Following a critically acclaimed solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 1941, Shearer moved to Chicago where she met Morrison, with whom she would collaborate with for the next 40 years.
Concert dance rarely exists without collaboration. Choreographers often collaborate with their dancers to generate movement for new works. Artistic directors work closely with lighting and set designers to complete their vision. Executive directors look to their board members to find the best ways to support their artists. The variety, range and depth of artistic collaborations in dance is as endless as it is brimming with possibility; the product of said collaborations can have an impact on the art for generations to come. Just imagine what the holidays would be like if Petipa and Tchaikovsky had not been brought together for The Nutcracker. Or, consider what the legacy of Merce Cunningham would be without the influence of and collaboration with musician John Cage.
But there are also lesser known collaborations that have had substantial influence on the art of dance. In Chicago, one of those collaborations existed between legendary modern dancer Sybil Shearer and iconic photographer Helen Balfour Morrison. Following a critically acclaimed solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 1941, Shearer moved to Chicago where she met Morrison, with whom she would collaborate for the next 40 years. Morrison was Shearer’s lighting designer, filmographer and made additional artistic contributions to Shearer’s work (she was also Shearer’s publicist and producer). Together, they created a vast collection of dance photographs and films that extensively and intensively documented Shearer’s life as an artist.
The Morrison-Shearer Foundation, founded in 1991, has taken major steps to ensure that the products of Morrison’s collaboration with Sybil Shearer are not only preserved, but exhibited. The Foundation recently gifted the entire collection of 700 films to the Chicago Film Archives (which can be viewed by the public by logging into chicagofilmarchives.org).
In 2013, Chicago audiences were able to see a reconstructed version of Shearer’s In a Vacuum when MSF Trustee and former Sybil Shearer Company dancer, Toby Nicholson, was brought into the studio to work with Thodos Dance Chicago. More recently, NY-based artist Ella Rockwood (whose project, Seminal Solos, reconstructs rarely seen historic modern dance solos from 1926-1970) used The Morrison-Shearer Film Collection to reconstruct Shearer’s solos No Peace on Earth (1947) and Eighth Dance (1948). The Foundation also hosts events throughout Chicago, including choreography forums, artist discussions and exhibits.
Shearer’s choreography is given a second life through reconstruction, and now DancerMusic has the honor of supporting the legacy by presenting four photographs by Helen Balfour Morrison. DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera spoke with The Morrison-Shearer Foundation’s Executive Director Corinne Pierog to learn more about these 4PHOTOS by Helen Balfour Morrison. Here’s what she told us:
“The Bread Man”, circa 1935-1946.
Photographed in the rural Kentucky hamlet of Zion Hill.
The Bread Man may be a member of the Farm Services Administration (FSA) established in 1937 to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression.
“”The Bread Man” is part of Morrison’s greater collection of over 110 vintage prints and over 500 negatives that comprise the “Sugar Hill and String Town” series of photographs. In 1935 water-color artist, Carol Lou Burnham and Morrison took a road trip to Kentucky’s inner Bluegrass region. There Morrison captured a striking collection of images of African-American Freetowns. A selection of the photographs was first exhibited in 1936 at the O’Brian Gallery in Chicago, along with 40 portraits from Morrison’s Great American portrait collection. More recently in 2017, the Newberry Library exhibited 80 photographs from “Stringtown and Sugar Hill.” The Bread Man may be a member of the Farm Services Administration (FSA) established in 1937 to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression. While there is no documentation that Morrison was a part of FSA’s photography program, there is a resemblance to Morrison’s approach of composing her portraits similar to that of the FSA’s photographers, an authentic, social recording of a community. Beaumont Newhall in his 1937 book “The History of Photography” was used as a guide for the FSA photography program, and Beaumont’s moto “not to inform us, but to move us,” is clearly represented in “Sugar Hill and String Town.”” – Corinne Pierog
“Self Portrait”, circa 1940.
Photographed in her Northbrook home.
Morrison, like so many photographers, preferred to be behind the lens rather than in front of it.
“Morrison, like so many photographers, preferred to be behind the lens rather than in front of it. This self-portrait is one of two such portraits, the first taken early in her career, this one as an experienced portrait photographer. Morrison began her photographic career after she attended a lecture by Jens Jensen in the early 1930’s. After the Jensen lecture she felt transfixed and was determined to hone her craft until she was able to capture the play of light similar to that of a Jensen landscape. A year later, in 1937, Helen photographed Jens Jensen, and then went on to capture during the course of her career over 100 other “Great Americans.” A remastered copy of the Jensen portrait prominently hangs in the lobby of the Garfield Park Conservatory.” – Corinne Pierog
“Frank Lloyd Wright”, circa 1940.
Helen Morrison really took my picture and ‘got it’ –so it seems to others – and to me.
“Morrison took several photos of Wright, including that of his third wife Olgavianna. In April of 1949 Morrison presented Wright at New Trier High School as part of her “Rondo” series of speakers, artists, musicians and dancers. Tickets to the Rondo’s lectures and performances were $1.00. Presenters included actress, Uta Hagen, dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham accompanied by John Cage, and sculptor Richard Leopold. While space was rented to host the presentations, Morrison dreamed of having her own building and she along with an unknown modernist architect designed The Rondo, which was never built. In a letter of introduction written for Morrison, Wright wrote, “Helen Morrison really took my picture and ‘got it’ –so it seems to others – and to me. What I have seen of her work has simplicity and a kind of integrity rare in the field she works in. I am happy to see this and say it”.” – Corinne Pierog
Sybil Shearer dance portrait, “Leaping”, circa 1943.
Part of a series of dance photographs taken in Northbrook, Illinois, and in Lyons, New York by Morrison called “The Inheritance, an allegory for life’s struggles.”
The series of photographs was a journey of sorts for both artists.
“Morrison’s images for “The Inheritance” were photographed using a Grayflex camera. Altogether Morrison took over 1500 images for “The Inheritance“, so that she may practice her technique of framing a photo without cropping the image. The final cut of “The Inheritance” consisted of fifty prints. The series of photographs was a journey of sorts for both artists. Morrison wanted to capture the light of the sky and the brilliance of Shearer. Shearer felt that the series of photographs enabled her to determine her own path as a dance artist. “Be the day,” Morrison told Shearer and Shearer would do just that. The fifty photographs comprising “The Inheritance” have never been exhibited in their entirety.” – Corinne Pierog
To learn more about The Morrison-Shearer Foundation and find their calendar of events, visit www.morrisonshearer.org.