Margot Fonteyn versus Moira Shearer
We still had to find the dancer. And the actor Stewart Granger – a guy who knew all the girls – told me: “Micky, you’re looking for a girl?” And I said: “Yes, a girl who knows how to talk and dance.” “You know,” he answered, “there is a Scottish girl in the Saddle Wales Ballet. She has a role in Robert Helpmann’s new ballet. It’s called Miracles in the Garbals. She plays a prostitute. It’s a character. She has red, very red hair. You have to see her!” So I made an appointment with her. She was very busy and so was I. We met. Five minutes at the Dorchester Hotel. And I saw right away that she would do: she was a ballerina. And she could act and talk too. You could tell. She was typically Scottish. Very proper, direct, energetic: “What exactly do you want to do, Mr. Powell?” “I don’t quite understand, Mr. Powell. Are you proposing to photograph ballet?” So I offered her the role. And before she left, she said: “What are you going to pay me?” I had no idea: “I don’t know, you are going to start with a 1ooo pounds.” She immediately found an agent and asked me for 5000 pounds. (Laughs). At that time, Mme Valois was the ballet director and the great ballerina was Margot Fonteyn. And I think that Mme Valois was very disappointed we didn’t offer the role to Margot Fonteyn. Moira Shearer was a nothing at the time. And she told her: “I can’t prevent you from doing the film, but if you leave, I can’t promise you can come back with us!” So Moira was very scared, because the ballet company meant everything to her. And during almost a year of preparation, she hesitated between dance and film. And it’s only at the last moment, when I started to make tests with other ballerinas, that she accepted. She showed great courage. Because Mme Valois was powerful and influential as ballet director. A real female Diaghilev.
Michael Powell: Interviews (Roland Lacourbe & Danièle Grivel, 1977)
At the time, the gorgeous, redheaded Moira Shearer was the most famous ballerina in the world. She had just danced and acted the leading role in the motion picture classic The Red Shoes. Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay revolves around a ballet impresario who demands nothing less than utter devotion from his artists. When his prima ballerina, Victoria Page, falls in love with the company’s musical director, the impresario forces Victoria to choose between her career and her lover and inadvertently causes her death.
Aware that most people in highbrow artistic circles considered a film contract to be an arrangement of the utmost vulgarity, Moira at first turned down the offer to star in The Red Shoes. She held out for nine months against the pleading of director Michael Powell. Moira thought that her steadfast and dedicated stance would earn her respect and support from de Valois, but this was far from the case. De Valois finally urged her to do the film: “Why don’t you just do it, get it over with, get if off your chest, get if off ours?” Shearer was aghast.
The Red Shoes took ballet out into a new mass market. When Michael Powell screened the film for Eagle Lion Classics, Inc., he said that the executives were “scared shitless. This was an art film with a vengeance! And everyone knew art and money were two different things.” Most Eagle Lion executives believed that the film would simply have to be written off, but board member Benjamin Heineman finally persuaded the other executives to give it a chance. The film was booked at New York’s Bijou Theatre, but only after Heineman had guaranteed its managers a run of six months. After it had run a year, Heineman was crowing “I told you so.” The Red Shoes ran for 108 weeks at the Bijou, setting a new record in Broadway movie history. The film also had record- breaking runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami Beach, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and major British cities as well.
At the time of Franklin’s visit, reporters were still sniffing about the Sadler’s Wells, knowing that any scoop on Moira would make great copy. Ninette de Valois was upset about the publicity because her “chosen one,” Margot Fonteyn, wasn’t featured in any of it. According to Franklin, “Ninette was furious! All the publicity was going to Moira and me. It created a sensation in the company. And Ninette did not like it.” The flurry over Moira and Freddie only increased her desire to push Moira to the side in favor of Margot.
When Danilova recovered, Franklin appeared with her in Coppelia, Swan Lake, Giselle and La Boutique Fantasque, but Shearer and Franklin were still the talk of the town. Freddie admits, “I had a small affair with with Moira. Hullo! It was well-known in the country that I was going around with her. I adored her. But the upshot of it was really rather terrible, because Ninette got worse. They treated me even more nastily, and I had a very unhappy season at Covent Garden.”
The Sadler’s Wells was due to make its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in October of 1949. Shortly before the company’s departure, Margot Fonteyn held a farewell party for Franklin and Danilova. While Fonteyn was chatting with Miss de Valois, Freddie came over with some frosty words of farewell: “I said, ‘Margot, I’m awfully sorry, but I can’t stay.’ She said, ‘uh-oh.’ And then I said, ‘Oh, by the way, Miss de Valois, I am sure that when you get to America that you will be treated so beautifully. Unfortunately, that’s not the way I was treated, returning to my own native country.’
The rep for this critically important American debut was to center around the company’s lavish production of Sleeping Beauty. Hurok wanted Shearer to dance Aurora on opening night because of her fame in the US De Valois retorted, “In that case, we’re going home.” She was adamant that Fonteyn should have the premiere. Margot was the dancer whose success de Valois was betting would carry the company in New York, and she would not budge. Hurok lost the battle, but he at least got a promise from de Valois that Shearer would appear in some important role on opening night. Shearer believes that de Valois did everything she could to sabotage her in her efforts to promote Margot:
Ninette did something bad to me at the beginning of the season so that I would go down the drain, and I was just too confused not to do what she asked. Everyone had to be on the first night of Sleeping Beauty. I at once thought that I’d do my old roles of Fairy of the Crystal Fountain and one of Florestan’s sisters, which I’d done in 1946. But no: “I want you to do Bluebird with Alexis Rassine,” Ninette told me. She promised me plenty of rehearsal; in fact, I got two run-throughs in the basement of the Kingsway Hall. I’d never even had the costume on. She knew I’d go to pieces with nerves.
As Nadia Nerina explains, Shearer’s “confusion” cost her dearly:
I could never understand it. Bluebird wasn’t her role. It isn’ta role for a ballerina – it’s the man’s part. Moira had never danced it. But obviously Ninette had promised Hurok that she’d be on the first night. Moira only had to say, “No, I’m not doing it, I’ll wait until I appear as Princess Aurora.” But Ninette got her on…. one can One can only speculate on what effect a Shearer first night would have had on Margot’s career, and whether Moira herself realizes, to this day, the enormity of the error she made.
Sleeping Beauty opened on October 9, 1949, at the Metropolitan. Curtain calls went on for at least half an hour. Fonteyn received unprecedented adulation and became an internationally famous star overnight. Shortly after the debut, Fonteyn appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. For Margot, the New York experience was the public accolade of a lifetime. As for Shearer, she danced in Fonteyn’s shadow for the rest of her career. For a time, this exquisite and underutilized ballerina refuted The Red Shoes myth that one must choose between a stage career and romantic bliss when she married Ludovic Kennedy shortly after the American tour of 1949–50. Soon after the birth of her first child, she retired from the ballet stage completely.
Frederic Franklin: A Biography of the Ballet Star (Leslie Norton)