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Roosevelt University launches Founding Faculty Series with Sybil Shearer: The Life of an Elusive Dancer

Posted: 09/25/2012
Roosevelt University and the Morrison-Shearer Foundation will partner on Oct. 10 to celebrate the life of Sybil Shearer, a critically acclaimed dancer and choreographer and Roosevelt founding faculty member.

The event, Sybil Shearer: The Legendary Life of an Elusive Dancer, will be the first in Roosevelt’s Founding Faculty Lecture Series.  Being held at 4:30 p.m. in room 317 of Roosevelt’s new building at 425 S. Wabash Ave., it will feature actors, historical photographs, dance films and a display of costumes, followed by a reception.  The program is free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to Melinda Aguilera at maguilera@roosevelt.edu.

“We all know the foundational moments of any institution are very critical to its long-term direction and success,” said Roosevelt University President Chuck Middleton. “Our founders set the mission, core values and belief systems that have guided the institution ever since. They were a diverse and highly talented group of faculty who created academic programs of the highest quality.  I am delighted that Sybil Shearer will be first founding faculty member we recognize.”

Shearer, born in Toronto in 1912, grew up in Nyack, N.Y., and on Long Island. Her first solo performance at Carnegie Hall in 1941 drew considerable praise. Less than two years later, she left the East Coast and settled in suburban Chicago.
 
Shearer was invited to join the faculty of Central YMCA College’s School of Music in 1942 after school president Edward J. Sparling saw her perform at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theatre. She began teaching students of all ages while continuing to perform nationally as a modern dance soloist. Critics called Shearer “the most distinctly individual of all dancers,” “a dancer’s dancer” and “one of the world’s foremost dancers and choreographers.”

“Dr. Sparling, who had brought me to Chicago, supplied me with a very ample studio on top of the Kimball Building and a large group of enthusiastic beginning students,” Shearer writes in her autobiography, describing the beginnings of her close friendship with Roosevelt’s founding president. “His wife had arranged for two enormous groups of children to study dance at the Winnetka Community House. Their daughter, Mary Ann, was my pupil for quite a few years.”

In 1945, Sparling left Central YMCA College to form what soon became Roosevelt College. Shearer joined him and established Roosevelt’s dance program. She continued to teach at Roosevelt until 1951. In her autobiography she writes, “About that time I left Roosevelt College and Dr. Sparling, who I admired so much, to have a studio of my own. Many years later, after we had both retired, he told me he was so disappointed that I had left Roosevelt, because he had bought the Auditorium Theatre for me.

[Roosevelt College bought the entire Auditorium Theatre Building in 1946.] He saw me dancing there in his mind. But this was just a romantic idea, because it still had a bowling alley in it from its wartime use by the USO. It took Mrs. Beatrice T. Spachner to bring it back into a working theatre in 1967. Jim Sparling was a wonderful man and an idealist, and I loved him for it.”

After leaving Roosevelt, Shearer continued performing solos and choreographing group works. In 1962 she was appointed artist-in-residence at the Arnold Theatre of the National College of Education in Evanston, Ill.

Many of Shearer’s productions were in collaboration with Helen Balfour Morrison, a photographer and filmmaker who documented her career. In 1991, the Morrison-Shearer Foundation was established to preserve and exhibit the works and documentary materials relating to Morrison and Shearer’s careers. The foundation also maintains the home and studio in Northbrook, Ill., where the pair lived and worked, and is currently exploring the possibility of creating an artists’ retreat at the location.

Shearer remained a major force as a dancer, teacher and critic until her death in November 2005. Her last appearance came just nine months before suffering a fatal stroke, interpreting Matisse in the "Artists and Dance" program at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In a March 2006 Chicago Magazine feature reflecting on Shearer’s life, Lucia Mauro writes: “Shearer repeatedly distinguished herself as one of the most free-spirited individuals to emerge from the early years of American modern dance. She was among the first modern performers to tackle spiritual and social justice issues.”

The first volume of Shearer’s three-part autobiography, Without Wings the Way Is Steep: Within This Thicket, was published in 2006 by the Morrison-Shearer Foundation. In 2012 the Foundation released volume two, subtitled The Midwest Inheritance, which focuses on the period between her 1942 arrival in Chicago and the 1984 death of Helen Balfour Morrison.