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Sybil Shearer; portrait by Helen Morrison
February 23, 1912|
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Died||November 17, 2005
Evanston, Illinois, United States
|Occupation||Choreographer, dancer and writer|
Sybil Shearer (February 23, 1912 – November 17, 2005) was a Canadian choreographer, dancer and writer. She was hailed as a "maverick" or "mystic" of modern dance.
Early life and education
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After graduating in 1930 from Newark High School in Newark, New York (near Rochester), she studied at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, graduating in 1934. She then pursued modern dance at Bennington College's summer workshops in Vermont, with Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and Hanya Holm.
Shearer's first solo concert in New York City, New York, in 1941, at Carnegie Hall, caused a sensation. Shortly after her New York City triumph, she walked away from the fame that was opening for her, settling instead in the American Midwest in the mid-1940s, where she continued to perform in the Chicago, Illinois, area, and inspired numerous students of dance, including John Neumeier who is now director of the Hamburg Ballet.
Dance historian Margaret Lloyd, in The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, described Shearer as "a perfectionist who likes to believe that perfection is humanly attainable". Shearer was among the first performers to tackle spiritual and social justice issues, such as the plight of factory workers, a theme of one of her pieces. She drew ideas and inspiration from a variety of artistic influences, including lengthy correspondence with choreographer and dancer Agnes de Mille and writer Virginia Woolf.
Shearer depicted both spiritual visions and human foible in her works which were mostly solo pieces.
She created "Let the Heavens Open That the Earth May Shine" in 1947 which celebrated spiritual ideals.
"In a Vacuum" (1941) explored earthly problems and portrayed an assembly-line worker with physically demanding but unrelated movements that suggested dehumanization.
Shearer created "Once Upon a Time" in 1951 which was a suite of solos for fantastically named characters. Thus Medmiga was an ominous witch, Yanchi was fey, Relluckus was woebegone and Ziff fluttered aimlessly.
Shearer also choreographed group works, among them "Fables and Proverbs" (1961) and "The Reflection in the Puddle Is Mine" (1963).
In a photo book by John Martin, Shearer is often seen wearing loose-fitting garments or highly theatrical costumes. Combining the technique of ballet and the freedom of modern dance, Shearer used a pointed or flexed foot, long extended limbs, and contorted shapes or straight lines of the body.
Many of Shearer's productions were in collaboration with Helen Balfour Morrison, a photographer and filmmaker who documented Shearer's career.
Shearer was appointed artist-in-residence at the Arnold Theatre of the National College of Education (now National Louis University) located in Evanston, Illinois, in 1962. The school was looking to have an artist of great caliber working close by.
As artist-in-residence, Shearer was given the freedom to create works with her company, derived from her repertory, whenever and however she pleased. Her only obligation was to produce one piece that would be performed at the institute's annual assembly.
The Morrison-Shearer Foundation
The Morrison-Shearer Foundation, established in 1991, preserves the works related to the careers of photographer Helen Balfour Morrison and Shearer. The foundation also maintains the home, designed for Morrison by architect Robert E. Seyfarth, and studio where the pair lived and worked. The foundation also sponsors new creativity. It is supported entirely by income from the foundation's investments.
The foundation's projects are to complete the publication of Shearer's three-volume autobiography Without Wings the Way Is Steep; to preserve and archive all photographs, films, letters, manuscripts, reviews and other memorabilia; to provide modest annual Board-initiated grants in support of current work in the arts, especially dance; to explore the possibilities of creating an artists' retreat at the home and studio in Northbrook, Illinois; and to share the Morrison-Shearer legacy through a website and other means.
The first volume of Shearer's three-part autobiography, Without Wings the Way Is Steep – The Autobiography of Sybil Shearer (a title taken from one of her dances), was released in 2008.
Later life and death
Shearer made her last appearance, at age 93, at the Art Institute of Chicago, in one of her solos called Flame.
She died, age 93, in Evanston, Illinois.
Shearer's iconic status and elusive appeal were celebrated by the poet Gary Forrester in "The Beautiful Daughters of Men: A Novella in Short Verse from Tinakori Hill". (The Legal Studies Forum, Volume XXXIII, Supplement No. 2, West Virginia University (2009), ISSN: 0894-5993; a journal established by the American Legal Studies Association to promote humanistic, critical, trans-disciplinary writing, and featuring works of poetry, essays, memoirs, stories, and criticism).
- Shearer, Sybil (1943?). Creative Dance. OCLC 15723191.
- Shearer, Sybil (2006). Without Wings the Way Is Steep – The Autobiography of Sybil Shearer. Northbrook, Illinois: Morrison-Shearer Foundation. ISBN 978-0-976-93531-5.