Soon after, a phone call came. It began with,“This is Mikhail Baryshnikov” — the balletic equivalent to “This is the White House.” Baryshnikov wanted her to return to performance one last time with his White Oak Dance Project, a small modern-dance company he founded in 1990 with contemporary choreographer Mark Morris.
She agreed, and partnered with the famed dancer in 1999 on Mark Morris’s acclaimed dance “The Argument,” a work for six dancers that depicts three couples in various stages of romance and heartache.
“That phone call was astonishing, so out of the blue,” Shields said. “All I could think was, ‘Is this really happening?’ ”
Shields took a short leave of absence to tour with Baryshnikov’s company, but she remained dedicated to choreography, returning to Fairfax on weekends to create new works for her students. The flaxen-haired petite beauty, beloved for her spunky and disarming demeanor in the studio, says her command of the craft developed organically, describing her dances as though revealed through mystical revelations.
“This field is literally so hands-on, it’s magical,” Shields said. “When I’m working, I’m putting my hands on the dancers and passing down this history through them. I’m passing on what I’ve learned through other choreographers. It’s a very deep and interconnected circle.”
Shields, 44, has grown dependent on that circle. Freelance choreographers such as Shields operate without the security of dance companies, relying on welcomed, out-of-the-blue commissions from artistic directors. And in the competitive field of modern choreography, commissions can be as rare as calls from Baryshnikov.
“Freelance choreography has always been challenging,” said Amy Fitterer, executive director of the service organization Dance USA. “They have to develop their reputations, do their own marketing and reach out to artistic directors. It’s a hard lifestyle to maintain.”
Shields is one of the few female exceptions, as few women work as freelance choreographers. She carved a niche for herself in modern dance by developing a style that fuses formal balletic technique with modern shapes and movement. On Tuesday, Ballet West, a top American company based in Salt Lake City, will perform Shields’s “Grand Synthesis” at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap, along with works by renowned choreographers George Balanchine and Jiří Kylián. The company first performed and commissioned Shields’s dance in 2008. Now, they’re recreating the synthesis in the town where Shields bought her first pair of pointe shoes.
‘Funny time for dancers’
Shields grew up in Vienna and attended Wolf Trap Elementary School. “The whole Wolf Trap thing is in my blood,” she said, having attended performances at the pavilion as a child. She trained under the late Mary Day at the Washington School of Ballet and spent summers at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York.