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Sybil teaching at the YMCA College in Chicago, 1943.

The Collaboration

Helen Balfour Morrison

CHICAGO, 1942-1984

In the fall of 1942, Sybil Shearer moved to Chicago at the invitation of the President of the Central YMCA College, Dr. Edward J. Sparling, who had seen her on tour. Of her move Sybil later wrote, “At the age of thirty I found myself in a magical place – long vistas, groves of oaks in savannas and forests. I became aware of the rising and setting sun, the rising and setting of the changing moons. This was the Midwest, the place that Alfred North Whitehead had said was the seedbed of creativity out of which so many artists had come. The stage was set. Everything called for me to create in a new way.” She began by teaching dance at the College’s downtown School of Music, and at her own School of Dance in Winnetka.

Within a month of her arrival, Sybil met HELEN BALFOUR MORRISON, a photographer who had been making portraits of an impressive array of notables, whom she called Great Americans. Recognizing Helen’s extraordinary use of light in her portraits, Sybil begged her to do the lighting for her dances. Once Helen agreed to try, she was all in, eventually becoming not only lighting director, but publicist, de facto manager, sometime costume designer, and patron. Now Sybil and her friends, including dancer Katherine Litz, were welcomed as weekend guests of Helen and her husband, Robert Morrison, at their newly built home in rural Northbrook. During these early years, Sybil lived in rooms in Chicago and Glencoe, going home every summer to be with her parents in Lyons, New York.

Jens Jensen and Sybil Shearer

In the fall of 1943, Sybil’s father died unexpectedly in a tragic accident. When Sybil returned to Chicago, Helen took her to Door County, Wisconsin, to meet JENS JENSEN at his school, The Clearing. It was an auspicious meeting of two nature-mystics, and led to Sybil’s taking her student–dancers there every summer until 1951, accompanied by musician JIM CUNNINGHAM, who became her devoted audio technician for the remainder of her career.

A surprise event occurred in 1945, when Dr. Sparling and his entire faculty left Central YMCA to start Roosevelt College, now Roosevelt University, which makes Sybil one of the founding faculty of this notable institution. Also memorable was a fund-raising event created by Sybil to benefit the new college — an outdoor performance with her students at the Morrison home – successful in every way, in spite of mosquitoes!

Sybil at the studio in Northbrook, Illinois

In 1950, Sybil’s mother died, and with her inheritance Sybil bought a plot of land from the Morrisons on which to build a home. Helen designed the Studio-residence, and it was completed in the fall of 1951, with Sybil and her dancers involved in the construction.

Once settled into her new place, Sybil made some important changes. She decided to leave Roosevelt and to turn the Sybil Shearer School of Dance over to her instructors. Trips to The Clearing ceased, as Jensen had died earlier that year.

Living in Northbrook was a far cry from the “broken rhythm” she had felt in New York, and for a dancer, it was an isolated and unconventional life. Yet there in solitude she was able to create astonishing works of art, choreographing for groups of her students as well as making solos for herself.

In 1956 DAVID VAUGHAN asked Sybil for films to represent Modern Dance in the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre Festival of Dance. Sybil had no films at the time, so Helen began filming her in her studio, and sent a film to David.

The Sybil Shearer Company presents Within This Thicket at the Winnetka Community House, 1958.

In 1957, Sybil expressed the wish for a theater of her own, and before long Helen managed to improve the Winnetka Community House auditorium with new rigging and flats. Sybil wrote, “I think she really enjoyed making it a place where I could not only perform, but also rehearse and create on stage in order to see choreography from an audience point of view.” The following year Sybil’s first group dance, Within This Thicket, was performed there, leading to formation of the Sybil Shearer Company.

In 1962 Sybil became Artist-in-Residence at National College of Education in Evanston (now National-Louis University), with full use of the Arnold Theater. In 1967 the College received federal funding for construction which included the theater, for which Helen designed the renovated stage and lighting. While it was closed for two seasons, Sybil and Helen spent winters in California working with JOHN MARTIN and ALMA HAWKINS at UCLA and visiting winemakers. When the Arnold reopened in 1969, critics and devotees began coming from both coasts to see Sybil’s work.

The culminating performance for the company was to a nearly full house at the enormous Arie Crown Theater in Chicago’s McCormick Place on January 16, 1972. Sometime after that, Sybil decided she would no longer perform. At sixty (though she would never tell her age) she certainly could still dance and choreograph, and everyone expected her to continue. But she later wrote, “I had intimations that it was time to finish my career – more would be less.”

In 1973 Helen and Sybil returned to filmmaking. Helen’s full-length film, A Sheaf of Dreams, premiered at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1976 and was shown around the country into the early 1980s. In 1982 the British Film Institute film was shown at the Arts Club. But things were changing for Helen and Sybil. Bob Morrison had died in June 1966, and Helen’s health had deteriorated. Though she was vital mentally, Helen was in a wheelchair in her last years, and Sybil nursed her through her final illness until her death in November 1984.