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Shearer, Moira (1926—)

Shearer, Moira (1926—)

Scottish-born British ballerina whose success as a dancer and actress in films tends to overshadow her achievements in ballet. Name variations: Mrs. Ludovic Kennedy. Born Moira Shearer King on January 17, 1926, in Dunfermline, Fifeshire, Scotland; daughter of Harold Charles King (a civil engineer) and Margaret Crawford (Reid) Shearer; married Ludovic Kennedy (a writer and lecturer), in 1950.

Entered the International Ballet Company (1941), and danced as the Fairy of Song Birds in Aurora's Wedding and the Guardian Swallow in Planetomania; danced with the Vic-Wells Ballet in the Pas de deux in Orpheus and Eurydice, and became soloist (1942), dancing such roles as the Serving Maid in The Gods Go a-Begging, the Pas de deux in Les Patineurs, the Nightingale in The Birds, Pride in The Quest, Pas de trois and Rendezvous pas de deux in Promenade (all 1943), the Polka in Façade, The Butterfly in Le Festin d'araignée, the Young Girl in Spectre de la rose, Chiarina in Le Carnaval, and A Lover in Miracle in the Gorbals (all 1944), Odile in Swan Lake, Mlle Théodore in The Prospect Before Us, Lover in The Wanderer, Countess Kitty in Les Sirèns, and the Dancer in The Rake's Progress (all 1945); earned rank of ballerina (1946); appeared on stage and in film (1948–62); retired from dancing (1954), except for asingle television appearance in Gillian Lynne's A Simple Man, choreographed for the Northern Ballet Theater (1987).

Films:

The Red Shoes (1948); Tales of Hoffmann (1951); The Story of Three Loves (1953); The Man Who Loved Redheads (1954), Peeping Tom (1960), Black Tights (1962).

Stage:

appeared as Titania in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Edinburgh Festival, 1954), and as Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's I Am a Camera (Bournemouth, 1955); appeared in title role in Major Barbara (London, 1956); performed for an entire season with the Bristol Old Vic (1955–56).

Moira Shearer was born on January 17, 1926, in Dunfermline, Fifeshire, Scotland, the daughter of Harold Charles King, a civil engineer, and Margaret Reid Shearer , who had a great love of dance. As a child, she lived in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, where her father had a position for several years. There, Moira studied dance under Ethel Lacey , who had been a pupil of the celebrated Enrico Cecchetti. Shearer became even more connected with the Russian Imperial Ballet tradition after returning to England in 1936, where she continued her ballet training under Nadine Legat , and much later took lessons from the legendary Tamara Karsavina .

In 1940, age 14, Shearer was accepted into the ballet school of Ninette de Valois that had been established as a training center for the newly founded Sadler's Wells Ballet. One year later, she became a member of the International Ballet under Mona Inglesby , a company noted for its experimental work which introduced ballet into such plays as Twelfth Night and Everyman. It was with this group that Shearer made her debut at the Alhambra Theater, Glasgow, on May 10, 1941. Her London debut, still with the International Ballet, took place a few months later at the Lyric Theater on August 26. Shearer appeared with the International Ballet as the Fairy of Song Birds in Aurora's Wedding and the Guardian Swallow in Planetomania, then with the Vic-Wells Ballet in the Pas de deux in Orpheus and Eurydice.

In April 1942, Shearer joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company where the brilliant choreographer Frederick Ashton was devising new and exciting productions for the company's stars Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn . There Shearer, along with fellow newcomer Beryl Grey , was soon dancing such roles as the Serving Maid in The Gods Go a-Begging, the Pas de deux in Les Patineurs, the Nightingale in The Birds, Pride in The Quest (her first critical success), the Pas de trois in Promenade, the Rendezvous pas de deux in the same ballet (1943), the Polka in Façade, The Butterfly in Le Festin d'araignée, the Young Girl in Spectre de la rose, Chiarina in Le Carnaval, A Lover in Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), Odile in Swan Lake, Mlle. Théodore in The Prospect Before Us, Lover in The Wanderer, Countess Kitty in Les Sirèns, and the Dancer in The Rake's Progress (1945).

Throughout the bombing of London during World War II, the Sadler's Wells Company continued to perform both in London and on tour in the provinces. Beginning in 1943, Ashton began to choreograph for other dancers in the company besides Helpmann and Fonteyn, and it was Grey and Shearer who attracted his attention.

Immediately after Germany's capitulation in 1945, the Sadler's Wells went on tour to France and Belgium and before the end of the year toured Germany, with Shearer dancing her first major roles in The Nutcracker and in Spectre de la Rose. In February 1946, Covent Garden Opera House reopened, and Sadler's Wells settled there permanently; the following month, Shearer danced her first full-length classical role, as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. By the end of the 1946 season, still barely 20, she had attained the status of ballerina, was dancing the lead in Les Sylphides, and was one of three dancers of that distinction alternating in the starring role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.

In 1947, Léonide Massine cast Shearer as the Can-Can dancer opposite him when he staged La Boutique Fantasque for the Sadler's Wells, and cast her again for his ballet Mam'zelle Angot. The turning point in Shearer's career occurred that year when British film producer J. Arthur Rank offered her the starring role in his Technicolor version of The Red Shoes, a story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's folk tale of enchanted red shoes that drove the wearer to dance until she died. At first, the 22-year-old Shearer was reluctant to do a motion picture, but with the encouragement of de Valois she finally accepted the role. The film was an enormous success wherever it was shown, running for months in New York City, enthralling audiences everywhere, and making Shearer an internationally famous film star before she had reached her peak as a dancer.

An astonishing beauty with rich red hair, blue eyes, a lovely face, a slight but perfect figure, and a delicate manner, Shearer was the first and only ballerina to become a movie star. While ballets had been previously filmed and other

dancers had appeared in movies before (most notably Vera Zorina ), she paved the way for other ballet performers (Zizi Jeanmaire, Collette Marchand , Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov) to extend their careers by pursuing acting parts on the screen. Despite her initial success, however, Shearer's films were limited in number. Apart from The Red Shoes (1948), they include Tales of Hoffmann (1951), The Story of Three Loves (1953), The Man Who Loved Redheads (1954), the controversial Peeping Tom (1960), and Black Tights (1962).

Shearer soon found that her success in The Red Shoes caused problems with her peers and dance critics who suggested that she was no longer serious about her work in ballet. Stung by the criticism, she always maintained that she had gone into The Red Shoes under pressure and that she fully preferred dancing to screen acting. Fortunately, she was able to follow her success on the screen by dancing the title role in Giselle at the Edinburgh Festival (1948), a performance that was a great success.

[T]he recognition that Shearer was somehow "unclassifiable" … goes far to explain her undiminished appeal across the decades.

—Adrienne McLean

The tearing of a ligament by Margot Fonteyn on the opening night of Ashton's Don Juan in 1948 caused the part to be given to someone else, but when the new full-length Ashton ballet Cinderella opened on Christmas Eve, the title role intended for Fonteyn was given to Shearer. Critics soon regarded her as the equal of Fonteyn in the purity of her classic style. That same year, coached by Tamara Karsavina, she made her debut in the title role in Giselle.

In October 1949, the Sadler's Wells Ballet made its first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and then toured the eastern United States and Canada with Shearer alternating with Fonteyn in the principal roles. Everywhere she enchanted audiences and won high plaudits from the critics. Upon returning to England in 1950, Shearer married Ludovic Kennedy, a former lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who was by then a college librarian, writer, and lecturer.

In the few years remaining to her dancing career, Shearer appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House again in 1950 and 1954 (the latter followed by a nine-week tour of the United States and Canada), and in between performed in Paris with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, dancing the role of Carmen. When Balanchine staged his Ballet Imperial for Sadler's Wells in 1950, he is said to have preferred Shearer to Fonteyn in the production.

As a dancer, Shearer was noted for her technical brilliance, her keen intelligence, her sharp polish, her grace and charm, her seeming weightlessness on the stage, and for her sheer physical beauty. On the other hand, she was faulted for a certain coldness and reserve in her performance, and there is no question that Fonteyn had a greater emotional depth of the kind necessary to the great classical roles. Nevertheless, Shearer always maintained that her favorite roles were precisely those of the great ballet classics—Giselle, the Young Girl in Spectre de la Rose, and the dual role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake—and in time, despite her perceived limitations, she became the only serious rival to Fonteyn on the London ballet scene. The question over which of the two was to be regarded as the greater dancer, however, was not to be resolved; in 1954, still only in her 20s, Shearer retired from dancing. Then, instead of pursuing her film career, she chose to go on the stage. Once again, her appearances were not numerous, and she starred in only a few productions: as Titania in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Edinburgh Festival, 1954), as Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's I Am a Camera (Bournemouth, 1955), and in the title role in Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw (London, 1956). In 1955, she performed for an entire season with the Bristol Old Vic, the provincial training company for the Old Vic in London, appearing most notably as Ondine in the play of that name. In 1956, barely 30, Shearer gave up her performing career to devote herself to her family and private life save for the two films in the early 1960s and a single television appearance dancing in Gillian Lynne 's A Simple Man choreographed for the Northern Ballet Theater in 1987.

In her later years, Shearer became a member of the General Advisory Council of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and in the 1970s served as director of Border Television. In 1986, she published a book on George Balanchine. Despite the brevity of her career, Shearer has remained a revered figure from the Golden Age of British ballet, and through her films, which preserve the record of her style, she has continued to exert an influence over ballet.

sources:

Franks, A.H. Approach to the Ballet. New York, 1948.

Gibbons, M. The Red Shoes Ballet. New York, 1948.

"Moira Shearer," in Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1950.

Music Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

suggested reading:

Clarke, Mary. The Sadler's Wells Ballet. London, 1955.

Shearer, Moira. Balletmaster: A Dancer's View of George Balanchine. London, 1986.

Vaughn, David. Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. New York, 1977.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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