Ballet dancer

Obituary: Dorset ballet dancer Joan Harris who doubled for Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Famous ballet dancer Joan Neergaard, née Harris, has died in Christchurch aged 100.

The legendary dancer, who was ballet mistress in the famous film The Red Shoes, died at Avon Lee Lodge Care Home, Christchurch, which was her home for seven years.

Joan didn’t just teach ballet for The Red Shoes, she also played a starring role – she wears the iconic red shoes on the spiral staircase at the end of the acclaimed film.

Joan Harris was born in London in March 1920. At ten she began learning ballet at the Grandison School of Dancing in Norbury, where she made an impressive amount of silverware and what became the start of a brilliant career.

In 1934, Joan performed her first pantomime at the Theater Royal in Birmingham at the age of 14. The Panto was so successful that it exceeded many months and Joan’s dancing career was propelled.

Joan’s niece Anne said: ‘Joan’s mum didn’t dare send her back to Croydon High School mid-term so that launched Joan’s career in the world of ballet.’

In 1935 Joan won a two-year scholarship to Sadlers Wells Ballet School where she took weekly lessons with Dame Ninette de Valois – one of ballet’s most influential figures and the founder of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.

War was declared in September 1939 but the shows continued and between 1941 and 1945 Joan danced with the Anglo-Polish ballet company and the International Ballet.

Anne said: “Joan has visited all of the biggest theaters in the UK despite bombing a few.”

In 1946 Joan joined Sadler’s Wells Theater Ballet Company and met her future husband, Alan Carter.

In 1947 Joan entered the film world, alongside her work at Sadlers Well’s, working at Pinewood Studios. Joan was the ballet mistress for The Red Shoes, along with Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann.

A year later, Joan joined St. James’s Ballet Company, led by choreographer and dancer Alan Carter. Joan has danced with Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Beryl Gray.

In 1950 Joan worked as a ballet assistant on the film The Tales of Hoffman with Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. Other films followed, including Invitation to the Dance with Gene Kelly, Steps of the Ballet and The Dancing Fleece.

Joan and Alan married in 1954 before taking up a post in Munich as ballet master and ballet mistress for the Bayerische State Opera. In 1960, he moved to Norway and became director of the Norwegian Ballet.

Anne said: “Norway really stole Joan’s heart, she loved the people and the country. She found peace and love when she married Arne Neergaard in 1962.”

In Norway, she will be remembered for directing the Norwegian Opera ballet company (1961-1965) and establishing the Opera Ballet School in 1965, of which she served as director until 1988.

Joan was appointed Knight 1st Class by the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. Joan had an audience with King Olaf on June 22, 1988 to receive her gold medal.

Anne said: “Joan said ‘it was the best day of her life’. She was so busy chatting with the King, who spoke perfect English, that her 10-15 minute allowance was extended a bit!

Later that year Joan and Arne returned to the UK, retiring to Christchurch to be close to her sister Thelma, nephew Andrew and niece Anne.

Anne said: “They enjoyed both their love of walking and gardening and were thrilled to be away from all that snow in the winter!”

In 2001, Joan received the Honorary Award 2000 for her services to dance by the Norwegian Center for the Art of Dance in Oslo. Norwegian Culture Minister Ellen Horn presented Joan with the award on the Opera stage.

The price is displayed in the Foyer of the Opera.

Joan is an honorary member of the Norwegian State Ballet and the Royal Academy of Dance in England.

In 2017 the book ‘Joan Harris – A Dancer’s Life’ written by Monique Skavland Sunderland, was published and is a most wonderful account of her life and achievements.

Former student and friend Jennifer Day said: “Joan Harris was considered by any dance student under her to be a Madame. She was a ballet director/teacher, always responsible, firm, strict, a discipline that commands respect and sometimes even fear. A lady with a profound knowledge of her art, who was in her time a pioneer and a ballerina dedicated to her art and to her dancers. If this career had been in England, it would have been titled Dame Joan Harris. Joan was one of the most open-minded Ballet Madames you could ever meet, unique in her love and understanding for all forms of dance.

Joan turned 100 in March, encouraged by Andrew and Anne.

Anne said: “Despite a 100th celebration out the window during the Covid lockdown, we raised a glass of champagne together to acknowledge this wonderful milestone.”

And Joan was thrilled to receive a 100th birthday card from her Queen Elizabeth II and King Harald V of Norway.

*Joan’s funeral was held on September 25 at Hinton Park Woodland Cemetery.