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|About the Change|
Did you know that Moira Shearer gave up ballet for good when she was only 27 - the age Tamara Rojo is now? Yet she is far better known and remembered than many dancers who went on into their forties. Although she danced all the classical leads at Covent Garden, and created some important roles for Frederick Ashton, the real reason for her lasting fame can be written in two words: Red Shoes. By starring in this - by far the most popular ballet film ever made - she became the best-known ballerina in the world, and constant re-showings of the film have meant that millions who never saw her on stage know what she looked like and how she danced.
Shearer was born in Scotland and trained with Nicholas Legat and the Sadler's Wells school before joining Mona Inglesby's International Ballet when it first opened. Dancers started their careers much earlier in those days, so she was still only 16 when she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1942. She quickly became a soloist. Her 'breakthrough' year was 1946, when she not only danced the leads in Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Coppélia for the first time, but also created one of the roles in Frederick Ashton's masterpiece, Symphonic Variations. This last would secure her place in ballet history, if she had done nothing else, and the photographs of that first production, with dark-haired Fonteyn, blonde Pamela May and red-headed Shearer, are some of the best known ever taken. Then in 1948, Shearer created the title role in Ashton's Cinderella when an injury kept Fonteyn out of the first performances.
By then she was famous, for 1948 was also the year of The Red Shoes. Shearer was initially reluctant to appear in a film, and she can't have imagined the fame and publicity it would bring her. When the Sadler's Wells Ballet made their first trip to the USA the next year, she was far better known there than Fonteyn, and got as much coverage in the gossip columns as in the more serious reviews. Fortunately the public found her as enchanting on stage as in the film. She made her second film, The Tales of Hoffmann, in 1950, but continued to dance at Covent Garden, resisting offers to move permanently into films. By her own account, the most significant event for her in this period was Balanchine's arrival to stage his Ballet Imperial: although Fonteyn was the first cast, Balanchine's encouragement of Shearer and his insistence that she could master the technical complexity of the role, gave a real boost to her self-confidence - low up till then despite her film fame. Had she not been newly married (to Ludovic Kennedy) she might well have followed Balanchine back to New York and made the rest of her career with his own company.
Instead she stayed at Covent Garden until 1953, when a combination of ill-health, injury and her wish to make a name for herself as an actress made her decide to retire from the ballet stage. Although Shearer was always an audience favourite, the critics were rarely unanimous in their enthusiasm for her, especially in the classics. Words like 'delicate' and 'pretty', used as faint praise, recur in contemporary notices, and when she retired there was a feeling that she hadn't quite fulfilled her early promise. Some, though, preferred her Cinderella to Fonteyn's, and in works like Ballet Imperial there was no doubt about her success. She is over 70 now, a grandmother, and reviews books for the Daily Telegraph - but as the redhead in The Red Shoes she will be remembered for many years yet.