August 2013

Molly O'Brien

nonfiction

The Making of Markova: Diaghilev's Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon by Tina Sutton

A talented child becomes a talented child star. The talented child star grows up, achieves great success, avoids trouble, and retires after mastering and performing the same roles again and again for four decades.

A ballerina possesses incredible grace and lightness. Dance critics use all possible adjectives to describe said grace and lightness. The ballerina retires with nary a dent in her record of critical adoration.

Neither of those narratives seem like they'd make for a good memoir. Perfection, like supermodels and stock exchange floor trading, is fascinating in person but sort of boring on paper. A success story without scandal might leave a reader yearning for something more provocative. And yet The Making of Markova, Tina Sutton's extensive biography on Alicia Markova, the groundbreaking British ballerina, is as captivating as Markova's performances were.

Markova, born Alicia Marks in 1910 (she adopted Markova as her Russian stage name), boasts impressive credentials in the annals of ballet history, most of them involving the words "best" or "first": first British dancer to be the principal at a company, first person to perform The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy in America, youngest ever soloist at Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, best Giselle of all time. The best choreographers of the 1930s and '40s made dances on her: Frederick Ashton, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine. She was a Jewish ballerina in a world and industry teeming with anti-Semites. She was a woman who negotiated her own salaries and managed the business end of countless dance companies, hiding her entrepreneurial smarts under a veneer of fragility.

Though Markova didn't seem born to be a great dancer -- she was a terribly shy child who wore braces to correct weak legs and flat feet -- eventually, every trait of hers contributed to the inevitability of her stardom. Stravinsky taught her to memorize musical scores. She could recall choreography after watching someone else perform it a single time. Longtime partner and occasional adversary Anton Dolin recalls studying with her at Seraphine Astafieva's London dance school: "Her technique was really quite extraordinary. She used to really annoy all of us pupils in the class with the idiotic facility and ease with which she could execute all the steps." Dolin would put her on an arabesque, leave her, come back minutes later and find her in the same position. Sutton describes her as "the Swiss Army knife of ballet."

Her early career proceeded in a series of large steps forward and unfortunate setbacks. Her father died unexpectedly, leaving her to support her mother and sisters with the money she made dancing. Diaghilev brought her to Monte Carlo and put her in his avant-garde Ballets Russes when she was only fourteen. She performed precocious little solos, then went back to the corps level once she was old enough to legally perform the company's full repertoire. In 1929, Diaghilev "offered her the role of a lifetime -- the lead in Giselle," only to die before the next season could begin. The company fell to pieces, and Markova was adrift, "one of the most technically proficient out-of-work ballet dancers in London." It wasn't until after the nascence of several English ballet companies that she could find a foothold. She danced in Marie Rambert's Ballet Club (now the Rambert Dance Company), in Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet), and in touring companies that spread the art of ballet across England. And then, as if it were meant to be all along, she was a star.

Overcoming adversity, triumphing despite the odds -- these are admirable things, and Sutton dutifully documents Markova's path from shy knock-kneed child to lighter-than-air legend. Perhaps Sutton realized the story needed juicier drama, and so she excerpts plenty of diary entries and letters that reveal the cattiness, drama, and backstabbing that occurred behind the scenes. Lydia Lopokova, an older dancer on the scene, considered Markova a "rival," snubbed her when casting an important gala performance, and sinisterly called her "the Jewess" in a letter to her husband. Serge Lifar, her vain dance partner, dropped her in the first act of a Giselle performance. Sutton speculates that the blunder was intentional; he "clearly had it in for her."

Anton Dolin, Markova's career partner and good friend, made subtler moves to sabotage her. When Dolin wasn't gossiping about her or trashing her in his memoirs, he was sending her wheedling notes praising her performances or asking for her to influence company directors to hire him: "I think dear the suggestion should come from you about co-opting me on the board of the company... It is better you suggest it, that is, you wish it as I do. My interests are yours, & yours dear are most surely mine. Together we shall conquer the whole world." Even at the center of a vast whirlwind of tight budgets, jealous collaborators, injuries, illnesses, and conniving colleagues (one fellow dancer had a habit of destroying her costumes just before performances; I read the anecdote and visions of tulle hacked to bits danced in my head), Markova shines in Sutton's narrative.

Sutton "knew nothing about Alicia Markova" before offering to catalog her papers at Boston University. At first she mistook her for the Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova. But something must have happened during the research period to make Sutton fall in love with her subject. Maybe it was the critics' repetition of words like "frail" and "exquisite" to describe Markova's performances. Maybe it was Markova's cheery newspaper quotes about eating truffles to keep her energy up between acts, contrasted by diary entries that revealed a melancholy secret heart: "No one will ever know how much I have suffered mentally & physically." Sutton's biography displays an incredible tenderness and sympathy toward her subject. She apologizes for instances when Markova might have acted like a diva. She corrects the accounts she finds erroneous, peppering them with bracketed notes that contradict the wayward words of semi-enemies like Dolin and Lopokova. She is so protective, so sensitive to Markova's suffering, and yet it seems preposterous to consider The Making of Markova any less accurate or trustworthy for it.

Sympathy is intoxicating. Sympathy, too, is vindicating. After all, Markova is a woman whom dance critics negged practically as much as they praised; Agnes de Mille called her "the stringiest girl I ever saw, a darling little skeleton, with the great eyes of a moth at the top." This is a woman who, despite her pliancy in the hands of choreographers, maintained an unmistakable independence for the duration of her forty-year career. This is a woman who managed to find something new and exciting in a role she danced over and over for years. It feels good, for the length of this book and beyond, to join Sutton and root for Markova in earnest. After all, Alicia Markova wasn't a darling little skeleton. She was a force.

The Making of Markova: Diaghilev's Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon by Tina Sutton
Pegasus
ISBN: 978-1605984568
682 pages