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Chicago, Illinois 60616
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Helen Balfour Morrison (1901-1984)

Self Portrait, Helen Balfour Morrison

Our FIRST STEPS program tonight spotlights dancers/choreographers Ruth Page and Sybil Shearer, but let’s not forget about another talented woman behind these films – Helen Balfour Morrison. Helen collaborated with Sybil Shearer to produce a large collection of extraordinary dance photographs and films. Helen was behind the camera, while Sybil was in front of it.

The Morrison-Shearer Film Collection, which is owned by the Morrison-Shearer Foundation and housed and cared for by CFA, contains over 430 16mm films, 195 8mm films and 200 1/4″ audio reels. Almost all of the moving-image materials were shot by Helen.

Helen Balfour Morrison (1901-1984) was born in Evanston, Illinois, the daughter of Fannie Lindley and Alexander Balfour, an engineer and a proud, aristocratic Scotsman. When Helen was 17, her mother died, and Helen took a job in a photography studio to help support the family. At this studio she learned to use the portrait camera and helped expand the studio’s business with creative ideas of her own.

In the 1930s, Helen embarked upon a personal photography project – the Great Americans series. She photographed some 200 notable personalities including Robert Frost, Helen Hayes, Nelson Algren, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Mies van der Rohe, Amelia Earhart, Jane Addams, and Saul Bellow. Most of these portrait sessions took place in Chicago or in New York and were exhibited widely in museums throughout the country.

In 1942, Morrison met Sybil Shearer, and although her portrait work and exhibitions of the Great Americans continued, her attention gradually shifted to Sybil as her primary subject. She finally abandoned the Great Americans series in 1945. Her collaboration with Sybil Shearer produced a large collection of extraordinary dance photographs and films, as well as an intense and sensitive documentation of the life of this artist. Today her extensive portfolio remains largely unpublished and unknown, something the Morrison-Shearer Foundation and now, CFA, are working to rectify.

In a real sense, Helen sacrificed her own career to promote that of Sybil. Besides designing the lighting, Helen took over the complete management of Sybil’s publicity, performances, travel arrangements, and hospitality. She experimented with the role of impresario, presenting dancer Ruth St. Denis in 1946 and both dancer Eleanor King and sculptor Richard Lippold in 1948. In 1949 she conceived a short-lived series of programs which she called “Rondo,” presenting other artists, including Uta Hagan, Merce Cunningham, pianist William Masselos, and Frank Lloyd Wright. In later years she made films to record Sybil’s dances, and made one artistic film of her own.

See Helen’s moving-image work tonight at FIRST STEPS  – Thursday, May 1st (7PM) at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema (1104 S. Wabash, 8th Floor). More on the program here

Sybil Shearer – IN A VACUUM

Sybil Shearer performing IN A VACUUM 

It’s probably time you got to know dancer/choreographer Sybil Shearer. We can suggest a time and place to begin. On September 20, 2013 at the Logan Center for the Arts, you can see the Thodos Dance Chicago perform the very first restaging of Shearers’ “In a Vacuum” accompanied by the Fulcrum Point New Music Project. It is then and there that you can experience Shearers’ vision of the mid twentieth century machine-age worker derailed from his or her humanity.

Her stuff is good, funny and unusual. We know it because we have been stabilizing and digitizing her dances recorded on film, shot by her long-time artistic collaborator Helen Morrison. Shearers’ dance is unique, spiritual and earthly at the same time.

Trained on the east coast by the likes of Doris Humphrey and Agnes de Mille, Sybil debuted her talents as a dancer at Carnegie Hall in 1941. In spite of the huge success of her performance there, she chose to quietly slip away from the glare of fame and notoriety that New York brings to develop her art in the plains of Chicago “…a magical place…the place that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had said was the seedbed of creativity out of which so many artists had come… Everything called for me to create in a new way.”

The work of Helen Morrison and Sybil Shearer is abundant and still unseen. Thanks to the Morrison-Shearer Foundation, CFA has been organizing, inventorying, stabilizing, cataloging and digitizing the work of these two women who today go largely unknown.

Take a chance and spend an unusual night as the Thodos Dance Chicago restages In a Vacuum for the first time.

September 20, 2013, 7:30PM

Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
University of Chicago Film Archives 915 E. 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

Out of the Shadows

Left: Sybil Shearer (image courtesy of the Morrison Shearer Foundation);Right: John Neumeier

Slowly, slowly modernist dancer and choreographer Sybil Shearer is emerging from the shadows.  After a successful dance premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1941, Shearer decided to come to Chicago to develop her art in the open landscapes of the Midwest.  She built a studio in Northbrook, IL and mentored and inspired many young artists including John Neumeier, Director and chief Choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet.  This weekend Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet present Nijinsky at the Harris Theater.

Sid Smith wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune about the Midwest artistic giants who influenced Neumeier’s work. In it, Neumeier mentions Sybil Shearer, stating “From the point of view of movement and movement invention, from a sense of inner concentration, Sybil is my greatest inspiration…I didn’t realize it at the time. Sybil was slow-working; she prepared and prepared something and then would shelve it to work on something else. As a young man, I was impatient. But in retrospect, I deeply appreciate what she gave me.”

CFA houses and manages the Morrison-Shearer film collection for the Morrison-Shearer Foundation. To learn more about Sybil Shearer, you can go to CFA’s Explore Collections page or to the Morrison-Shearer Foundation website.

The Hamburg Ballet performs Nijinsky Friday, Februray 1 and Saturday, February 2 at the Harris Theater. And on Monday, February 4, John Neumeier will be talking with Northwestern University’s Susan Manning at the Arts Club of Chicago.

Sybil Shearer (1912-2005)

Today marks what would have been Sybil Shearer’s 100th birthday. Sybil Shearer (1912-2005) was a leading pioneer of modern dance and arguably one of the finest dancers of the 20th century. Shortly after a critically acclaimed solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 1941, Sybil moved to Chicago and developed a studio in Northbrook, where she worked independently, close to nature, and in her own unorthodox way. Soon after her move, she met photographer, Helen Balfour Morrison (1901-1984), who became her lighting director, photographer, filmographer, and artistic collaborator for the next forty years.

CFA houses and manages the Morrison-Shearer film collection on behalf of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation (founded in 1991). The collection contains just under 900 films and audio reels, the majority of which document the creative process and fruitful collaboration between Helen Morrison and Sybil Shearer. The collection itself includes complete works, rehearsal footage, production materials as well as a hand full of home movies and interviews.

Just this past month we completed the hand inspection and archival re-housing of the collection’s 16mm. film elements (totaling just over 400 reels). We are now onto digitally transferring these 16mm. film elements and beginning to discover (as well as understand) this largely unpublished and unknown collection of films.

To celebrate Sybil and what would have been her 100th birthday (February 23, 2012), we have put together a sequence of some of our favorite film segments – all from the reel titled EARLY NORTHBROOK.


Also! Hear Sybil in her own words! you can view an excerpt from a 1980 interview between Sybil Shearer and dance critic Walter Terry here.