Sybil Shearer

Modern dance maverick
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The Independent Online

Sybil Shearer, choreographer and dancer: born Toronto, Ontario 23 February 1912; died Evanston, Illinois 17 November 2005.

Sybil Shearer was one of the mavericks of modern dance. She gave up a promising beginning in New York as a choreographer to move away from the established modern dance audiences and their expectations, and to settle in a suburb of Chicago.

In time, she acquired a small theatre of her own, a studio and a company, a loyal following, and the luxury of performing when she felt the time was right. Among her students was John Neumeier, now artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet. In recent years, Shearer wrote a column reviewing dance in Chicago for the respected quarterly Ballet Review, where she voiced strong and perceptive opinions.

A striking theatrical presence, in what she called "liquid acting", with remarkable control of her body and abundant, flowing reddish-brown hair, she has been referred to as a "wild beauty". She made her last appearance in February, aged 93, at the Art Institute of Chicago, in one of her famed solos called "Flame".

Shearer was born in Toronto in 1912 and raised in Nyack, New York, and on Long Island. She graduated from Skidmore College in 1934. She had acquired a virtuoso ballet technique, but, inspired by a statement by the dance critic John Martin, "Modern dance is a point of view rather than a technique", she studied modern dance at the famous summer workshops at Bennington College, Vermont, with Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. She became an assistant to Doris Humphrey, and was a member of the Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company from 1935 until 1941.

After a notably successful solo concert at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall, New York, in 1941, she abruptly made her move to the Chicago area. Those who came from the East Coast to see her performances found her to have taken a very different path from mainstream modern dance. Unpredictable, in her solos she might move in mighty ongoing waves of movement or stand immobile pantomiming themes from nature or fantasy.

Her dances were often spiritual in inspiration, and based on the closeness she felt to nature and the open spaces of Midwestern America, or they might be vignettes of social or everyday problems. In 1959, Doris Hering, writing in Dance Magazine, compared Shearer and Merce Cunningham: "Both are mystics. Both move as though chosen by the wind." Shearer made extensive tours of the United States, occasionally appearing in New York to mixed or bemused reactions.

The first volume of a three-part autobiography, to be called Without Wings the Way is Steep, a title taken from one of her dances, is to be published early next year.

Marilyn Hunt