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The Making of Markova
on 18 November 2014
World-famous ballerina, Alicia Markova, was not Russian as her adopted name suggests, but British, and was born Lilian Alicia Marks into a Jewish family in England in 1910, the same year that the legendary Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, made her first appearance on the London Stage. A shy, frail child with flat feet, knock knees and weak legs, Alicia started ballet lessons when her mother, an ardent ballet fan, was advised that learning to dance might help strengthen Alicia's legs and feet. Alicia took to ballet lessons with application and enthusiasm, and she was soon surprising her teachers and fellow students with her astonishing talent, earning herself the title of 'The Child Pavlova'. In fact, by the age of fourteen, her dancing skills were so impressive that when Sergei Diaghilev saw her dance, she was accepted into the Ballets Russes as his 'baby ballerina' - the youngest ever dancer to be offered a place in the renowned ballet company.
At the Ballets Russes, Alicia received music tutelage from Igor Stravinsky; she took dance lessons with ballet master, Enrico Cecchetti; she worked with choreographer, George Ballanchine, and had her costumes designed by Henri Matisse; and through a combination of natural talent and very hard work, she began to develop a technical brilliance that soon had her winning solo roles and the respect and envy of those in the dancing world. Tiny in stature (as an adult dancer she sometimes struggled to maintain seven stones in weight) and with size 2.5 feet (all of her ballet shoes had to be made specially for her), Alicia Markova seemed to defy gravity, as she appeared to fly through the air and land 'like a snowflake'. Her career was long and varied; she worked with Olga Spessivtseva, Serge Lifar, Ninette de Valois, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine, Michel Fokine, Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, amongst others, and although Alicia Markova achieved fame and, eventually, some measure of fortune, her life was not without its difficulties and heartaches, as Tina Sutton's colourful biography reveals.
This is a well-researched and detailed biography of a very talented and hard-working artist, who believed that ballet should be for everyone, not just for the elite. As the author informs us towards the close of her biography, Alicia Markova was Britain's first 'prima ballerina assoluta'; she was credited with pioneering British ballet in the 1930s; she was instrumental in the creation and early success of every ballet company formed in England: Ballet Rambert, The Sadler's Wells (now The Royal Ballet) and The Festival Ballet (currently The English National Ballet); and she brought ballet to the provinces for the first time. When she retired in her fifties, Alicia Markova was committed to sharing and passing on her knowledge, and she continued to do this well into her old age.
Tina Sutton, a fashion and arts writer for 'The Boston Globe', has packed her 600+ page biography with facts, diary and letter excerpts, newspaper reviews, interviews, anecdotes and quotes, and most of this makes for very interesting reading. The writing style is very accessible and informal - however, I was surprised by some of the almost 'slangy' language used on occasion, and if I am entirely honest, I feel the author relied a little too much on the use of block quotations and extracts from other sources to support her own narrative - often including several excerpts from different publications, all reporting the same event, which I thought was a little unnecessary at times. That said, being an enthusiast of the ballet and having spent a substantial part of my life either watching or taking part in ballet, I found this biography an informative, entertaining and enjoyable read. If reading this has aroused your interest in Dame Alicia, do take a look at YouTube which has a selection of film clips of the dancer both performing and coaching younger dancers, which makes for very interesting viewing.