Two very different ballerinas died within two days of each other: Moira Shearer on January 31 and Rebecca Wright on January 29. Shearer was 80, Wright, sadly, only 58. Wright was born in 1947, the year after Shearer made her debut as Aurora in the triumphal postwar production of The Sleeping Beauty by Britain’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and, alongside Margot Fonteyn and Pamela May, danced the premiere of Frederick Ashton’s great sextet Symphonic Variations.
Shearer must have been around 21 when she starred in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948)—inspiring multitudes of little girls to take ballet classes and making impressionable others like me and my friends imagine having to make the dark choice between dancing and the love of one’s life. A slender, quicksilver dancer with a cascade of red hair and the face of a movie queen, Shearer maintained her onstage ballet career while also appearing in Tales of Hoffman in 1951 and The Story of Three Loves (like The Red Shoes, a tragic coupling of dancing and death) in 1952, the year she left Sadler’s Wells (later the Royal). Although she made a few subsequent guest appearances as a dancer, her later career was as an actress.
When Ashton staged Purcell’s masque, The Fairy Queen in 1946, uniting the Sadlers Well’s Ballet with members of the Covent Garden Opera, Shearer played Spring in one of the four seasonal variations; in 1954, she played Titania in a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Robert Helpmann (her suitor in The Red Shoes ballet). I can only envision how entrancing she might have been as the impetuous and imperious fairy queen in Ashton’s 1964 The Dream.
Rebecca Wright danced Titania in The Dream in 1973, during the years (1966-1975) she spent in the Joffrey Ballet. At the time Robert Joffrey was diligently collecting Ashton ballets to add to the repertory. When I saw the production, I thought she was a charming, willful, girlish Titania. Yet, curiously, the image of her in this role has stayed with me; it was as if she were, touchingly, striving to overcome her strong attack and saucy-soubrette onstage persona to become more thistledown-and-gossamer. I also remember her vividly in the stern, pictorially ingenious duet in Jerome Robbins’s Moves—another against-type casting. Although she danced some major roles at American Ballet Theater (1975-1982), the Joffrey is where my memory keeps placing her. Regrettably, I never saw her in the Broadway show Merlin; she played a unicorn.
At the time of her death from cancer, Wright had taken over the directorship of the Washington School of Ballet from its legendary founder, Mary Day, and was doing a superb job. It was only one of many teaching and administrative positions she held, including ones at California State University at Long Beach, Adelphi University, and in ABT’s summer programs. Shearer was, of course, the more famous of the two women, but both wove spells and worked their enchantments on us.