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Moira Shearer Today
Our English correspondent finds her
"intelligent and outrageously frank"
By Clive Barnes
Dance Magazine, May 1962
Ballet is full of fairy stories, but this is not one of them. This is a tragedy with a happy ending.
Moira Shearer, ballerina, film star, housewife, mother - the subject almost demands a coy, little biographical vignette. "Beautiful, auburn-haired Miss Shearer lives in the historic village of Amersham in the heart of the gin-and-tonic belt just outside London. With her handsome husband, Ludovic Kennedy, one of Britain's best known TV commentators, and her three lovely daughters, Ailsa (age 10), Rachel (5) and little Fiona (just eight weeks), this porcelain princess leads a busy, active life." That last is true enough. At the moment she says cheerfully that life seems nothing but an endless stream of seeing children off to school and washing diapers. Shearer is outspoken, intelligent, articulate and outrageously frank. We talked about her career, about films and ballet. Her story fascinated me.
Shearer is now just 36, about a year younger than Maria Tallchief, a year older than Nadia Nerina. She should be currently reaching her peak as an artist, with her best years of dancing still in front of her. Yet she has retired from ballet early for the simplest and best of reasons. She says "I found it wasn't possible to be married and have any other kind of full-time career." This, however, does not altogether explain the real mystery of Shearer, the mystery of the ballerina Britain somehow lost on the way.
Shearer's fame as a film star has all but eclipsed her earlier reputation as a classical ballerina. Although Black Tights is the first film she has appeared in for some years, her name in Britain at least, still remains a household word. For example, the other day, sending a cable to the Dance Magazine's Editor-in-Chief in New York with the name Shearer in it, the telephone operator said: "Shearer, as in Moira?" Of course, as a matter of sober fact, it was ! Even as a dancer, she is so far from being forgotten that were she to return to Covent Garden tomorrow, with a suitable fanfare of trumpets, she could still fill the house. But it is close on ten years since she last danced at Covent Garden.
Moira Shearer was born in Dunfirmline, Scotland. She was trained first in the Russian method, working for three years with Nicholas Legat. On Legat's death she entered the Sadler's Wells ballet School, but her training was interrupted by the war. In 1941 she joined Mona Inglesby's International Ballet, where she danced her first roles and had her first press notices. the following year she returned to the Sadler's Wells School, entering the company a few months later. In 1944, at the age of 18, she was appointed a ballerina of the Sadler's Wells Ballet
It was in 1946, however, that Shearer started her real claim to a permanent place in the ballet hierarchy. The Sadler's Wells Ballet had moved to Covent Garden, starting off with a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. On an afternoon in March, Moira Shearer danced her first Princess Aurora, and the ballet world opened out before her. I can remember her performance with the utmost clarity. I was then a young gallery-goer [Beardie?] who had eagerly watched Shearer's progress from the beginning. This Aurora was dazzling in its promise. It combined enormous gusto with a fragile delicacy in a manner that was peculiarly affecting. Not long after came her film, The Red Shoes, and the resultant publicity made her one of the biggest star names in ballet.
Shearer gave her last ballet performance with the Sadler's Wells Ballet in May, 1953. By then I had persuaded people to let me write ballet criticism, and commented on her Aurora at the time: "She is now better looking than she was seven years ago when she first undertook the part and she has a slightly stronger technique. Apart from this and an added regality, I can see little difference between her first promising efforts and her present performance." What had gone wrong? Why did Shearer's promise go largely unfulfilled? I asked Shearer herself much the same question.
"I have no regrets, except for the film The Red Shoes. That I do regret deeply. I was forced into it and very ill-advised at the time. I knew I would loathe it and I did. Apart from that it did a great deal of harm to my career as a dancer. After The Red Shoes and the later films, whenever I returned to ballet I was met with a solid wall of prejudice - from the ballet audience, from the ballet critics, eventually even from the dancers. I found it impossible to get people to treat me as a normal member of the ballet company." Shearer slightly lowered her voice, "For example," she said with diffidence but no bitterness, "I always felt you were rather prejudiced against me."
Me? Prejudiced? Impossible! Yet I wonder how much we in British ballet circles were prejudiced, consciously or subconsciously, against the glamorous Shearer. How much resentment was stirred up by her quite unsolicited world stardom? "In America," she continues, "I was given a fair chance. I was accepted as a moderately promising ballerina who happened to have made good in films. But in England ..."
What Shearer has to say about British ballet and its audiences, its methods and its organization would not make pretty reading. She says it quite without rancour, but with incisive intelligence and complete freedom from any kind of cant.