It would almost seem a statement of the obvious to discuss the role of women in dance. Plenty of time is spent fawning over the performances of near mythical figures like Balanchine’s muses or prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn…but there are more stories than just the most illustrious ones. There are those that are far less romantic and for various reasons less known. I think we owe it to dance history to recognize those figures more often and for that, I turned to a book written by my former teacher and professor of dance at the Ohio State University, Karen Eliot (not a nom de plume): Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham.
The book is not a complete autobiography of these five dancers, but rather an illustration of segments of dance history as embodied by them through their working lives. It’s a diverse selection of unsung heroines that includes eighteenth century ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, Adèle Dumilâtre (the original Myrtha), Tamara Karsavina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fame, star of The Red Shoes Moira Shearer and Cunningham dancer Catherine Kerr. I’ve been reading this book for months (because I’m actually a slow reader and easily distracted when it comes to more academic writing) so unfortunately the chapters on Baccelli and Dumilâtre are not so fresh in my mind, but know that each dancer Karen chose has a contribution to dance that is grossly overlooked. Imagine being Dumilâtre for instance, and having to make a name for yourself in the time of Marie Taglioni? Dumilâtre was in fact one of the first to replace Taglioni in La Sylphide, but by that time the legend was written.
I was however, most interested in the chapter on Moira Shearer, because a brainiac ballerina (Tamara Rojo…who else?) called her “the greatest English ballerina that ever was” and went as far as saying that “she was the star that should have been.” It takes quite a bit of gall to say that Shearer should have been the star in the era of Fonteyn…although perhaps the name Tamara inspires such nerve because Karsavina was quite the brazen, brainiac ballerina herself (although for more on that, you’ll have to read Karen’s book…bwahaha!). At any rate, Shearer is almost solely known for her role as Vicky Page in the landmark film The Red Shoes, which I watched at a time when its contents were far beyond my understanding. Regardless, it’s interesting to uncover how she felt about the film and how it affected her career as a dancer. I don’t know that I would say she blames the movie for her premature retirement, but it certainly did have some negative repercussions that had me thinking about some of the contemporary ballet related films being released these days. I remember reading in an article that Darren Aronofsky said people in the ballet world were reluctant to get involved with Black Swan, which I found surprising at first but perhaps the desire to avoid the fate that befell Moira Shearer makes more sense.
Dame Ninette de Valois’s role in this cannot be ignored. It is said that when Shearer was reluctant to take on the role of Victoria Page, de Valois “encouraged” her to accept it so that the producers of the film would stop annoying her with their persistence. De Valois was also instrumental in creating the Fonteyn vehicle, and apparently cast Shearer in the Bluebird pas de deux on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured to New York, a role that Shearer normally did not dance and frazzled her with anxiety; she was prone to nerves and had basically unraveled by the third act, just waiting in her dressing room. This was at a time when Shearer was world famous for The Red Shoes, but de Valois was insistent on her promoting of Fonteyn, so Shearer’s name was used to entice American audiences but Fonteyn was ultimately the one de Valois wanted to be seen. Apparently there are varying accounts of the tensions between Shearer and de Valois, particularly in coaching Shearer received from Tamara Karsavina and George Balanchine. Shearer sought out Karsavina to be coached for Giselle, a move that infuriated de Valois since only Fonteyn was to receive such treatment (and eventually did when de Valois brought Karsavina in to coach Fonteyn and her partner privately). De Valois actually had to withdraw when it came to Balanchine though; when he came to set Ballet Imperial, he requested to work with Shearer privately, an experience Shearer cherished greatly. It’s unfortunate that some critics at the time were perhaps overzealous in their praise of Fonteyn and consequently downright cruel to Shearer (in some instances they even criticized her porcelain appearance and red hair and that she didn’t have the “look” to dance certain parts…can you believe that?). Critics claimed the choreography wasn’t good enough for Fonteyn (who actually had trouble adapting to Balanchine’s style), and Shearer only excelled because of her speed and strong feet. It’s rather childish, much like some of the YouTube comments on ballet videos these days…
It’s really unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any footage of Shearer dancing ballets on stage commercially available, and we can only imagine what she would have been like by virtue of her film performances. The thought of footage of the original cast of Symphonic Variations that included Shearer (thus making her a goddess in my book!) makes me slobber like a St. Bernard. Although, I don’t know if such footage actually exists or not, but a boy can dream, no? At any rate, my favorite video of her dancing that I’ve seen was not her performances from The Red Shoes, which she believed was filmed at a time when she didn’t consider herself fully refined as a dancer. Although I haven’t seen the entire film, I have long coveted the clip of her dancing from the movie The Story of Three Loves, in which she dances a solo to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Famous for her light and airy movements, the intricate footwork and unusual arm movements suit her incredibly well. I love the almost frenzied section that’s followed by a luxurious adagio to the popular melody. The contrast is like catching a butterfly in your hands—at first it’s frantic as it flutters about but eventually there’s a moment where it settles down and ever so languidly opens and closes its wings, as if breathing through them. In addition to the unconventional port de bras, I was very drawn to the musicality of the piece and after a little research I now know why…it was choreographed by none other than Sir Frederick Ashton! I always gravitate toward his work (clearly at a subconscious level)…so you too must enjoy the glory of Moira Shearer, in this excerpt from The Story of Three Loves.
(I should note that this is not to be confused with Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet that actually uses the exact same music but has completely different choreography)