When Irish-born Eileen Marks was pregnant with her first child, the devoted ballet fan dreamed she would have a baby girl who would grow up to dance like the great Anna Pavlova. But Lilian Alicia Marks, born in London in 1910, was a frail, sickly, and rather homely child with self-described “flat feet, knock knees, and weak legs.” Bright, but shy and reserved, she barely spoke until the age of 6.
However, instead of the recommended iron leg braces, a doctor suggested experimenting with classical ballet for remedial exercises. Dance classes proved to be “the nicest kind of medicine,” Lily told her mother, and she began to blossom. By age 14, the young Jewish girl was so accomplished she was taken in by legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev as the youngest dancer ever accepted into the Ballets Russes, marketed as the Baby Pavlova with a new Russian-sounding name, Alicia Markova, and started her rise as one of the most celebrated dancers in the history of the art form. Tina Sutton’s “The Making of Markova: Diaghilev’s Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon,” illuminates the extraordinary life of the great dancer as well as the times in which she lived. Sutton does an excellent job outlining Markova’s considerable accomplishments while bringing to life a woman of flesh, blood and passion.
The biography traces Markova’s life from her “hardscrabble upbringing” to her 2005 standing-room-only memorial service at Westminster Cathedral, the first such service there to allow dance. Sutton charts Markova’s stage debut at age 8 winning a local talent contest, and her one-on-one meeting at the age of 9 with Pavlova, then 39 years old and at the height of her fame.
As she chronicles Markova’s life, Sutton offers an especially intriguing portrait of her time with the Ballet Russes, where Diaghilev, who called her “little daughter,’’ took her under his wing. Much of her time was spent in “ballet classes with Maestro Cecchetti, music tutelage from Igor Stravinsky, choreography lessons from George Balanchine, and personal costuming by none other than Henri Matisse.” Upon Diaghilev’s untimely death, Markova returned to London and despite jealousy, cultural politics, and anti-Semitism became “the public face and most visible spokesperson for British ballet,” committed to making ballet accessible to all. Among a litany of ballet breakthroughs, she was the first to perform on television, the first prima ballerina of what is now The Royal Ballet, and she cofounded what is now the English National Ballet, disproving prevailing sentiment that the greatest dancers had to be Russian.
“Reserved, yet engaged; soft-spoken, but humorous and accessible; plain-featured, yet glamorous,” Markova had her mother’s passion for music as well as a “photographic memory, analytical mind, and gift for arithmetic,” perhaps inherited from her father, manufacturer Arthur Marks. She was known for her technical brilliance and an ethereal, buoyant quality, the quintessential Giselle. However, it was the inevitable comparison to Pavlova, who died tragically at the age of 49, that followed Markova most of her career. Though temperamentally quite different, both were sickly as children, had black hair, alabaster skin, prominent noses, and big, luminous eyes. More importantly, both combined bravura technique with acting of emotional depth.
Sutton calls her “the first openly Jewish prima ballerina assoluta,” so proud of her heritage and comfortable in her own skin that she refused to get a nose job to conform to standards of typical beauty, despite frequent criticism. Though she retired from the stage at 52 and was named Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, she became director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet for six years and maintained a busy schedule as an ambassador of the art form, teaching, consulting, and lecturing. She died at age 94.
Through Boston University’s Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center, Sutton accessed 137 boxes of Markova’s professional and personal materials, including journals, diaries, media clips, interviews, manuscripts, keepsakes and a lifetime of correspondence. As Sutton, a longtime writer for The Boston Globe, reconstructs Markova’s life, she draws freely from all these materials, which can make for a digressive, repetitive, deliberately non-linear read that might frustrate casual readers or those looking for specific information. But the book is so chock-full of colorful, telling details, fascinating insights, and charming anecdotes that it makes for a thoroughly engaging read. Sutton’s book is a captivating portrait of a remarkable life to savor slowly.
Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.