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Moira Shearer, 80; danced into fame in 'The Red Shoes'

WASHINGTON -- Moira Shearer, the flame-haired ballerina-turned-actress who became an international star in ''The Red Shoes," a poetic and sensual film that inspired generations of young dancers, died Tuesday at a hospital in Oxford, England. No cause of death was reported. She was 80.

Using Technicolor photography, ''The Red Shoes" (1948) was one of the most stunning films of its vintage, and its entrancing, porcelain-skinned heroine was credited with almost single-handedly popularizing ballet for millions. However, in later years she disparaged the film and its cost to her ballet career, saying, ''Isn't it strange that something you've never really wanted to do turns out to be the very thing that's given you a name and identity?"

Moira Shearer King was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on Jan. 17, 1926. Her father, a civil engineer, moved the family to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where she was pushed into dance lessons by her mother.

She called her upbringing strict and provincial, lightened only by her parents' knowledge of music, which she cherished.

After the family returned to Scotland, she received lessons from Nikolai Legat, the Russian master who had trained Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, as well as from Legat's widow.

Ninette de Valois, the founder of the prestigious Sadler's Wells Ballet, made Ms. Shearer a principal dancer with her organization. In 1946, she danced ''Swan Lake" as Odette and Odile and ''The Sleeping Beauty" as Princess Aurora. Also that year, she was in Frederick Ashton's ''Symphonic Variations," her red hair providing vibrant contrast when she appeared onstage with blonde Pamela May and brunette Margot Fonteyn.

In 1948, Ms. Shearer replaced an ailing Fonteyn in ''Cinderella" and triumphed in another Ashton piece, the abstract ''Scenes de ballet," performed with a Stravinsky score.

Her critical reputation soared, not least because of ''The Red Shoes," which she had rejected as ''silly and banal" when shown the script.

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger based ''The Red Shoes" on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl entranced by magical ruby-red shoes. Their film was set in the ballet world, with a young ballerina forced to channel all her passion into her career.

Also featured was a full-length ballet of ''The Red Shoes" with dancer-choreographer Robert Helpmann.

Powell began a long campaign to cast her. She rebuffed his efforts until de Valois told her, ''Will you please make this movie and get this man Powell off our backs?"

Almost universally glowing reviews assured the film status as an instant classic, and critic Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times that Ms. Shearer ''is amazingly accomplished and full of a warm and radiant charm." Some considered ''The Red Shoes" the finest film about ballet until ''The Turning Point" in 1977, and perhaps ever.

''The Red Shoes" was nominated for the Oscar for best picture; it won Oscars for best art direction and best music. A 1999 British Film Institute survey of movie industry professionals ranked ''The Red Shoes" as one of the 10 greatest British films of all time.

The size three satin pointe shoes Ms. Shearer wore in the film sold for $25,000 at auction in London in 2000.

But Ms. Shearer regarded filming as an unhappy experience and said Powell had a ''total coldness and inhumanity" on the set. She was displeased with her acting and dancing and uncomfortable being promoted as the greatest dancing find of her generation.

'' 'The Red Shoes' ruined my career in the ballet. They (her peers) never trusted me again," she told a Glasgow reporter in 1994. ''There was quite a lot of jealousy, and there was that awful thing of me becoming known to the public who then didn't know the rest of the company."

Soon after ''The Red Shoes," she made a celebrated North American tour with Sadler's Wells, and choreographer George Balanchine cast her in his ''Ballet Imperial" (1950). She later wrote a generous book about Balanchine.

In 1954, Ms. Shearer quit ballet but made sporadic film appearances, including two more for Powell: ''The Tales of Hoffmann" (1951) and the thriller ''Peeping Tom" (1960). She also was in ''Black Tights" (1960), teaming with Roland Petit to dance ''Cyrano de Bergerac."

''The ballet was the thing to which she was really committed, the film industry was a bit of a distraction," said her husband, writer Ludovic Kennedy. ''She was quite otherworldly. She didn't have a commitment, if you look, in herself to making films, but she had a total commitment to ballet."

She rounded out her career doing stage work in everything from Anton Chekhov to Noel Coward. She contributed book reviews to the London Daily Telegraph and did some commentary for the BBC.

In addition to her husband, she leaves four children.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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