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Submitted by Nicky Smith
A Question for Moira
By Noel Streatfeild
From Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Annual (1959)
I first met Moira Shearer when she was a little girl of ten. It was just before my first children's book "Ballet Shoes" was to be published. My publishers wanted some photographs of three real children dancers to advertise the book. I went to a Miss Fairbairn whom I knew, who had a well-known dancing school, and asked her to help me. She said she would, and I walked round the school with her looking for three children dancers to match the children in my story. I found my first two easily, a fair pretty child who looked like Pauline, the eldest of my three, a dark intense child who would do well as Petrova, the middle one of my family, and then I was stuck. The real dancer in my book was the baby of the family, called Posy, but nowhere could I see anyone who looked like my little red head. Then what seemed to me a miracle happened. A door opened, and my Posy walked in. "There she is," I said to Miss Fairbairn, "quite perfect." Miss Fairbairn shook her head. "That's a little girl called King, but she wouldn't do for your photograph, she's far too small to stand on her pointes." "But I must have her," I argued, "she's just right, and she's got a dancer's face." Well, I wore Miss Fairbairn down and at last it was agreed that I could have "little king", as Miss Fairbairn called her, provided in the photograph she could be in the middle, held in position by the other two children. Some years later Miss Fairbairn sent me a copy of that photograph with a note saying "Did you know that the little red head you insisted on using for the photograph because she had a dancer's face has become Moira Shearer?"
I have met Moira Shearer since those days, but for this annual I saw her, to ask her a special question. Do you enjoy acting more than dancing?
One of Moira Shearer's most engaging qualities is that she is alive to her finger tips, and being exceptionally intelligent, lights up all over to something that makes her think. We were eating lunch while we talked, and she stopped eating while she tried to find me an answer.
"I don't believe," she said, "I would ever have chosen to be a dancer, but it was as if it was written in my stars I was to be one. Imagine, when I was six and living in a small town in Rhodesia, and was sent in the ordinary way to a dancing class, who was my teacher? A woman who was a pupil of Cecchetti's. Probably the only pupil of his for thousands of miles."
Naturally this dancing teacher saw that little Moira had unusual gifts, and she told Mrs. King that as soon as they returned to England the child should be trained as a professional dancer.
But Moira Shearer's first love was music.
"I would always have had to express myself some way," she told me, "and I should like it to have been as a pianist. Of course it's impossible to guess now if I'd have been good enough, but that is what I longed to be."
Musicality is a very important part of a dancer's make-up, so it was no wonder the possibility of Moira's becoming a pianist instead of a dancer was overlooked. Then, as now, she was clearly born to be an artist, and after what the Rhodesian teacher had said it was natural to suppose her bent was to be a dancer. So as soon as the family returned to England Mrs. King wrote to Nicholas Legat, and asked him to take the child, then aged ten, as a pupil. He replied she was too young for his school, and suggested she was sent to Miss Fairbairn, which was of course when I saw her and said she had a dancer's face. She had only been a pupil of Miss Fairbairn's for a few weeks, when Nicholas Legat saw her dance, changed his mind, and said after all he would like to train her, she was to come to him for a weekly class. Another pointer, if a pointer were needed that the teacher in Rhodesia was right, and the child was born to be a dancer. And indeed Moira enjoyed her dancing classes, both with Legat and Miss Fairbairn, though she would have liked more time for music, but at ten you are inclined to keep an important thought like that to yourself.
Nicholas Legat died when Moira was eleven, and though remaining with Miss Fairbairn for school lessons, she became a pupil of Madame Legat's. When in 1939 war was declared, she was on holiday in Scotland and was not therefore evacuated with the Legat School, so when in January 1940 she and her mother came back to London she became a pupil of what was then called Sadler's Wells School. She was only with the school a few weeks, when the war became more violent, and after Dunkirk she was hurried back to Scotland.
Born to express herself, the coming months were frustrating for Moira, though she did tour for some time with a dancer called Mona Inglesby, but before she was sixteen she was back at the Sadler's Wells School. This time she was only a pupil for two weeks, for she became a member of the company. By 1946 she was an established star.
It is easy to see how it happened that this gifted girl, bursting with personality and a need to express herself, became a dancing star, and was recognised in the ballet world, amongst critics, and her public as a dancer of distinction. But to be accepted as a leading figure in any world is binding, it is as if you were tied to that world with invisible chains. But nothing could bind Moira Shearer, who is essentially an individualist and a non-conformer, so when I met her again in 1949, though she had only been a star for three years, already she was restless and straining for new worlds to conquer.
"Dancing as an art form," she told me, "is so tied by conventions. I want more scope for self-expression, what I should like to be some day is a straight actress."
It has not been an easy change for Moira Shearer. She was when she decided to be an actress, a dancer, and a film star of international reputation, and for such there is no way of actually disappearing into repertory where you can learn your job with only local eyes on you. For her, whether she toured or joined a repertory company, there were headlines and the London critics. So no wonder she was unable to easily answer my question. All the same, she did tell me some interesting differences between dancing and acting.
"Although there is no daily dancing practice, which is of course part of a dancer's life, there is no let-up in the theatre even when a play settles down and there are no more rehearsals."
She says always there is the concentrated mental effort. And because after all acting is for her a new profession, there is much study of voice production, so on the whole she finds acting just as tiring as dancing.
For final rehearsals she finds theatrical productions gain on ballets. She told me that in a new ballet you never work in your costumes until the day before the first night. Whereas in the theatre there are nearly always more than one dress rehearsal, and if there is anything difficult or unusual about what you are to wear you rehearse in a facsimile almost from the first rehearsal.
Another interesting point is that Moira Shearer says a ballet rehearsal never goes straight through, there are breaks where some movement or step is repeated, perhaps a number of times. Whereas of course in the theatre the final dress rehearsals go through "as at night", no matter what hitches there may be.
Finally, Moira Shearer touched on the question of regimentation. Dancers of course are all trained to be able to perform the whole range of steps. The question is, knowing them should dancers perform them as nearly alike as possible, in a manner approved by the head of a ballet company? The Bolshoi Ballet is trained, she tells me, from the beginning to dance each step to suit their individuality. She believes this to be one of the reasons for the pre-eminence of that company. She found insufficient freedom in Western Europe. In the theatre on the other hand, though of course the actor is directed by the producer, in the end having got under the skin of her part, the building of the character is an individual thing born of personality and talent, therefore in some measure the theatre gives her the artistic freedom for which she is searching.
I do hope Moira Shearer gets a chance to play the types of parts she wants, she was brave to kick away her dancing fame; few would have had the courage.