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Dame Alicia Markova, who died a day after her 94th birthday, was the greatest British ballerina in history, even - some would have said - the greatest ballerina who ever lived; yet in her native land she received less acclaim than her younger colleague, Margot Fonteyn, who owed her so much.

The personification of the exquisite and incorporeal, hailed as the ultimate interpreter of Giselle, Alicia Markova was a catalytic modernising force for both British and American dance.

As a child, she was taken up by Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, and in the 1920s became the early inspiration of the choreographers Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine, both of whom cut their creative teeth on her astonishing talent. Henri Matisse drew squiggles on her body-leotard - the first modern ballet costume - and the young Igor Stravinsky taught her the bizarre new rhythms of his music.

One of the tiny élite acknowledged as prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Markova was the originator of roles for every major choreographer of the era, including Ninette de Valois, Michel Fokine, Antony Tudor, Léonide Massine and Bronislava Nijinska.

She later founded the Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet), and became its President, establishing Britain's most important touring company to reach a new regional audience. She was also the first great international ballerina, negotiating her own substantial fees with a hard-headedness that belied the ethereal nature of her artistry.

Unlike Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova was not a home-grown product of British ballet - in her youth, Britain had little ballet training of much regard and she was taught by émigré Russians. However, she was to become its wellspring.

Without her transcendent technique and aristocratic, classical style, and without her poetic and musical intuition, there would have been no lasting British ballet tradition, and certainly none that could dominate the Western world. If it was the influence of Diaghilev that set British ballet its technical aspirations, it was the transformation by Alicia Markova, as she danced, of the physical into the metaphysical that showed what ballet's artifice was about and how it could exalt the spirit.

Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert, the founders of British ballet, depended entirely on her presence as their prima ballerina in the Vic-Wells Ballet (which later became the Royal Ballet) and Ballet Club (which was eventually to evolve into the Ballet Rambert) to lead the classics they were introducing and to inspire and educate nascent young choreographers.

At 19 Alicia Markova was far ahead of any dancer in Britain, both physically and intellectually. She already possessed a superlative knowledge of ballet steps and a fine sensibility; yet she was wholly obedient in the hands of a choreographer.

Without such stimulation, Frederick Ashton might have remained a gifted but light choreographer in revue. Alicia Markova taught him to hone his ballets with a subtlety and technical virtuosity that might otherwise have been beyond him, given his sketchy ballet training.

Equally stimulating to such a sensual imagination as Ashton's was Markova's personality, which combined sophistication with an untouchable virginality, a combination which he exploited in such ballets as Façade, Foyer de Danse and Les Rendezvous.

When Alicia Markova left the Vic-Wells in 1935 to set up her own ballet company and capitalise on her earning power, Ashton was outraged. "I'm going to take Margot [Fonteyn, then aged 16] and make her much greater than you ever were," he snapped.

He was wrong, for although he did turn Margot Fonteyn into the star of (what is now) the Royal Ballet, her qualities always closely reflected those of Alicia Markova. In fact, the "rivalry" between the two women was largely a fiction which had been got up by the press. Alicia Markova took the younger ballerina under her wing at the Vic-Wells, just as Ninette de Valois had protected her at the Ballets Russes, and they always acknowledged their debt to one another.

Nothing of Markova's future distinction was prefigured in her early life. She was born Lilian Alicia Marks at Finsbury, north London, on December 1 1910, the eldest of four daughters of Jewish-Irish parents.

She was an unpromising specimen who did not speak at all until she was six; her flat-footed gait and her frequent illnesses caused further concern. But after an orthopaedic surgeon recommended remedial ballet classes as an experimental alternative to leg-irons, within three years she was being billed on the London musical theatre circuit as "the child Pavlova".

After she had made her professional debut at the age of 10 in a London pantomime (supporting Nellie Wallace, a music-hall star known as "The Essence of Eccentricity"), The Daily Telegraph's critic enthused about "a very accomplished ballerina in miniature".

Memories of this early background in the music-hall tradition remained dear to Alicia Markova, who drew on her experiences to characterise her roles in Ashton's early comic ballets; and her populist instincts fed her later determination to take ballet to unorthodox venues that had rarely encountered it previously.

In music-hall she might have stayed, had her father not gone bankrupt and then died. Partly from pity, partly from curiosity, Diaghilev looked out the child prodigy who had studied with his friend, the White Russian Princess Astafieva in Chelsea, and liked what he saw.

At 14 she had been offered work by his former choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, in a new Midsummer Night's Dream at Drury Lane. She "clicked" with the remote Diaghilev, and chose instead to go, without a contract, to his troupe in Europe, accompanied by a governess.

With the troupe she was a speciality child soloist, performing among such stars as Olga Spessivtseva, Serge Lifar and George Balanchine. Ninette de Valois, a soloist in the company, was deputed to mind "the brat", as she called her, and roles were created especially for her.

She first appeared as "Alicia Markova" at the Coliseum in 1925 (Diaghilev changed all English names, believing that the public would not be attracted otherwise). Ninette de Valois noted that she brought out a gentle side of Diaghilev, who had a reputation for ruthlessness, that he showed to no one else.

"He was like a second father," Alicia Markova recalled in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. "You know the awful stories people say about Diaghilev's relationships. I'm not saying that wasn't so, but wasn't it amazing that there was this other side of him? I used to call him Serjy-pop, and he called me dushka, little one. The company couldn't understand it." She was distraught when Diaghilev died in 1929: she felt, too, that her career might be over. "Nobody wanted the kind of work I did. I wasn't blonde or pretty or sexy."

Those fears proved unfounded. The young Alicia also attracted the attention of the Ballets Russes' modern-minded creators, who were stimulated by the possibilities of her undeveloped, androgynous body and by her ability to perform double-turning jumps, done only by men.

Alicia Markova prompted Balanchine to take his first steps away from the feminine stereotypes of Imperial classical ballet towards a more athletic, abstract role-playing which incorporated great energy; in Le Chant du Rossignol, his first ballet, in 1925, she was the eponymous Nightingale, wearing Matisse's new-fangled leotard.

Meanwhile, Stravinsky taught her to dance to melody and instruments, rather than learning steps to the counts and beats, the process usually relied on by dancers. Diaghilev groomed Alicia Markova for greatness, having her study Swan Lake with Russia's first ballerina, Mathilde Kchessinska, the former mistress of Tsar Nicholas II, and attend on Olga Spessivtseva between acts in Giselle, the ballet that Spessivtseva virtually owned before she went insane. He was planning to create a new Giselle production for Markova in the period immediately before his death.

Alicia Markova learned from her fellow ballerinas how to be glamorous, and she assuaged her dissatisfaction with her looks with a life-long love of haute couture. A tiny woman, she had minute feet, and once she could afford it she would wear only handmade shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo, with very high heels. She was even known to rehearse Swan Lake in full-length mink and heels.

Minute they may have been, but those feet had a refined strength. Her technique, according to the choreographer Agnes de Mille, was "prodigious". Yet she exhibited none of the muscularity of today's dancers, who have a lighter workload than she ever had. As Markova once said: "The great dancers were all great athletes - if you analyse Pavlova, for instance. But they didn't look it. That was what fascinated the audience."

Alicia Markova's art reached its peak during the most energetic period of the 20th century. She united the powerful current of the St Petersburg tradition with a temperament that harked back to earlier eras, and yet also showed an openness to new ideas. Her move to America, coinciding with the Second World War, was controversial and temporarily lost her the affection of British audiences. However, they were triumphant years for her. She became ABT's star ballerina, dominating in classical roles and inspiring Antony Tudor to create Romeo and Juliet for her.

The critic John Martin, of the New York Times, wrote of Alicia Markova: "She is not only the greatest ballet dancer in the world today, but very possibly the greatest that ever lived." Her response was down-to-earth: "It's easy to write something like that, but it's I who have to live up to it. I mean, ducky, the audience is going to expect something after reading that bit."

She was also courted by the film business, though she never took the studios' approaches seriously, preferring to concentrate on her live performances. "Hollywood wanted me to play Pavlova," she said. "Several times they asked me, but I thought `No'. I had too much respect for her."

When she and her partner, the Irishman Anton Dolin, returned to Britain, they rapidly re-conquered the public, founding the Festival Ballet in 1950 as a touring alternative to the Royal Ballet. She later recalled: "I said, `it isn't just London. What about all the people outside and all over the country?' The idea was to have a company to give work to all the talented dancers here that we knew. Because otherwise, if Dame Ninette [de Valois] didn't need them, they went into revues and had to take commercial work. And also we knew so many great dancers, and we knew they all had a great public in London; so we thought, if we have a company, we can invite them all as guests, and it won't take much rehearsal because we are all more or less trained in the same way, and know the same things." It was a formula that also enabled her to continue to dance worldwide, from the Philippines to Cuba.

Though she always maintained the glamorous image of a diva, Alicia Markova was unpretentious about her art. She was a lifelong supporter of Arsenal football club, and was happy to perform in venues such as a greyhound stadium in north London, the Hollywood Bowl (in front of 35,000 people), and even at the Royal Albert Hall.

She also danced (wearing a terrifying purple-and-black make-up) for early television test transmissions which were made by John Logie Baird in 1932. In 1960 she made the BBC series Markova's Ballet Call; in 1980 she followed this with her Masterclass.

Alicia Markova was appointed DBE in 1963, the year she retired from dancing and began a six-year stint as the director of ballet at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Here, as well as staging ballets, she coached singers to move, notably Joan Sutherland as Lucia di Lammermoor and Birgit Nilsson for her Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome. She was a professor at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music from 1971 until 1973.

Alicia Markova lived in the same flat in Knightsbridge for more than half a century, and continued to teach and adjudicate competitions until she was in her late eighties.

In 1995, 70 years after performing Balanchine's Le Chant du Rossignol, she assisted its reconstruction for posterity by the George Balanchine Foundation. Sadly, her amazing powers of recall were not tapped in an attempt to re-create Ashton's early ballets for her.

Alicia Markova remained unmarried. She was never seen to have a boyfriend, although it was generally supposed that she was secretly in love with Anton Dolin; she denied it, but conceded that he had very efficiently shooed away any men who might distract her from her dancing.

Copyright The Daily Telegraph (2004)

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