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Obituary: Joan Harris – international dancer and ballet authority on several classic films

Joan celebrating her 100th
Joan celebrating her 100th

FORMER international dancer Joan Harris, who was ballet mistress for classic film The Red Shoes and director of ballet at the Norwegian Opera, has died at the age of 100.

A leading light in the Norwegian ballet for over 30 years, Joan and her husband Arne spent their retirement in Christchurch where they enjoyed walking and gardening.

Joan’s services to the arts were such that in 1988 she was recognised by being appointed a Knight of the 1st Class by the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit and was presented to King Olaf.

Born in London in March 1920, Joan began learning ballet at the Grandison School of Dancing in Norbury when she was 10. She achieved over 150 competition medals and cups, and in 1934 appeared in her first pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Birmingham which was so successful that it overran by several months.

In 1935 she won a two-year scholarship to the Sadlers Wells Ballet School where she was lucky enough to have weekly lessons with Dame Ninette de Valois – widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of ballet and founder of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School.

Between 1941 and 1945 Joan danced with the Anglo-Polish Ballet company and the International Ballet, appearing in many of the largest theatres in the UK – despite being bombed out of a few.

Soon after joining the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet Company in 1946, shortly after its inception, Joan met her future husband Alan Carter.

Joan dancing to Les Sylphides
Joan dancing to Les Sylphides

The following year Joan entered the world of film where, alongside her work at Sadlers Wells, she was employed by Pinewood Studios as the ballet mistress for the famous film The Red Shoes starring Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann.

Joan had a solo part – her feet can be seen in red shoes running down the spiral staircase towards the end.

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

In 1948 Joan joined the St James’s Ballet Company under the direction of Alan Carter where she appeared alongside guest dancers Margot Fonteyn, Michael Soames and Beryl Grey.

In 1954 Joan and Alan were married before they took up a post in Munich as ballet master and mistress for the Bayerische State Opera. Joan and Alan later separated and in 1961 she accepted a post as director of the Norwegian State Ballet.

Norway stole Joan’s heart. She loved the people and the country, and in 1962 married her stage director Arne Neergaard. She is remembered for leading the ballet company at the Norwegian Opera House (1961-65) and establishing a permanent corps de ballet. She launched the Norwegian Opera Ballet School in 1965 and served as its head until 1988.

In Norway she received many awards culminating in 1988 when she was appointed a Knight of the 1st Class by the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit and had an audience with King Olaf. She always remembered this as the greatest day of her life, and spent a long time conversing with the king.

Joan and Arne retired to Christchurch later that year to enjoy the milder climate and to be closer to her sister Thelma and niece and nephew Anne and Andrew.

In 2001 Joan returned to Norway to receive the Award of Honour 2000 by the Norwegian Centre of the Art of Dance in Oslo for her services to dance.

Joan was also an honorary member of the Norwegian State Ballet and the Royal Academy of Dance in England. In 2017 the biography Joan Harris – The life of a Dancer, written by Monique Skavland Sunderland, was published.

Sadly Arne died in 2008 after suffering a stroke. Joan lived at Avon Lee Lodge Care Home in Christchurch for the last seven years. She reached her 100th birthday in March, cheered on by her niece and nephew, and was delighted to receive birthday wishes from Queen Elizabeth II and Norway’s King Harald V.

Joan Neergaard, nee Joan Harris, died peacefully on Friday 28th August.

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