Few people living today will remember seeing a tiny, slender 15-year-old English girl named Lillian Alice Marks make her Paris debut at the Gaieté Lyrique as Alicia Markova. The year was 1925, the company Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the ballet young George Balanchine’s revision of the Stravinsky-Massine Le Chant du Rossignol. As the eponymous Nightingale, wearing a costume by Matisse—a daringly skirtless, jewel-edged white leotard and tights and a headdress trimmed with osprey plumes—the little Markova, with her feathery footwork, charmed the house.
More balletomanes may recall seeing her perform in the 1930s during the fertile early days of British ballet, when she danced a variety of roles—in Frederick Ashton’s works, including the roguish Polka in Facade. But although she was a dancer who played many parts with distinction, American audiences who attended performances by Ballet Theatre and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the ’40s and ’50s will perhaps remember her best in Giselle. She was Britain’s first Giselle (as well as the nation’s first Odette-Odile in Swan Lake), and—usually paired with Anton Dolin—she enchanted balletgoers with her delicacy and guileless sweetness. More than any other ballerina, she projected the thistledown lightness so prized by 19th-century audiences, the ethereal beauty captured in lithographs of the period, and a fleetness just beyond the reach of the morally suspect hero. In the famous little flurry of jumps in Act II of Giselle, her toes, barely off the ground, seemed to stitch the fragile heroine’s final quicksilver farewell to the world. “Arrowy” was Edwin Denby’s word for her miraculous feet.
For a number of years after her retirement in 1963, Markova, now Dame Alicia, directed the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and subsequently taught at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music, coached roles, and gave master classes. I’m sure she did all this with distinction, but, inevitably, what she had is beyond the scope of teaching. Artists of her caliber are almost as rare as magic nightingales who can restore an emperor to life.