprising everyone, Diaghilev became a father figure to the earnest, painfully shy girl, whisking her away from foggy London to sun-drenched Monte Carlo, home of the famed Ballets Russes. There Diaghilev renamed his “little daughter” (as he fondly called her) Alicia Markova, and began her fairy-tale education. “Uncle Igor” Strainvinsky was Markova’s music instructor, Matisse and Picasso taught her about modern art, and she learned about fashion from none other than Coco Chanel.

"To my dear little thing," Balanchine wrote to Markova

“To my dear little thing,” Balanchine wrote to Markova

Also joining the company in 1924 was the untested, up-and-coming choreographer George Balanchine. Because of Markova’s astounding technique – able to do many jumps and spins formerly only performed by men – Balanchine selected the practically mute teenager to star in his first ballet for Diaghilev: Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of The Nightingale). It would be a huge success for them both, with Balanchine on his way to becoming the most influential choreographer of the 20th century, and Markova a future world famous prima ballerina. The Nightingale introduced Balanchine’s never-before-seen modern balletic stylings and Markova’s ability to effortlessly float and fly like a bird.

Markova in a Matisse-designed costume for The Nightingale (1925)

Markova in a Matisse-designed costume for The Song of the Nightingale (1927)

The photo above shows Markova in a Matisse-designed costume for the ballet, but it wasn’t the original one she wore for the 1925 premiere. While Alicia had been picturing a brown-feathered tutu for the role of a tiny bird, Matisse had other ideas, as the ballerina reminisces in The Making of Markova: “Listen little one,” Matisse was saying, “white silk tights all over, then white satin ballet shoes, large diamond [rhinestone] bracelets around both ankles, the wrist of one arm, and the other just here above the elbow, a little white bonnet like a baby’s and no hair to show. Please dear remember, no hair.”

Henri Matisse designed iconic costumes for Markova throughout her career

For Rouge et Noir (1939), Henri Matisse designed another iconic costume for Markova

For the first time in ballet history, a ballerina appeared on stage wearing nothing but a second-skin leotard, and in white georgette, the teenaged Markova looked practically nude! She was so tiny and under-developed for her age, however, that the 14-year-old looked anything but vulgar, completely charming the French audiences. England was another story, however. When the Lord Chamberlain got wind of the “risqué” costume, he banned London’s own little Alicia from wearing it on stage. Matisse saved the day by designing a white chiffon tunic and pants (as seen in the photo above) so the show could go on.

AM in Le Bal

1929 Ballets Russes program with cover by Giorgio de Chirico illstrating his costume designs for Le Bal. (Part of The Making of Markov exhibit currently on view at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.

1929 Ballets Russes program with cover by Giorgio de Chirico illustrating his costume designs for Le Bal (1929), such as the one worn by Markova seen here

Markova saved all the glorious Ballets Russes programs from her magical time with the company. Cover illustrations, costume designs, and photographs were created by the likes of Picasso, Derain, de Chirico, Braque, Miro, and Man Ray among others. They are part of the vast Alicia Markova Collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University and will be on view with other personal memorabilia belonging to the legendary ballerina from July through November 2013. The Making of Markova exhibit is free and open to the public in the Gotlieb Memorial Gallery on the first floor of the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University.

A Man Ray photo of Markova in La Chatte (1927)

A Man Ray photo of Markova in La Chatte (1927)

The five years Markova spent at the Ballets Russes were the most influential of her career. In addition to being trained by the unquestioned creative superstars of her day, she met many dancers, choreographers, composers, and artists who became lifelong friends and colleagues. Seven years older than Markova, Alexandra Danilova was both Balanchine’s lover and a protective big sister to the timid dancer when they met. Two of the greatest ballerinas of their generation, the pair would be one another’s confidante, playmate, teacher and supporter for seven decades. Markova was eternally grateful to the man who that made all of that possible – the incomparable Sergei Diaghilev

Markova's best friend, the exquisite ballerina Alexandra Danilova, and her future bête-noir, Serge Lifar in Appolon musagète (1928) with costumes by Coco Chanel.

The exquisite Alexandra Danilova, Markova’s dearest friend, dancing with the egotistical Serge Lifar (Markova’s future bête-noir) in the Ballets Russes production of Appolon musagète (1928) with costumes by Coco Chanel.

Nose Job? No Way!


, , , , , , , , , ,

Markova's distinctive profile © John Rawlings

Markova’s distinctive profile © Rawling

“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” wrote Gertrude Stein. Can the same be said for a nose? Each is special – speaking to family and heritage, yet the same – in function and placement. Then why are so many people anxious to change theirs?

June is one of the most popular months for nose jobs. Students have the entire summer for post-surgery recuperation and time to get used to a new face.

Kate Middleton: nose de jour

Kate Middleton: nose de jour

According to Time magazine, “women in New York are reportedly paying $12,000 for nose jobs to make themselves look like Kate Middleton; one surgeon estimated he has already performed 100 such royal rhinoplasties.” But is “Middleton of the road,” really the way to go?

The glorious Barbra Streisand

The glorious Streisand profile

Many world-famous celebrities were pressured to have their noses “fixed,” most often so they would appear less ethnic. Barbra Streisand may be the most famous in that regard. (As a child, I was actually briefly related to Ms. Streisand when she was married to my cousin Eliott Gould. I thought her quite stunning – and riotously funny.) When asked why she never had her prominent nose altered, Streisand said it was a combination of worry it wouldn’t be done correctly – she would have left the bump and just slightly shortened the tip, and fear that it might change her singing voice – clearly a catastrophe!

Markova's partner Anton Dolin pressured her to have her nose "fixed."

Markova was pressured her to have her nose “fixed” by partner Anton Dolin

Alicia Markova was continuously pressured to have her own distinctive nose fixed, a suggestion she always politely turned down. Dance partner Anton Dolin, choreographer Frederick Ashton, and impresario Sol Hurok all feared the ballerina’s “looking Jewish” would damage her career in times of rampant anti-Semitism during the 1930s and ’40s; and indeed, Markova would have to battle insidious prejudices in her early years. But she was also fiercely proud of her religion and heritage, becoming the first openly Jewish classical prima ballerina in history. I write “openly,” because Anna Pavlova was Jewish but hid that fact for fear it would ruin her career. (Jews weren’t allowed to attend the Maryinsky Ballet School in St. Petersburg where Pavlova trained).

Margot Fonteyn's nose pre-surgery

Margot Fonteyn’s nose pre-surgery

In stark contrast to Markova, the very pretty, and very Catholic, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn immediately had a nose job – unfortunately initially botched – upon being told she looked a “little Jewish” by choreographer Roland Petit. As you can see in the photo at left, she was quite lovely pre-surgery.

Alexandra Danilova's nose cost her a film role.

Alexandra Danilova’s nose cost her a film role.

Alexandra Danilova's million dollar legs

Alexandra Danilova’s million dollar legs

Markova’s lifelong best friend was the delightfully effervescent Russian prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova, known for having the most beautiful legs in ballet – New York City Ballet Director Lincoln Kirstein likened them to “luminous wax”. Though a remarkable  and enormously popular dancer, Danilova lost a coveted Hollywood film role because of her nose, as explained by Leslie Norton in her biography of Danilova’s frequent dance partner Frederick Franklin, who sadly passed away just last month at the age of 98. The movie was based on Léonide Massine’s Gaîté Parisienne, one of Danilova’s signature ballets, but the director of The Gay Parisian (1941), Jean Negulesco, said he didn’t like the tilt of Danilova’s nose. “My nose doesn’t dance!” she snapped back.

Markova agreed. Her nose was her nose was her nose. The Jewish ballerina’s prodigious talent and mesmerizing stage presence handily won over critics and audiences alike, with her dramatic profile actually adding a haunting beauty to many of her roles (as seen below). Markova and Danilova would have the last laugh (The Gay Parisian film was a flop), becoming two of the best-loved dancers of their generation.

One of my favorite Markova stories was when she was working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She got her heel caught in a metal grate and in the few seconds she was falling to the ground, thought of all the men who had pestered her to have her nose fixed, and now she was about to break it. So what did she do? Turn the other cheek – which she broke – to save that beloved, oft-disparaged nose.

Markova looked haunting in The Haunted Ballroom © Gordon Anthony

Markova looked haunting in The Haunted Ballroom  © Gordon Anthony

Mr. Selfridge puts Markova on TV


, , , , , , , , ,

Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge

Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge

“We need to put on a show,” Harry Gordon Selfridge purportedly told the staff of his grand self-named London store. And that’s just what the brash American retailer did, luring British shoppers with his lavish display tables, night-lit windows (a first), regal restaurant (with orchestra), rooftop garden (with skating rink!), and a wide array of fine luxuries on six glorious floors.

The colorful (and randy!) Selfridge is the one “on show” in the sumptuously produced Masterpiece Theatre series based on Lindy Woodhead’s engaging biography Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge. While the retailer’s self-indulgent personal life provides the drama (Oh, my!), his genius for equating shopping with entertainment – and entertainers themselves – interested me far more.

The always extravagantly attired ballerina Anna Pavlova

The always extravagantly attired ballerina Anna Pavlova

The forward-thinking Selfridge recognized early on the value of advertising celebrity tie-ins, ranging from in-store promotions (showcasing a French aviator’s record-breaking plane in the middle of his selling floor) to publicizing the shopping trips of glamorous stars. One of those luminaries was the iconic Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Selfridge first saw the legendary dancer perform at a private soiree hosted by a wealthy British aristocrat in 1911. Though the television series implies Pavlova enjoyed socializing with her public, that was not generally the case. The star ballerina certainly welcomed generous gifts from admirers – and was always extravagantly and excessively over-dressed – but she actually “offered to reduce her fee [for performing in people’s homes] from £500 to £300 if she would not be obliged to take dinner with the guests,” according to Pavlova biographer Oleg Kerensky.

Unlike Pavlova, Markova liked modern works. Here with Serge Lifar in Cimarosiana, 1927

Unlike Pavlova, Markova liked modern works. Here with Serge Lifar in Cimarosiana (1927)

Though Alicia Markova would be compared to Pavlova throughout her career – they were remarkably similar in appearance and balletic style – the two couldn’t have been more different when it came to interacting with the public. Even at the height of her career, Markova (29 years younger than her idol) always made time to sign autographs and chat with fans. She was also far more adventurous when it came to choosing ballets, enjoying the challenge of dancing new contemporary works while Pavlova remained wedded to the classics. And though Pavlova recognized – and capitalized on – the value of advertising and promotions, Markova took marketing to a whole new level. That was something she had in common with Mr. Harry Selfridge, and in the 1930s, the two helped pioneer a newfangled medium called television.

Selfridges would become the first store to feature a television in the window in 1931

Selfridges would become the first store to feature a television in the window in 1931. (Photo from the PBS series.)

It was Scotsman John Logie Baird who patented the first mechanical television system in 1923, spending the next several decades perfecting his rudimentary invention in a London studio. While many scoffed at the whole idea, Harry Selfridge thought it a great promotional draw when Baird was actually able to transmit live images in 1931. Selfridge not only put a large “televisor” set in the store’s Oxford Street window, but also took out newspaper ads and bus display banners to promote scheduled performances and transmission times.

Realizing that only the most compelling programming would lure customers to stand outside and watch (presumably followed by a shopping trip inside), Baird approached London’s most acclaimed ballerina, 21-year-old Alicia Markova. He knew Selfridge had been a big fan of Pavlova (there were rumors of an affair) and Markova was seen as the Russian ballerina’s successor after she unexpectedly died of pleurisy in January 1931. Although Baird warned Markova of the primitive and difficult conditions required for broadcast transmission, the young dancer literally leapt at the chance. Alicia Markova would become the first ballerina ever to appear on television.

Markova danced the Polka from Frederick Ashton's humorous Façade in her first television appearance, 1932

Markova danced the Polka from Frederick Ashton’s humorous Façade in her first television appearance, 1932

Performing in Baird’s tiny transmission studio – a mere 12 x 12 foot room – was quite an adventure. Markova’s recollections from The Making of Markova: “It was the size of a postage stamp! The floor was covered in big black and white checks and we had to have a piano for musical accompaniment. Then there was this huge beam of light that used to flicker so it was very difficult to balance or focus. There wasn’t room for a partner, so I had to dance alone. For everything, you had to stay in one place. You really couldn’t move around because there wasn’t anywhere to move. The costumes had to be brought in ahead of time and all outlined with black ribbons. And the make-up – dead white – with a black mouth and purple eyes. And when I finished the little variation, to get off camera, I had to duck down, bend, and crawl out under the piano. But I so wanted to be in in the beginning.” Markova chose two ballets that required little side-to-side movement: Moods by Balanchine and the “Polka” from Ashton’s Façade

Markova pioneered ballet performances on television

Markova pioneered ballet performances on television

Though many in the ballet world thought the whole idea of television completely beneath them, Markova immediately grasped its power to popularize classical dance. And while that was her goal, appearing “live” in Selfridge’s windows, with all the attendant advertising and publicity, made Alicia Markova a London household name.

Markova on the BBC, 1957

Markova on BBC, 1957

Again, from The Making of Markova“She could well have described herself as one of its [television’s] pioneers,” reported Ballet Today in a 1955 profile of Markova, “for she has made countless appearances on the screen, both in this country and in the United States. It is a medium in which she has expressed her faith by her very loyalty and devotion. She recognized it then as a suitable medium for ballet, which only recently has been universally accepted and appreciated. In the days before the war it was still treated in many quarters as a subject for derision and music-hall jokes.”

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

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

In 1953, Markova was asked to guest-host the comedy/variety program Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Thirty-million people tuned in and fell in love with the humorous, self-deprecating ballerina. Markova received so much fan mail, she was offered her own half-hour TV program.

Thanks Mr. Selfridge.

Coco Chanel and the Ballets Russes


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

On May 5, 1921 – the fifth day of the fifth month – Coco Chanel had a gift for her soigné clientele. She had commissioned Ernest Beaux, known as le nez (the nose), to create a variety of fragrances for her review. Number five was the clear winner. Chanel No. 5 would become the best-selling perfume of all time, with current estimates that a bottle is sold every 30 seconds around the globe.

From May 5th through June 5th, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris is hosting a special exhibition titled No 5 Culture Chanel celebrating the “timeless and iconic artistic essence” of the famous perfume. Certainly that description also defines Chanel’s divinely classic fashions, as relevant today as when they were first introduced.

Chanel with Ballets Russes dancer Serge Lifar

Chanel with Ballets Russes dancer Serge Lifar

But of course, those designs were anything but classic in the early decades of the 20th century. Chanel was a rule breaker in life and work, which brought her to the attention of Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Chanel happily joined his circle of creative groundbreakers, offering both monetary and artistic support (not to mention having a scandalous affair with the married composer Igor Stravinsky).

It was in the company’s home base of Monte Carlo on the French Riviera that the 14-year-old Alicia Markova would come under the spell of the famed fashion designer.

Markova in La Chatte (The Cat) at the Ballets Russes

Markova in La Chatte (The Cat) at the Ballets Russes

Markova remembered seeing Chanel and Pablo Picasso sitting together during dress rehearsals for new productions. Diaghilev staged “fashion parades” of costumed dancers for the pair, seeking their opinions and suggestions. The Ballets Russes was as famous for its highly original sets and costumes as for its music and choreography.

“Highly original” is also a perfect description of Chanel’s novel modern design aesthetic at the time. After decades of women being painfully cinched into tight, wasp-waisted corsets and covered neck-to-toe in elaborately draped fabric, Chanel chose to reveal the body’s natural contours in comfortable, softened silhouettes. It was as revolutionary as Cubism.

Chanel's clingy new bathing suits captured by Picasso in "Women Bathing" 1918,

Chanel’s clingy new bathing suits captured by Picasso in “Women Bathing” 1918,

“The provocative Chanel bathing suits – sleeveless, skirtless, clinging – would catch Picasso’s eye,” writes his biographer John Richardson. “Fascinated by this revolutionary garment’s effect on the way women looked and behaved, Picasso did a fine, small painting of three bathing-suited girls – each fiddling with their hair – on the beach below Palace Hotel. This is the first of countless bather compositions in Picasso’s work.”

Diaghilev also took notice of Chanel’s “sports clothes” revolution in the Riviera, asking her to design costumes for his new contemporary production Le Train Bleu (the luxury locomotive that transported wealthy Europeans to Monte Carlo). With libretto by Jean Cocteau and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister), the satirical ballet poked gentle fun at the idle rich vacationers.  Diaghilev asked Chanel to translate her latest de la mode styles for the dancers. While audiences loved it, the performers were less enthused.

Chanel's costumes for Le Train Bleu

Chanel’s costumes for Le Train Bleu

As I wrote in The Making of Markova: Consider poor Lydia Sokolova. Chanel presented her with a wool jersey bathing costume and rubber slippers that stuck to the stage. What could be worse? The ballerina also had to wear oversized faux pearl earrings, much like the costume jewels favored by Chanel’s affluent clientele, the very ones who would be in the audience on opening night. The ear bobs were so large and cumbersome, Sokolova couldn’t hear her orchestra cues. Leon Woizikowski fared no better. He had to master grand leaps while wearing his Chanel-designed golf knickers, shirt, tie and striped long sleeve sweater; and Nijinska’s tennis dress came complete with a full-size racket.

Markova à la Chanel

Markova à la Chanel

Markova was well aware of Chanel’s status as the epitome of modern chic on the Riviera. Diaghilev had told her to study not only how “Coco” dressed, but also how she walked and sat. The teenager couldn’t have found a more stylish role model, and the adult Markova would come to share her fashion idol’s preference for understated elegance, black and white fashions, and a few pieces of dramatic costume jewelry.

The always understated and chic Markova

Markova in anything-but-basic black

As a young child, Markova had felt unattractive compared to her three pretty sisters. “I didn’t even look a typically English little girl of the period,” she wrote in her personal memoirs. So after studying the most stylish women in the neighborhood, Lily Marks (as she was then called) decided basic black was quite chic, requesting that rather adult color for her first party dress at age five.

Markova © 1935

Markova circa 1935

“Everyone laughed, but I wore a little black satin dress trimmed with white lace,” Markova recalled proudly. She would still be wearing basic black with white lace accents (as in the hat seen at right) three decades later.

While at the Ballets Russes, Markova witnessed firsthand a banner year for women’s fashion. It was in 1926 that Chanel introduced her first “little black dress.” As Edmonde Charles-Roux writes in her book Chanel and her World:

Markova in a little black dress, with sister Doris

Markova in a little black dress, with sister Doris

“In 1926, the American edition of Vogue predicted that a certain black dress created by Chanel – a simple sheath in crêpe-de-chine, with long, closely fitting sleeves – would become a sort of uniform for all women of taste. But hordes of women wearing the same dress? Such a forecast seemed totally irrational.”

From then on, simply-cut black cocktail dresses that showed off her lithe figure would become Markova’s signature style, as it would be for countless chic women to this very day.