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Sybil Shearer Honored by John Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet

In the fall of 2022, Scott Lundius, MSF’s executive director, discovered that the Hamburg Ballet would perform in Chicago at the Harris Theater in 2023 as part of a special tour celebrating John Neumeier’s 50th anniversary as its artistic director. Lundius called the Harris Theater’s CEO, Lori Dimun, setting off a heady chain of events that culminated with an unexpected invitation to the Neumeier Jubilee in Hamburg where three of Sybil’s dances would be performed. “I couldn’t help but think that Sybil somehow had a hand in making all of this happen,” said MSF Board of Trustees Chair Alida Szabo.

The connection between Sybil Shearer and the world renowned choreographer began in the early 1960s. “We both joined the Sybil Shearer Company when we were 20 and in our junior year in college,” said Toby Nicholson, MSF trustee and former Sybil Shearer Company dancer. Toby was at Northwestern and Neumeier was studying at Marquette University in Milwaukee and commuted by train several times a week to Shearer’s studio in the meadow adjacent to Helen and Bob Morrison’s home.

Two nights before the February 23rd performance of the Hamburg Ballet’s The Glass Menagerie at the Harris Theater, the Foundation organized a conversation between Neumeier and dance scholars Susan Manning and Lizzie Leopold at the theater. A particularly poignant moment in the evening occurred when a film clip was shown of Neumeier and Nicholson as young dancers in Sybil’s studio. It was footage that Neumeier had never seen before.

On the Friday morning following the performance, Neumeier visited Sybil’s studio in Northbrook. It was his 84th birthday and he was on his way to his native Milwaukee, shadowed by a film crew documenting the return to his roots. Neumeier studied briefly in Chicago but, after graduating college in 1961, he left for Europe.

Neumeier spent more than an hour at the studio, posing for portraits with Nicholson in the space where they danced together more than six decades ago. Being there and reconnecting to those formative years led Neumeier to propose the addition of a couple of Shearer’s pieces to his company’s summer program. He also raised the possibility of bringing Nicholson to Hamburg for the Jubilee.

After Neumeier and his team left Nicholson said that he and Lundius were elated by the possibility, but several months passed before plans solidified. They were on tenterhooks all winter and spring until a schedule was finally set – and then reset. On June 20th Lundius and Nicholson flew from O’Hare to Hamburg for what would be 10 days of rehearsals and performances. The annual Ballet Days festival had been extended to four weeks to accommodate ticket demand in honor of John Neumeier’s 50th anniversary.

Nicholson knew he was going to work with the dancers, but he said he was terrified that he wouldn’t have anything to say to them. “I mean, these are beautiful dancers,” Nicholson said. Once the rehearsals were underway, he realized he had plenty to say. “They knew the steps but they didn’t know what they were portraying.”

Nicholson joined Neumeier during rehearsals and they worked together easily. “We were on the same wavelength,” said Nicholson. “That helped a lot.” The studio setup was topnotch. “We had the screen right behind us, so they could see Sybil as they were dancing.”

On the first evening that Lundius and Nicholson arrived in Hamburg, they attended a performance of Saint Matthew’s Passion in the baroque Church of St. Michael. At intermission, Nicholson slipped away to meet Neumeier for the second act of the National Youth Ballet at the Opera House.

For most of the following days, Nicholson and Lundius would watch the company rehearse, then attend a performance in the evening. Eventually they were joined by friends and board members of the Foundation including Ginger Farley, Alida Szabo, and MSF Vice Chair, Shayne Bullen. Nicholson was joined by his wife (and former Sybil Shearer company member) Juanita and their son Christopher. Susan Manning and Pam Crutchfield also flew in from Chicago for the festivities along with the Joffrey Ballet’s Ashley Wheater and Brian Johnson.

“Every day we were invited to a stage rehearsal from 10am to 1pm. Then there would be a lunch break,” said Lundius. During this time some of the dancers would go to the studio for solo rehearsal. “John never took a break during the day,” said Lundius. After the stage rehearsal for the piece that was going to be performed the next night, the stage would be cleared and then the scenery set for the performance that evening.

Isabella Vertes-Schutter narrates the Sybil Dances segment

“Every night we got to see a different ballet and, on the day before, we got to see that same ballet being rehearsed,” said Lundius. “Finally we got to the place where it was the day before the Shearer performance, and that was a full day of rehearsals for Toby and John in the theater prior to the gala.”

For the solo dance, O Lost, first performed by Shearer in 1942, Nicholson suggested that the dance could be done by a man.

“It is sort of calm and then in the middle, it bursts into a dramatic thrashing about of… what?” Nicholson turns to Lundius who adds, “It’s a crisis of identity.” Nicholson helped the dancer explore why he was doing what he was doing. “The guy did the thrashing around beautifully but had to do a lot of work to get to who he was at the beginning and the end.” said Nicholson. “He was a lot of fun to work with,” said Nicholson of dancer Aleix Martínez.

Nicholson also worked with dancer Charlotte Larzelere on her solo performance of Salute to Old Friends: John Martin, helping her to interpret the ideas and emotion behind Shearer’s movements. Lundius said as he watched the process, he could see Larzelere growing by leaps and bounds. Nicholson said she became the embodiment of Shearer – the performance was happy, strong, and playful. “She nailed it,” he said.

Nicholson and Lundius were also treated to a surprise performance by the National Youth Ballet featuring a recreation of Shearer’s comic critique of the Machine Age In a Vacuum. “It’s one of the dances that made her famous in New York,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson said he was in awe of how the young dancers riffed on Shearer’s choreography to an original score. The youth ballet had been learning the repertoire for weeks. “They all learned Sybil’s solo verbatim and then they began to get assignments to build improvisational movement based on the themes and material,” said Nicholson. The director of the youth ballet took those improvised movements and structured an eight-minute group choreography with live accompaniment and a solo vocalist.

Nicholson was able to provide some context and understanding to Shearer’s movements and humor. For instance, explaining one of her moves as: “It’s Sybil stepping on a bug. I don’t know what she had in mind, but it gave that feeling,” he said.

Nicholson, who taught high school dance and theater for 30 years, was in his element at rehearsal. “Sybil always said: I am not going to tell you how to do it. If you do my movement correctly, you will know what I am doing.”

On the day of the Jubilee Gala, Thursday June 29th, Nicholson and Lundius took in a full rehearsal at the opera house, then the performance, then a dinner at the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten. On the program was a film collage by Kiran West, Highlights from 50 Moving Years, as well as a 20-minute segment featuring the influence of Sybil Shearer on Neumeier’s life and career. The segment, titled Sybil Dances, featured company members Charlotte Larzelere and Aleix Martínez in their solos preceded by a projected film collage of the Sybil Shearer Company in 1961 with John Neumeier.

“They made us feel so comfortable,” said Lundius. “That is what blew me away. John has created a culture grounded in love and it is palpable; everywhere you go, every interaction, every costumer, dancer, stagehand – all grounded in love. And I don’t use that word lightly.” Lundius also described the company as a multigenerational group of dancers with six ballet masters. “Those who have the strongest bonds with the company can mature into leadership roles,” he said.

For Lundius and Nicholson, being present in Hamburg for the Jubilee was an exhilarating and truly unique moment for the Foundation. “There are no other places on the planet where we could have had this kind of resonant experience at such a high level of intimacy and fulfillment,” said Lundius. “We’re excited to see the many ways in which Sybil’s life and work will continue to inspire new generations of artists.”

“Great spiritual experiences usually come at the extremities of existence, or in a moment of complete balance.” – Sybil Shearer