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Saved by the ballerina

Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires may have ended up as a condo development had it not been for the now-little-known efforts of Alicia Markova, one of the ballet world’s most colorful figures.

Alicia Markova, shown in 1942, was the first openly Jewish and first British classical prima ballerina. the Alicia Markova Collection

From the forthcoming The Making of Markova: Diaghilev’s Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon, by Tina Sutton, published by Pegasus Books, August 2013.

Located in the bucolic Berkshires, Jacob’s Pillow is a name now synonymous with dance. That historic association began in 1930 when modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn purchased the sprawling mountaintop farm as a retreat and rehearsal space. Far less well known is the role Alicia Markova, one of the greatest classical prima ballerinas in history, played in rescuing the retreat after Shawn encountered financial troubles. In 1941 she was instrumental in establishing the first international dance festival on the grounds, and the success of that venture — and Markova’s personal connections with the media and one very generous millionaire — saved Jacob’s Pillow from being sold off as vacation or development property for some wealthy landowner.


I discovered this story when researching Markova at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Center director Vita Paladino became friendly with the world-famous ballerina in the 1990s and encouraged her to entrust her professional and personal papers, correspondences, and memorabilia to the Gotlieb. Though British, Markova had lived and performed in the United States for many decades and maintained a storage unit of professional material in Brooklyn, New York. The contents became the basis of the center’s Alicia Markova Collection in 1995.

Several years after Markova’s death in 2004, the rest of her considerable archives was sent to the Gotlieb from London. I was privileged to be the first person given access to this intimate, never-before-seen material, which revealed many fascinating untold stories in dance history, details of the Jacob’s Pillow rescue being just one. Markova was quite a fascinating character herself, with a career of many firsts: the first openly Jewish — and first British — classical prima ballerina, the first to perform on television in 1932, and the first to become a “freelancer,” self-managing her career so she could travel the globe at will. It made her the highest paid, most celebrated ballet dancer in the world.


Markova and dance partner Anton Dolin rehearsed outdoors at the Berkshires retreat.Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center


In 1915, Ted Shawn formed an avant-garde modern dance troupe with his like-minded dancer wife, Ruth St. Denis. The Denishawn Dance Company and school in Los Angeles were quite progressive for their time and would prove to be an invaluable training ground for many cutting-edge choreographers, including Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.

Shawn and St. Denis had what today might be called an “open marriage.” Shawn’s biographer Walter Terry, writing in 1976, reported that both husband and wife ended up having separate affairs with their handsome young male business manager. “This was not a new experience for St. Denis,” wrote Terry, “but for Shawn, if his words to me and to others are to be believed, it was the first time he had established a more than casual physical relationship with another man. The rivalry became intense.” And ugly.

St. Denis threatened to divorce Shawn and go public, which would have effectively ended his teaching career; in those days, no parents would trust their child to an admitted homosexual. But she later changed her mind, and though the couple split up, they never officially divorced.

In 1933, Shawn took the innovative step of founding an all-male company, appropriately — if not imaginatively — named the Men Dancers. A sturdy, athletic figure, Shawn wanted to promote dance as a fittingly masculine profession. He succeeded. Shawn’s testosterone-fueled choreography — a blend of sharp gymnastic and methodical modern dance movements — was kinetic and dynamic, often with themes concerning manual labor. For many years, the Men Dancers profitably toured throughout the United States, Cuba, Canada, and Germany.


“The first performances were held in the summer of 1933 at Jacob’s Pillow,” Terry explained in his biography. “Shawn didn’t think anyone would come, but he tried it and about fifty people showed up at seventy-five cents apiece. He talked about dance and his goals, the boys served tea and danced, the audience sat on the floor at one end of the barn converted into studio. For some of the heftier Berkshire dowagers who adored Shawn . . . and appreciated the nearly nude boys, camp chairs were provided. These were the modest antecedents of what was to become the most famous dance festival in the world.”

By 1940, most of the men in Shawn’s dance troupe had enlisted in the Army. “Creatively and artistically,” wrote Shawn in his 1943 memoir of Jacob’s Pillow, “the seven years’ achievement of the men dancers gave me a deep inner satisfaction. But financially, since I never had a cent given me outright as an endowment, or underwriting, I went deeper and deeper in debt.”

At the brink of bankruptcy, Shawn leased the farm to a dance teacher from New York, Mary Washington Ball, who hoped to establish a school and yearly summer dance festival on the grounds. That had enormous appeal for Shawn — whom Ball hired as a teacher — so she was also given an option to buy the property outright with her profits.


Unfortunately, that never happened, as Ball’s first festival lost so much money she was forced to abandon the project altogether. “Again, I listed Jacob’s Pillow with the real estate dealers,” explained Shawn, “and spent the winter in New York to be near in the event of a buyer showing up.”

That could have been the end of the story — with a “Jacob’s Pillow Condo Resort” on the property today — had it not been for Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, her most frequent dance partner in England and now newly reunited with Markova at the Ballet Theatre (today’s American Ballet Theatre) in New York. Shawn and Dolin were acquainted, as they both shared a desire to popularize dance as a manly pursuit. Upon learning of the financial difficulties with Jacob’s Pillow, Dolin visited the expansive property and thought it perfect as a place he and Markova could start practicing together again while teaching summer school to raise money. When he suggested the plan to Markova, the idea got bigger.

Markova had spent the past three years touring as a star dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, based on the French Riviera. The company’s young Russian ballerinas had been jealous of the “British interloper,” making several attempts to sabotage Markova’s performances. Now that she was moving on to New York’s Ballet Theatre, Markova wished to avoid a similar situation by bonding with her fellow dancers prior to the official start of her new contract in September 1941. And what better way to get to know one another than in the verdant farmlands of the Berkshires?


Of course, that plan required some serious money.

Markova’s exceedingly wealthy British friend Reginald Wright — whom she had become quite close with during her early London dancing days in the 1930s — was now living in Palm Beach, Florida, with his American wife. The millionaire had previously told his favorite ballerina that he would be happy to fund a future dance project for her should she ever be interested. Now she was interested. Wright was delighted with Markova’s plan and contacted Shawn.

“As it was late in the season, and no outright buyer had appeared on the scene, I thought it wise to rent Jacob’s Pillow again,” explained Shawn in his 1943 memoir. “Alicia Markova made an arrangement with her former partner in the Dolin-Markova Ballet, Mr. Anton Dolin, to act as artistic director, and they planned to conduct a school and a festival series along the general lines established by Miss Ball. I was asked to be on their faculty for four weeks and to give one of the weekly festival programs — which I accepted.”

Wright not only leased the property from Shawn for June, July, and August, but he also moved to the Berkshires himself to share in the festivities and spend time with his good friend Markova.

Markova wrote “my room” in red on this 1941 photo of the main house on the Jacob’s Pillow property; the rustic barn is pictured. Boston University


The hordes of dancers descended. Most of the corps members were quartered in rustic log cabins throughout the property, while choreographer Antony Tudor, his dancer/lover Hugh Laing, prima ballerina Irina Baronova, and her husband/company manager German Sevastianov stayed in a large converted barn nearby owned by the Pillow’s welcoming neighbor Ruth Derby.

There was just one additional problem. They all needed to eat. Since the dancers wouldn’t actually be paid any salary for the summer, they were able to collect unemployment — all of $10 per week. Of that less-than-princely sum, they were asked to contribute $1 per day for food.

In addition to rehearsing new ballets and giving master classes and performances, Markova was responsible for the none-too-easy task of planning all the meals with those meager funds. Dancers ate a lot. But as would be true throughout her career, Markova was a mastermind at budgets for everything from food and travel accommodations to costumes and toe shoes. Each morning, she would get together with the cook to plot out carefully cost-controlled menus. “Kapp,” as he was called, was an ex-Army man well versed in food rationing. But Markova thought Sunday meals should always be special — something to look forward to. So on that day she asked Kapp to serve ribs of beef, Yorkshire pudding, and apple pie.

Markova also found a solution to the rudimentary plumbing issues — no running water or showers — as she explained to biographer Maurice Leonard in his 1995 book. While many of the dancers bathed in a stream, Markova wanted a bit more privacy. She consulted a New York camping shop for advice, and it had just the thing: a zip-up rubber bath, light enough for her to tote around. With water from the outdoor pump, the ballerina bathed in her own room, the only bedroom available in the main house.

Throughout the summer, everyone pitched in, from the dancers and company management to students and their mothers. It was like a 1940s Andy Hardy movie starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where someone suddenly shouts, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”

In archival photos of the farm, Markova and Dolin can be seen rehearsing on backyard rocks and ledges, as well as dusting and sweeping out the huge barn. While pushing a large broom, Markova is dressed in a rather fetching pantsuit with fitted jacket and wide-leg trousers. The outfit would be the envy of any fashionable woman of today.

Dolin may have chided Markova for dressing too casually, but she was actually a front-runner in establishing a modern, comfortable chic that was widely copied. Three years before Lauren Bacall taught Humphrey Bogart to whistle in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, Markova was photographed at a restaurant wearing an almost identical wide-shouldered herringbone fitted suit and jaunty beret. (Bacall was another nice Jewish girl who made good.) Markova was also one of the first female celebrities to wear pants in public.

The fashion magazines loved her, and that got Jacob’s Pillow some much needed attention and publicity. Markova’s presence drew the most famous photographers from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, who despite strict gas rationing made the trip to the Berkshires from New York to take photos of the willowy ballerina in the great outdoors. Of course they stayed to watch her dance.

As a reporter from The Berkshire Eagle later rhapsodized about Markova: “Her artistry was akin in spirit to that of a violinist or pianist playing gentle and lyrical passages to chamber music. . . . Diminutive and delicate, her paleness enhanced by jet-black hair, her features suggesting Anna Pavlova, Markova smiled subtly her Mona Lisa smile and virtually floated across the open dancing space.”


Though the cost of performances at Jacob’s Pillow was eminently affordable — the top price was $1.50, and that included afternoon tea — the publicity surrounding Markova’s summer performances in the rural town (not to mention the official premiere of her re-partnering with Dolin) was invaluable. There was also the added cachet of prominent guest lecturers, including dance critics John Martin from The New York Times and Walter Terry of the New York Herald Tribune. 

With all the talented Russian and European company dancers, the festival was considered an international event, helping to raise $50,000 in donations. Leading the formation of that funding committee, and acting as its first president, was Markova’s benefactor Reginald Wright.

Shawn explained: Their “plan was that a new, non-profit-making, artistic and educational corporation be formed by them which would buy the property from me, and build a proper dance festival theatre so that dance artists could have ideal conditions in which to show their work, and audiences have ideal conditions in which to see it. They asked me whether, if this was done, and the corporation engaged me as managing director, would I consent to stay on and conduct school and festivals at Jacob’s Pillow. . . . I consented.”

Ted Shawn would forever be grateful to Markova, whom he called “Adored Alicia” in his frequent letters over the years. They always remained great friends, and Markova returned to dance at Jacob’s Pillow in the 1950s at the pinnacle of her career.

Markova and Dolin had indeed “put on a show!” and Jacob’s Pillow flourished ever after.


The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket runs until August 25 and offers both free and ticketed performances. 413-243-0745; jacobspillow.org

To coincide with the publication of The Making of Markova, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University is exhibiting highlights from the Alicia Markova Collection until November in the Mugar Memorial Library. Author Tina Sutton will speak about Markova’s archives on September 19 in Boston University’s Metcalf Ballroom. 617-353-3696; bu.edu/archives; themakingofmarkova.com

Sutton will also discuss Markova on August 15 at the Brookline Booksmith. 617-566-6660; brooklinebooksmith.com

 Tina Sutton is a Brookline-based freelancer who regularly writes for the magazine’s Style Watch column. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.