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The Buzz, 2-3: The Day the Dancing Stopped
Moira Shearer, RIP: The Spell wasn't in the Shoes

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

Well, dance insiders, as far as our leading citizens leaving us goes, this has been one helluva rotten month. Last week we reported on the departure of tap legend Fayard Nicholas. On Tuesday, Nicholas was followed by another icon, Moira Shearer, the Royal Ballet star who, in dancing herself to death in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 "Red Shoes" inspired a generation of dancers to give their lives to ballet and, in parallel fashion, fostered a new generation of balletomanes.

Moira Shearer. The Roger Wood Collection / ROH Collections.

Of course, it wasn't the shoes but the woman who filled them who brought life to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and especially its central sequence, choreographed by Robert Helpmann and danced opposite Helpmann and Leonide Massine. And the magic was not just in her feet, but in a body inclined to dance and eyes enlivened by it that infected us with its joy.

Shearer, who turned 80 in January, passed away Tuesday at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, her husband, Sir Ludovic Kennedy, told the Scottsman, having become weaker since her birthday. "She was full of spirit and she was also very beautiful," Kennedy told the newspaper. "She moved wonderfully and gracefully, as you would expect of a ballet dancer. I found her very good company and I think the children did too." Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet, said that everyone at the company was "very sad to learn of the death of the great ballerina Moira Shearer. She played such an important role in the early years of the company and her fame and glorious talent helped us acquire the international status we still have today."

For more details on Shearer's life, check the Royal Ballet announcement I've posted at the end of this story, or Mary Clarke's obituary piece in The Guardian. For some more breathtaking images, by Duncan Melvin and Gordon Anthony, click here.

It's a full-page Maurice Seymour photo of the ballerina in Roland Petit's "Carmen," from the 1950 program of the Ballets de Paris, that I have before me now. On pointe, straight arms sloping, in shadow like her profiled face, Shearer retains the haunted quality that gave "The Red Shoes" its tragic depth, and leant the same to "The Jealous Lover" segment of the 1952 Vincente Minelli/Gottfried Reinhardt tryptic "The Story of Three Loves," my most recent screen viewing of her.

The scenario (credited to John Collier, Jan Lustig, and George Froeschel) echoes "The Red Shoes": Auditioning in a London studio, Paula Woodward (Shearer) is just beginning to wow director-choreographer Charles Coutray (James Mason) when she suddenly collapses. "It's not my ankle," she tells her former ballet dancer aunt (Agnes Moorehead). A doctor tells her it's her heart, and that dancing could kill her. She tries to stop, but one night finds herself at the premiere of Coutray's "Astarte." In a trance, she lingers until long after the curtain, then slowly descends to the stage where, in evening-dress, she begins dancing to the Rachmaninov music, heard only in her head, rediscovering her love of dance.

"Can you do that again?" Coutray shouts, jumping from the shadows of a box and excitedly rushing down to the stage. He wants to take her back to his home and studio to repeat what she's done; the ballet has been missing something, and this is it. She resists at first, trying to explain that she's quit dancing -- he's now remembered her from the audition. But she won't say why, and he assumes it was for a man. Dismissing this, he finally convinces her to relent. Dazzled and re-smitten with dance in his home and studio -- a dance palace strewn with sculptures of dance figures, tulle, sketches and set models -- she changes into ballet gear and, tentatively at first then building to a frenzy of a finish, she works the dance out for him. In reality, Frederick Ashton worked out the choreography, and he could not have been better served. Shearer dances as everyone should -- as if discovering the movement the moment she creates it. In effect, she is dancing each movement as if it is at once new and final, and that's what Moira Shearer brought to dance, an embodiment of the famous choreographer's imperative that one should dance every moment as if both for the first and last time. It's a valuable imperative for life as well, and it was Moira Shearer's greatest gift to us.

Royal Ballet Statement

It is with great sadness The Royal Ballet announces that Moira Shearer died on 31 January 2006. She was 80.

Moira Shearer was born in Dunfermline, Scotland on 17 January, 1926. She trained as a dancer from the age six. Two years of her childhood were spent with her parents in Southern Rhodesia, and it was in Africa that she first took dancing lessons from a former member of the Diaghilev Ballet. She returned to Britain in 1934 and went to school in Scotland for two years. She then came to London and began her theater training under Miss Flora Fairbairn and subsequently under Mme L. Legat, widow of Nicholas Legat.

She joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet School in 1940 but returned home to Scotland during the Blitz, rejoining the school in March 1942. Moira Shearer made her debut with International Ballet in 1941 and was invited to join the Sadler's Wells ballet troupe at age 16 in 1942 and became ballerina from 1944 to 1952. As well as dancing the lead in "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty," and "Giselle," she created a number of roles, including Ashton's "The Quest" (1943), "Symphonic Variations" (1946), "Cinderella" (1948) as well as Helpmann's "Miracle in the Gorbals" (1944), and Massine's "The Clock Symphony" (1948).

Her dancing career was interrupted, however, by her popular success in the film "The Red Shoes" in 1948. Thereafter she had difficulty convincing the public and press of her commitment to her career as a theatrical ballerina and eventually left the Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1952 to concentrate on acting in the theater. She went on to dance as a Guest Artist at Sadler's Wells from 1952-53, when she retired due to an injury, only to return as a Guest Artist with London Festival Ballet in 1954. She continued to dance occasionally in films and made rare appearances on stage in the 1970s and 80s, including Gillian Lynne's "A Simple Man," (in which) she created the role of L. S. Lowry's mother for Northern Ballet Theatre (BBC TV). Her film credits include; "Tales of Hoffman" (1951), "Story of Three Loves" (1952), "The Man Who Loved Redheads" (1955), "Black Tights" (1960) and "Peeping Tom" (1960). Moira Shearer married the author and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy in 1950 and is survived by a son and three daughters.

Monica Mason, director of The Royal Ballet, says:

"Everyone in The Royal Ballet company is very sad to learn of the death of the great ballerina Moira Shearer. She played such an important role in the early years of the company and her fame and glorious talent helped us acquire the international status we still have today."

Dance Insider ballet editor Aimee Ts'ao contributed to this report.

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