'Born ballerina' whose radiant performance in 'The Red Shoes' she said blighted her career
Friday 03 February 2006
Moira Shearer King, dancer, actress and writer: born Dunfermline, Fife 17 January 1926; married 1950 Ludovic Kennedy (Kt 1994; one son, three daughters); died Oxford 31 January 2006.
Exceptionally beautiful and talented, famous yet elusive, Moira Shearer was ballet's answer to Greta Garbo - even if the details and reasons differed. In 1948, aged just 22, she achieved lasting worldwide celebrity as the ballerina heroine of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes, a film which brought ballet to an enormous new public. As a principal dancer with the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now Royal Ballet), she danced leading roles at the Royal Opera House and was talked of as a successor to Margot Fonteyn. Yet she always said that The Red Shoes had irreversibly compromised her career as a dancer. And in 1953, at 27, she virtually abandoned dancing.
She did return briefly as a guest artist with London Festival Ballet in 1954. Much later, in 1987, she created the role of Elizabeth Lowry in Gillian Lynne's A Simple Man, premiered on BBC TV for L.S. Lowry's centenary - and this was to be her last dance appearance. Meanwhile, she had turned to other activities, as an actress, a mother of four children, a lecturer and a writer. (She gave her profession as just "writer" in her Who's Who entry.)
But mostly she dropped out of the limelight, maintaining a low profile even when returning to public view. There are few interviews, few articles. Her husband, the writer and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy, has been working on her biography, but this has yet to be published.
She was born in January 1926, in Dunfermline, Fife, a flame-haired girl whose father, Harold King, was a civil engineer. The family home was Barum House, built in 1880 for her maternal grandfather, James Shearer; but, when she was six, she moved with her parents to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia. There, pushed by her mother, she started dance classes with a former member of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Two years later, in 1934, they returned to Britain, first to Scotland, where Moira attended Bearsden Academy, then to London, where she studied ballet with Flora Fairbairn and Nadine Nicolaeva Legat.
In 1940 she entered the Sadler's Wells School and made her stage début, as a student, with the company the same year. In 1941, after a short interlude in Scotland to escape the wartime blitz, she joined Mona Inglesby's new International Ballet. Leo Kersley, a fellow dancer, remembers her as spectacularly eye-catching even then. He and other company members would make a special effort to watch her perform the opening Swallow solo in Mona Inglesby's Planetomania. "She glided, dreamy and gorgeous." She had, he says, a natural talent, which meant that dancing came easily to her:
She was a born ballerina, willowy, with fabulous red hair. Yet she was also a nice, ordinary girl with no illusions of grandeur. She was incredibly beautiful, but down-to-earth.
In 1942, aged 16, she was invited by Ninette de Valois into the Sadler's Wells Ballet and became part of a band touring the length and breadth of the country during the wartime years. They shared damp, cold digs and danced, sustained only by food rations.
First appearing in the corps de ballet of de Valois's Orpheus and Eurydice, she went on to perform many of the important roles in the established repertoire. She danced the ballets of Mikhail Fokine: all the solos in his Sylphides, the young girl in Le Spectre de la rose, Columbine in Carnaval. She performed other de Valois works, as well as ballets by Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine.
In 1943 she was given her first created role as Pride in Ashton's The Quest, based on Spenser's The Faerie Queene. This was followed by other Ashton premieres: in 1946 she was cast in Symphonic Variations, forming a trio with Margot Fonteyn and Pamela May in a ballet which epitomised a post-war classical purity and serenity; in 1948 she was the original Young Wife in Don Juan; and the same year she took the title role of the three-act Cinderella, replacing an injured Fonteyn at the first performance. She created roles in other ballets such as de Valois's Promenade, Robert Helpmann's Miracle in the Gorbals and Andrée Howard's Le Festin de l'araignée. Massine chose to partner her in the cancan when he staged his La Boutique fantasque for the company; he gave her a lead role in the company premiere of his Mam'zelle Angot; and he cast her in his new ballet Clock Symphony (1948).
Margot Fonteyn wrote that Shearer always had star quality, brightening "the company like a jewel". She was "fair and fragile-looking, her dancing as light and airy as an autumn leaf". Professional critics were not always so enthusiastic. But she was praised for her secure balances and deft pirouettes, as well as her slender beauty. The references to her good looks probably frustrated her, when she longed to be recognised for the quality of her dancing.
She also performed the iconic roles of the classical repertoire - The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle. The young Clive Barnes, soon to become an important critic, remembered her matinée début in The Sleeping Beauty. It was 1946, the company had just moved into the Royal Opera House and Margot Fonteyn was already riveting audiences with her own performances in this lavish, inaugural production. But Moira Shearer had a special quality as well. "This Aurora was dazzling in its promise," he wrote. "It combined enormous gusto with a fragile delicacy in a manner that was peculiarly affecting."
The writer Sacheverell Sitwell saw her at another matinée and was completely smitten. He wrote her a fan letter and they became friends. She was a strictly brought-up girl living with her parents in Kensington and the romantic infatuation was all on his side. As an intelligent, down-to-earth Scot with a literary bent, she was often irritated that his idealisation of her disregarded her intellect. But she inspired some of his poetry and their friendship was to last until his death more than 30 years later.
Then came the 1948 ballet film The Red Shoes, based on Hans Christian Andersen's story of a young girl forced to dance to death by the shoes on her feet. When the directors Powell and Pressburger approached Shearer, she was reluctant because she worried that she'd lose her roles in the Sadler's Wells company. But Ninette de Valois persuaded her that the exposure would benefit the whole company. And so it was: after a slow start, the film was a huge hit - beyond all expectations. It imprinted itself in the memories of movie-goers who would never have otherwise watched ballet. Moira Shearer, as the ballerina made to sacrifice her love for a composer in favour of her career, entranced audiences everywhere. As an actress, she not only had radiance, but a fine voice and dramatic nuance.
By the end of the film, she had so captivated spectators that her death under the wheels of a train, was - in the words of her future husband Ludovic Kennedy - "almost more than one could bear". When the following year the Sadler's Wells Ballet made their American début, Shearer was better known than Fonteyn. She made a second Powell and Pressburger film - The Tales of Hoffmann - in 1950, but continued to dance with the Sadler's Wells Ballet.
Later she was to express regret about The Red Shoes. "I was forced into it and was very ill advised at the time," she said:
Apart from that, it did a great deal of harm to my career as a dancer. After The Red Shoes and 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.
Happier experiences were her guest performances in Paris, in Roland Petit's ballet Carmen, and the arrival of George Balanchine at Covent Garden to stage Ballet Imperial - both in 1950. (In 1986 she was to write a book, Balletmaster: a dancer's view of George Balanchine.) Although Fonteyn danced the first night, Balanchine had wanted Shearer's tauter technical assurance. His confidence in her was a tremendous boost, at a time when she imagined herself accepted in the company only because of her looks and renown. She might well have joined Balanchine's New York City Ballet, were it not for a change in her private life. She had become involved with the future broadcaster and human rights campaigner Ludovic Kennedy - then employed as a librarian in order to finish his second book, Nelson's Band of Brothers (on 14 of Nelson's captains, published in 1951) - and they were married in February 1950.
They had met at a ball where she was judging a fancy dress competition. Kennedy, who had been so overwhelmed by The Red Shoes, recognised her and plucked up the courage to invite her to dance. She had accepted, but added, to his astonishment, "I don't dance very well." She then showed him she wasn't exaggerating. She trod on his feet and nearly tripped him up, explaining that she rarely attempted ballroom dancing.
Shearer's retirement from dancing was provoked by injury and an ambition to become an actress. She made several other films: The Story of Three Loves (1952); The Man Who Loved Redheads (1954); Peeping Tom (1960); and Black Tights (1961). On stage she played Titania (opposite Robert Helpmann's Oberon) in an Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the 1954 Edinburgh Festival, which then toured Canada and the United States. She toured for another six months as Sally Bowles (replacing Dorothy Tutin) in Christopher Isherwood's I Am a Camera. She joined the Bristol Old Vic, where she appeared in Shaw's Major Barbara (1956) and other plays.
After a gap, she resumed stage acting, playing Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (1977) and Judith Bliss in Hay Fever (1978) at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. Still later, she was Juliana Bordereau in The Aspern Papers at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (1994).
She had meanwhile reinvented herself as a lecturer, writer and broadcaster. She was a reader on BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, she lectured widely on Diaghilev and the history of the ballet, she gave public recitals of poetry and prose with her husband. She served on the Scottish Arts Council (1971-73) and the BBC General Advisory Council (1970-77), and was a director of Border Television (1977-82). She wrote a biography, Ellen Terry (1998), as well as her book about Balanchine. She was a regular book reviewer for The Daily and The Sunday Telegraph, and wrote perceptive entries on Ashton and Helpmann for the DNB.
In 2000, Shearer fell ill with viral encephalitis, which left her with an impaired memory. She and her husband had left Scotland to live in Avebury, Wiltshire, but in 2002 they sold their house to move to Oxford.
Moira Shearer was made my godmother in 1951, having married my uncle Ludovic Kennedy, writes Richard Calvocoressi.
I am not a ballet historian and I am too young ever to have seen her dance, so short was her career. But I was brought up on stories of her grace and intelligence as a dancer, as well as of her beauty and mesmerising stage presence. I watched The Red Shoes on television and last year I saw Peeping Tom for the first time in the Michael Powell retrospective at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Moira told me she did not really care for Powell, though it is an extraordinary film, way ahead of its time. I also witnessed her stage comeback in Edinburgh in the late 1970s, when she and Ludovic were living in a Georgian terraced house overlooking the Water of Leith, and was moved by her performance in The Aspern Papers in Glasgow 12 years ago.
When playing Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera in the Fifties, she said she dreaded every night having to mix and swallow in full view of the audience a "prairie oyster" - a concoction of raw egg and Worcester sauce - with which Sally tries to cure her hangover. She never completely shed her dancer's training; whether acting or in ordinary life she always stood and moved like a ballerina, even on the tennis court.
Moira was an imaginative and generous godparent, remembering my birthday long after custom dictated. For my 21st she gave me a complete set of Proust. She loved French culture. She would have been blissful living in a farmhouse in the Provençal sun but had to make do with holidays in the Highlands instead. When I was a child our two families would combine to rent a remote house in Inverness-shire belonging to the historian John Grigg, where Ludovic could indulge his love of fishing and shooting and teach these sports to his children and nephews.
It wasn't exactly Moira's cup of tea, but she entered into it with enthusiasm and her customary good-humour and sense of the absurd. She had an attractive, deep voice and an infectious laugh, and was a good mimic. She also held strong views on politics and other subjects and I can remember some heated discussions between the grown-ups at dinner. I think she enjoyed teasing people - she had a mischievous side. In some respects she was more radical in her opinions than Ludovic, although she did not subscribe to his atheism and his criticisms of the Christian Church, leaving open, in a conversation I clearly recall, the possibility that there might be something in religion.
She occasionally confided that she hadn't really wanted to be a dancer, that the discipline and commitment ruled out any other kind of life, and that she had been pushed into it by her mother. I often wondered whether her passion for literature, music and the visual arts, which she largely developed after her ballet career ended - and which had a big influence on me - wasn't in some way making up for lost time and her lack of higher education.
At home, she listened to classical music all day long and at one point trained with the BBC to become a Radio 3 announcer. But she gave up because she could not manage the split-second timing and occasional requirement to "fill in".
She was a perfectionist in whatever she did, but not in a frigid sense: everything, even producing a meal, was done effortlessly with a supreme lightness of touch. She had a great sense of style without ever being a slave to fashion. In fact, there was something timeless about her dress: skirt or slacks, wide belt encircling minuscule waist, and full blouse - the New Look might have been designed specially for her. She kept her legendary pile of golden red hair well into old age.
Her mother's family, the Shearers, must have been quite artistic. It's not widely known that Moira's uncle James Shearer was a distinguished architect, partner in the firm of Shearer and Annan, responsible for some stylish public buildings, monuments and interiors in and around Dunfermline as well as various dams and power stations in the Highlands. Moira's own innate artistic sense was inherited by all three of her daughters, two of whom studied at art college and became practising artists, while the third founded her own design business.
Moira definitely had star quality. There was something alluring and mysterious about her morning ritual of black coffee and a cigarette in her dressing-gown before she could start the day - and starting the day meant spending a considerable length of time in her bedroom carefully preparing face and hair. She would emerge, prancing and radiating energy, ready to turn heads wherever she went.
But she was modest and self-effacing about her own achievements. She once tried to write her memoirs but dropped the idea after about a fortnight, complaining of boredom. She didn't like looking back and couldn't imagine that anyone would want to read about her life. Her performances were what counted and those could not be recreated. One of her daughters recently told me that when she and Ludovic moved house for the last time she threw away a couple of sacks of photographs and other memorabilia, claiming they were of no interest to anyone.
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