By Leland Windreich
One of the great ballerinas of the 20th century died in a nursing home in Bath, England, on December 2, 2004, the day following her 94th birthday. She had recently been hospitalized for a stroke. Alicia Markova was the last surviving dancer from Serge Diaghilevs Ballets Russes, the fabled company that brought ballet from Tsarist Russia to the West and flourished there from 1909 until the death of its director in 1929. Her participation in this brilliant epoch enabled Markova to begin a remarkable career in which she was instrumental in establishing ballet as a popular institution in Great Britain and the United States.
Born Lillian Alicia Marks in London to an orthodox Jewish father and an Irish mother, the child showed a talent for dancing and was taken on as a pupil by the former Maryiinsky ballerina, Serafina Astafieva. In the studio the remarkable 14-year-old student was spotted by Serge Diaghilev, who invited to join his company. During her tenure with the Russian troupe as Alicia Markova, she was chosen by the budding choreographer George Balanchine to star in his Stravinsky ballet, Le Rossignol.
At 19, Markova returned to England where she worked with both the pioneers of British ballet, Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois, the latter offering her a more stable base for performance in the newly formed Vic-Wells Ballet. In 1934 she made her debut in the Nicholas Sergeyev restaging of the ballet Giselle, creating a role that would become her signature performance over the next two decades. She would also star in Sergeyevs productions of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. In partnership with her colleague Anton Dolin, she toured for two years with a small company called the Markova-Dolin Ballet, but the emerging Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo ultimately offered her a more substantial vehicle for her art and a starring position on its roster.
Markova made her American debut in New York in 1938 with Giselle and won the hearts of audiences on the long national tours and the praise of critics from coast to coast. For her Leonide Massine created brilliant roles in Seventh Symphony and Rouge et Noir, later offering her a contrasting heroine to portray in his Aleko, produced when the dancer and choreographer found a new home in Ballet Theatre. In this company Markova created the role of Marie Taglioni in Dolins recreation of the famous Pas de Quatre and starred as Juliet in Antony Tudors Romeo and Juliet. After World War II Markova and Dolin returned to England where they established a new company, the London Festival Ballet, in which they both directed and performed for several years. The troupe would ultimately become the English National Ballet, still functioning today.
Markova continued to make guest appearances in ballet companies all over the world, officially retiring in 1962. For six years she directed the ballet of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and served on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati as a guest professor of dance. She received the highest honors and awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including the O.B.E in 1963, ever bestowed on a ballet artist.
Markova wrote two books: "Giselle and I" (1960) and "Markova Remembers" (1986), and she is the subject of several biographies and monographs on her life and art. In her later years she was active in ballet pedagogy in England and became a much revered coach in the recreation of her famous roles. In her study of Markova, the American choreographer Agnes de Mille named her the greatest ballerina of her era, and critics and historians continue to hail her as the finest Giselle of the century.
As a propagandist for ballet, Markova is often compared to Anna Pavlova, whose life had been an inspiration to the English dancer, and from whom she inherited a romantic/classical conception of ballet, one which she made popular all over the world.
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