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Today Alicia Markova is not only the greatest English dancer, but one of the finest living exponents of the classic ballet. Giselle and Odette (The Swan Lake) are her most remarkable creations.
Ever since childhood Markova has been compared with Pavlova; this is a great distinction, but also a heavy onus, and there are very few dancers, indeed, who would not crumble under it. Markova remains unimpaired and holds her own ground. This is a great achievement.
—"America Meets a New Ballerina in Alicia Markova" Dance News, 1938, Anatole Chujoy
Few who saw Alicia Markova dance ever forgot the experience. Her technical bravura was astonishing. Her tiniest movement could break your heart. But it was her buoyancy—appearing to ever so slowly float through the air—that truly confounded and mesmerized audiences. And she did it all so effortlessly.
Sharing the stage with Markova, fellow dancers were stupefied. How was it possible that she never breathed heavily, perspired, or made a sound when she landed? Not even the softest thud. It was a point of pride with her.
At the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev insisted that the best ballerinas made as little noise as possible. More than anything, his youngest-ever prodigy wanted to please him, so Markova learned to dance silently.
"If Markova springs like a winged fairy, she comes to the ground just as lightly," wrote British dance critic Cyril Beaumont, "noiselessly in fact, always passing—ball, sole, heel—through the whole of the supporting foot. Of how many ballerine can that be said?"
Maybe she had some help from the size of her feet—only 41/2 American (21/2 British). They were so tiny that insurance companies refused to insure them. "The risk was too great," they said. Markova's foot anomaly also put them off. Her big toes were almost twice as long as the others. So when Markova danced en pointe, she supported her entire body on just one toe.
"Her weight had to be poised with absolute accuracy on the very center of the large toe," wrote a reporter closely observing the ballerina rehearse. "The slightest deviation could throw her off balance, cause wobbling and put strain on the muscles." But ask anyone who ever saw Markova dance. She never wobbled.
For choreographers, Markova was like a gift from the gods. She had a phenomenal memory not only for every step she ever danced, but for every balletic move she had ever seen. Moreover, she could do virtually anything that was asked of her. George Balanchine was in awe that at age thirteen, Markova could already execute supremely athletic step sequences formerly danced only by men.
But it was that ability to fly through the air that truly set her apart. Not soar—like Peter Pan or Rudolf Nureyev—just defy gravity for as long as she liked. "I saw her in Les Sylphides making her airborne entrance for the pas de deux," wrote British dance critic Jane Simpson, "and it was quite clear, even to an already cynical spectator, that only her partner's restraining hands were stopping her from flying away."
It was otherworldly—an ethereal quality that made her the quintessential ghostly spirit of Giselle. Audience members would gasp, cry, and pinch one another. "Did we really just see that?" they'd whisper. And her fans came back again and again—even people who cared little for ballet—as if they were watching a magic show and trying to figure out the secrets of each trick.
"The more you see her the more you value her," wrote New York Herald Tribune dance critic Edwin Denby, someone who did care deeply about ballet. "[I]n every department of classic technique she is flawless. And she has all the peculiarities of physical structure that ballet enthusiasts gloat about—like the overlong arms, the lateral overmobility in the hip joint, the outward set of the arms, and of course the fabulously high arch—all of which add to the poignancy of the gesture because you seem to be seeing what is impossible to do. And she holds your eye on her. Not that she is sexy; she is very proper, but you watch her as intently as if you were perturbed."
Offstage Markova was just as intriguing—reserved, yet engaged; soft-spoken, but humorous and accessible; plain-featured, yet glamorous. What was going on behind those large dark eyes, one wondered? That air of mystery became one of her greatest assets on stage.
"Who Markova is, nobody knows," wrote Denby when reviewing her starring role in Antony Tudor's heartrending Romeo & Juliet. "What you see on the stage is the piece she performs, the character she acts. She shows you, as only the greatest actresses do, a completely fascinating impersonation, completely fascinating because you recognize a heroine of your imagination who finds out all about vanity and love and authority and death. You watch her discover them." Denby deemed Markova "one of the most poetic dancers of our times."
Those opinions were shared by many noteworthy critics, with laudatory reviews of Markova's performances awash in superlatives. She is "the perfect epitome of the classical ballerina," wrote the all-powerful dance critic of The New York Times, John Martin, and "probably the greatest ballet dancer who ever lived."
High praise indeed.
Another world-class ballerina, and Markova's closest lifelong friend, was the exquisite dancer Alexandra Danilova. Here was someone who really did know the offstage Markova as a living, breathing human being with a rollicking sense of humor and boatloads of insecurities. Markova was no supernatural creature of great mystery to Danilova. Nevertheless, she too only saw Markova's illusory qualities onstage.
I once asked the great Russian-American prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova what the difference would be between a very fine dancer—a soloist—and a real ballerina—it was to be a definition of the word "ballerina." She thought a moment, her eyes lit up and in her heavy accent she said, "Ah, Ballet is Giselle. Door of cottage open. Pretty young soloist come out. You happy and you say 'I hope she do well.' Another performance. Is also Giselle. Door open. Alicia Markova step out. She not danced yet. One step only, but you sigh and say, 'Ah! Ballerina!' You do not ask, you know. She is star. She shine."
—Walter Terry, dance critic for The New York Herald Tribune
And she shined right from the start. In the 1930s, American choreographer/dancer Agnes de Mille and British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn were ballet-school pupils in London. Along with the other students, they were completely riveted while watching Markova rehearse. Barely out of her teens, she was already the city's reigning star ballerina.
Markova was "both my inspiration and my despair," recalled Fonteyn, "because I could see equally clearly my vision of the ideal ballerina and the absolute impossibility that I myself could ever, ever resemble this tiny, ethereal being."
Agnes de Mille never lost her fascination with Markova, writing about her often:
Always about her there was an aroma of sadness, a hint of death in the moment of consummated effort. This was her Jewish heritage, as it was Anna Pavlova's who made her worldwide reputation with a dance of death, the "Dying Swan." ...
Although English (born Lilian Alicia Marks), she was in face and body astonishingly like the Russian Pavlova—the same black-and-white beauty, the same serene brow, the dark, burning eye, the precise, patient mouth, the swanlike neck.
Ah yes, the inevitable comparison with Pavlova. It would happen again and again throughout Markova's career. Her likeness to the revered Russian dancer beckoned choreographers, beguiled the press, and gave continuity to the ballet world. When Pavlova died unexpectedly of pleurisy in 1931, hopeful eyes turned to the twenty-year-old Alicia Markova. It was both flattering and burdensome. Anna Pavlova was the most worshipped dancer of her time.
Agnes de Mille was a firsthand witness to Pavlova's enthralling stage presence and fame, recounting, "... her name was synonymous with the art—Pavlova, the Incomparable, was an internationally known slogan. She was as famous as Caruso and her position as unique. No one today approaches her power over the popular imagination. She half-hypnotized audiences, partaking almost of the nature of divinity."
But de Mille added, "I have seen two dancers as great or greater since." Alicia Markova was one of them. Anna Pavlova and her ghost would play an enormous role in the creation of her career, both literally and figuratively.
It was after seeing Pavlova dance and meeting one-on-one with the Russian star that nine-year-old Lilian Alicia Marks decided to dedicate her life to ballet. And when prejudice against Markova's Jewish faith and Semitic looks almost ended her career in England, it was her uncanny resemblance to Pavlova that inspired choreographer Frederick Ashton to hire her. Finally, for the London press, the constant comparison proved to the world that a British ballet dancer could be as talented as a Russian.
And there was so much the two ballerinas had in common, far more in fact than was commonly known. Both were Jewish—although Pavlova kept that a secret for fear it would end her career, whereas Markova wore her heritage proudly—with dark hair, very pale skin, and exotic, non-classical features.
Both were delicate and frail as opposed to the more robust muscular dancers of the time—such as celebrated prima ballerinas Matilda Kschessinska and Alexandra Danilova—with long torsos and arms, slender legs, and very thin ankles. This added to their vaporous stage presence, with a bird-like quality of seeming to hover mid-air without any noticeable exertion. And each was considered as fine an actress as a dancer, infusing classical roles with a stirringly emotive expressiveness.
Pavlova and Markova were also very small and sickly at birth—the former delivered two months premature, the latter at risk of dying along with her mother. They would both suffer through numerous childhood illnesses, some quite serious, such as scarlet fever and diphtheria. Once the leading cause of death in children, diphtheria was highly contagious, requiring immediate isolation. Having no siblings, Pavlova was nursed at home in the Russian countryside, her mother taking in laundry to support them. But ten-year-old Alicia Marks was quarantined in a special hospital ward where diphtheria patients often remained for several months. As her temperature soared, there were fears of heart damage or even permanent paralysis. Adding to the child's misery, the lengthy recuperation meant a lost opportunity to dance with the Ballets Russes.
Fortunately, both children completely healed in time, but their similar bone-thin physiques endured. The wispy delicacy of frame they had in common helped create a transcendental elusive quality on stage that always held audiences in thrall.
But of all the people who delighted in comparing the two dancers, no one was happier about their extraordinary likeness than Markova's mother, Eileen Marks—a ballet fan, who from the moment she discovered she was pregnant, wanted nothing more for her unborn child than she be another Pavlova.
In 1910, legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova made her first appearance on a London stage. Like Isadora Duncan, who caused a worldwide sensation when she introduced free-form modern dance to Europe in the early 1900s, the Russian iconoclast didn't fit the mold of a traditional classical dancer. Emphasizing expression in her movements over proper academic technique, Pavlova brought a natural spontaneity to what was then a rigidly controlled art form.
Not surprisingly, many of her peers disapproved. Audiences, however, felt differently. Just one year earlier, "La Pavlova" had drawn worshipful crowds in Paris while performing with Sergei Diaghilev's stellar Ballets Russes, earning press notices as sublime as her sometime partner, the incomparable Vaslav Nijinsky. At age twenty-nine, Anna Pavlova was one of the most celebrated dancers in the world, with legions of ardent fans. In her hometown of St. Petersburg, they proudly called themselves Pavlovtzi.
Needless to say, tickets for the star's London debut were in great demand, so 21-year-old Eileen Marks was very excited she would be attending. The pretty Irish-born newlywed had been to the Ballet of the Empire Theatre many times to see their classical Danish prima ballerina, the enchanting Adeline Genée. But this was Anna Pavlova!
The young Mrs. Marks was excited for other reasons as well. She was madly in love with her 21-year-old husband, Jewish mining engineer Arthur Marks. The former Eileen Mary Barry had even converted to Orthodox Judaism to be his wife—adding the Hebrew name of Ruth to her own—despite her strict Catholic convent upbringing and family disapproval on both sides. But that had all been smoothed over, with more good news to follow: the blissful bride had conceived on her honeymoon at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton. In December, she would give birth to the first of the couple's four daughters, Lilian Alicia. Seeing Anna Pavlova dance was just icing on the wedding cake.
Though one would have expected a dancer of Pavlova's renown to perform at the very grand Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, as Diaghilev's Ballets Russes would the following year, she was booked instead at a popular music hall, the Palace Theatre of Varieties. More shocking—especially to ballet patrons of today—the bill included Arley's Athletic Dogs and a film of former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt at a British East Africa Big Game Shooting Expedition. Guns, somersaulting dogs, and toe shoes were a decidedly odd mix, but one that perfectly suited Pavlova's mission—later shared by Alicia Markova—to bring ballet to the masses.
Never mind the eclectic program. When Pavlova took to the stage to perform The Dying Swan—her signature role choreographed by Ballets Russes visionary Mikhail Fokine—the audience sat motionless and entranced, especially the starry-eyed Eileen Marks of Finsbury Park. She could recall every detail of Pavlova's performance even decades later.
"What was it about Pavlova that so captivated you?" a newspaper reporter asked Mrs. Marks for a feature story on her now-famous daughter. "The lithe, slim figure danced across the stage, the essence of beauty, of lightness, of grace," Eileen replied. "She seemed to defy the laws of gravity as she floated through the air."
One has to wonder if that reporter embellished Eileen's remarks just a little. He certainly continued the story with breathless prose:
The mother-to-be sat in the auditorium. She was leaning forward. The classic grace of the figure on the stage had carried her right away. With bated breath, she watched every movement, her whole body thrilling to those lovely, easy-moving steps. And from her lips there came a whispered prayer—a prayer that her child should be a girl and should grow up to be a great dancer like Pavlova.
Though seemingly one of those too-good-to-be-true tales concocted by a public relations manager or the media, the story was in fact accurate. Eileen Marks had longed for a daughter as talented as Pavlova, and was quite vocal about it to family and friends. She had actually wanted to become a performer herself while growing up as one of seven sisters in County Cork, Ireland—but not as a dancer.
As Markova's younger sister Doris Barry revealed:
Mother was quite a talented singer. She used to sing and act at parties occasionally, and once George Edwardes [a famous English theatrical manager/producer who occasionally worked with Pavlova] heard her and offered her an engagement. But her family frowned on the stage as a professional career and she had to refuse it.
I suppose her talent did provide a hereditary influence in some way. But there was a more positive one in Alicia's case. For my mother always said, after she had to turn down that offer, that she would have a daughter who would dance like Pavlova.
She used to go and watch Pavlova at every opportunity. Later, when we were children, she took us too. And Alicia fulfilled mother's dream. Two medical text-books have quoted her case as an example of prenatal influence.
And there was yet another prescient tale passed along to the Marks girls. When newly pregnant with Alicia, Eileen accompanied her husband to Cairo, Egypt, where he was working as a consulting engineer on the recently constructed Aswan Dam. As the story goes, the lovebirds were taking a romantic moonlight stroll in view of the Sphinx when Eileen suddenly patted her belly and whispered to her husband, "I often pray it will be a girl—and like Pavlova, even if she can dance only a quarter as well."
Talk about foreshadowing! Little Lily, as she was called early on, would acquire the nickname Sphinx in childhood for being mysteriously silent and remarkably composed. She was also strangely taken with Egypt at a young age, never tiring of playing Alexandre Luigini's Ballet Egyptien on the windup gramophone, even choreographing a dance to it complete with an elaborate Sphinx-illustrated program. But more importantly, Markova's future career would forever be inextricably linked to Anna Pavlova, whom she would so closely come to resemble.
Excerpted from The Making of Markova by Tina Sutton. Copyright © 2013 Tina Sutton. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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