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Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes

By Adam Bernstein

The Washington Post

Moira Shearer, the flame-haired ballerina-turned-actress who became an international star in The Red Shoes, a poetic and sensual film that inspired generations of young dancers, died Tuesday at a hospital in Oxford, England. Her husband, journalist and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, did not reveal the cause of death. She was 80.

Using Technicolor photography, The Red Shoes (1948) was one of the most stunning films of its vintage, and its entrancing, porcelain-skinned heroine was credited with almost single-handedly popularizing ballet for millions. However, in later years she disparaged the film and its cost to her own ballet career, saying, "Isn't it strange that something you've never really wanted to do turns out to be the very thing that's given you a name and identity?"

Moira Shearer King was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on Jan. 17, 1926. Her father, a civil engineer, moved the family to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where she was pushed into dance lessons by her mother.

She called her upbringing strict and provincial, lightened only by her parents' knowledge of music, which she cherished. "As a very young person, I was rather a musical prig and knew all about [Russian composer Aleksandr] Scriabin and so on," she later said. "I really should have been hit on the head. I was dreadful."

After the family returned to Scotland, she received lessons from Nikolai Legat, the Russian master who had trained Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, as well as from Legat's widow.

Ninette de Valois, the founder of the prestigious Sadler's Wells Ballet, made Ms. Shearer a principal dancer with her organization. In 1946, she danced "Swan Lake" as Odette and Odile and "The Sleeping Beauty" as Princess Aurora. Also that year, she was in Frederick Ashton's "Symphonic Variations," her red hair providing vibrant contrast when she appeared onstage with blonde Pamela May and brunette Margot Fonteyn.

In 1948, Ms. Shearer replaced an ailing Fonteyn in "Cinderella" and triumphed in another Ashton piece, the abstract work "Scènes de ballet," performed with a Stravinsky score.

Her critical reputation soared, not least because of The Red Shoes, which she had rejected as "silly and banal" when first shown the script.

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger based The Red Shoes on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl entranced by magical ruby-red shoes. Their film was set in the ballet world, with a young ballerina forced to channel all her passion into her career. As part of the plot, the company director dismisses her budding romance with a composer, saying it will doom her to mediocrity.

The film included a full-length ballet of The Red Shoes that featured Leonid Massine and choreography by Robert Helpmann.

Powell began a long campaign to cast her, but she rebuffed his efforts until de Valois told her, "Will you please make this movie and get this man Powell off our backs?"

Almost universally glowing reviews assured the film status as an instant classic, and critic Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times that Ms. Shearer "is amazingly accomplished and full of a warm and radiant charm." Some considered The Red Shoes the finest film about ballet until The Turning Point in 1977, and perhaps ever.

But Ms. Shearer regarded filming as un unhappy experience and said Powell had a "total coldness and inhumanity" on the set. She was displeased with her acting and dancing and uncomfortable being promoted as the greatest dancing find of her generation.

"The Red Shoes ruined my career in the ballet. They [her peers] never trusted me again," she told a Glasgow reporter in 1994. "I did go back, but it wasn't the same. There was quite a lot of jealousy, and there was that awful thing of me becoming known to the public who then didn't know the rest of the company, and the wrong emphasis was placed on one, and in a way I was blamed for it, although it was the last thing I had ever wanted."

Soon after The Red Shoes, she made a celebrated North American tour with Sadler's Wells, and choreographer George Balanchine cast her in his "Ballet Imperial" (1950). She recalled the Balanchine experience so fondly that she later wrote a generous book about him based on their short time working together.

In 1954, Ms. Shearer quit ballet but made sporadic film appearances, including two more for Powell: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and the clammy thriller Peeping Tom (1960). She also was in Black Tights (1960), teaming with Roland Petit to dance "Cyrano de Bergerac."

She rounded out her career doing stage work in everything from Anton Chekhov to Noel Coward. She also contributed book reviews to the London Daily Telegraph -- she was not particularly kind to those she critiqued -- and developed an affinity for the disillusioned maxims of the French moralist the Duc de la Rochefoucauld.

In 1950, she married writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, whom she met at a ballet benefit ball.

Survivors include her husband and four children.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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