Sybil Shearer: Cinema Project April 9

Sybil Shearer lets the wind take her where it will.

Sybil Shearer lets the wind take her where it will.

Sybil Shearer is dancing outdoors…inside a warehouse-cold white room…on the big screen at YU.

In the spectral vision from the 1940’s, it’s summertime, color-saturated into maximum contrast by old RGB film processing techniques, and Sybil’s sashaying among the trees, spinning her skirts out, gesturing heavenward with flatly contemporary fingers. Blending into the branches of a willow sapling, she mimics its movement as it’s blown by the wind. Her hair tumbles and her clothes billow as the music swells. Entranced in moment and movement, Shearer ignores the apparent camera of  her creative collaborator and patron Helen Balfour Morrison so completely that the viewer feels like a voyeur.

Later in the collection, Shearer dances in a gold-hued room wearing a flowing perriwinkle dress. Her long hair, her reverent poses, and her choice of accompaniment (harp music and sacred choral selections from Benjamin Britten) present her as an animated religious icon, one of the saints or even the Blessed Virgin, locked in a reverie of vision and suffering with stigmata.

Cinema Project’s latest acquisition, reprised tonight at YU, is a portrait of an introverted yet boldly exploratory artist in her prime. Shearer’s fascination with nature aligned her with the transcendentalist movement. Her tentative, sensitive presence and apparent disregard for fame (she left New York after giving a lauded performance at Carnegie Hall to live quietly in a Chicago suburb) mirrors the poetic persona of Emily Dickinson. According to Susan Bodine Boléa, a former Shearer company dancer who gave a talkback after the screening, predecessor Isadora Duncan and contemporaries John Cage and Frank Lloyd Wright were also notable influencers of Shearer’s movement. Her level of fame notwithstanding, Shearer’s work makes sense as a bridge between the experimental and the transcendental.

These short films were shot by Shearer’s  and Cinema Project is borrowing them from the Chicago Film Archives. In the talkback, Boléa shares personal stories and insights about Sybil, while Conduit’s Tere Mathern provides a local context, citing Anna Halprin and Mizu Desierto as more recent and nearby explorers of similar forms.

If you can navigate the interminable lapse between when the event is scheduled (7:30) and when it begins (about 8:15?) and if you dress warmly enough to withstand YU’s outdoorsy temperature, this film collection is a haunting document of an artist embodying a distinct and evergreen school of thought.

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One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    While New York has long been considered a mecca for the arts, in Shearer’s day Chicago was also a center of sorts for dance. Shearer was a force in the second city’s dance world for many years, in part because she reported on it for Dance Magazine. I regret that I missed this showing, but enjoyed very much seeing it through Ms. Adams’ eyes.

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