SUSAN SHIELDS RECALLS fondly her school days at Wolf Trap Elementary and summer mornings spent on the grass at its shady Theatre in the Woods, where Bob Brown's Puppets captivated her. Then there was summer's last hurrah -- Wolf Trap's International Children's Festival, where young Shields watched children's music and dance groups from around the world. "Wolf Trap really was the place where I got some of the best exposure to the arts," she says.
Now a dancer and choreographer, Shields returns to her old summer stomping grounds on Tuesday as her ballet, "Concerto Caprice," marks its world premiere. The program, danced by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, also includes "A Brand New Day," featuring two works to music by Sting, choreographed by Kevin O'Day and Matjash Mrozewski.
Despite an impressive roster of companies on her dance resume, Shields never performed at Wolf Trap. She began her training at a local dance studio in Vienna, and by the time she was a young teenager, she commuted to the District to study at the Washington School of Ballet. "I was a complete bunhead," she admits, using the insider's term to describe her teenage obsession with ballet. "I completely wanted to be a ballerina, but that's also because I had never seen good modern dance."
After a false start as an apprentice with the Washington Ballet, Shields took company co-founder Mary Day's advice. "I had such a fantastic repertory at a young age. I was dancing in wonderful ballets -- Balanchine's 'Serenade' and Choo-San Goh's works -- and that was so challenging. But it ended up that I just wasn't very happy, and I couldn't figure out why. The modern dancer in me was starting to come out, but I didn't know that at the time.
"Miss Day was very good to me. She really saw me," Shields says. "I was a fine ballerina, but I wasn't going to be a Giselle." On Day's advice, Shields switched to modern dance, went to New York, studied and observed, and eventually ended up with an enviable career as a modern dancer in the companies of Laura Dean, Lar Lubovitch and Mark Morris. Now she finds herself back in Northern Virginia as an associate professor of dance at George Mason University, while also performing with Mikhail Baryshnikov's adventurous White Oak Dance Project, a pick-up modern repertory company.
For the Pittsburgh Ballet, Shields was inspired by Vittorio Giannini's "Concerto Grosso," a lively musical piece that company Artistic Director Terrence Orr says matches the choreographer's energetic personality.
The two had crossed paths over the years in the insular New York dance world, and Orr thought highly of Shields's work. But admittedly he took a risk on an untested ballet choreographer. Shields is a modern and contemporary dancer, and this world premiere, commissioned by Wolf Trap, is the largest project she's worked on. While Orr doesn't discount the classics for his 30-dancer company -- the nation's eighth-largest ballet troupe -- he also programs contemporary works set to music by Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and other pop stars once or twice a year. Shields's ballet background and her willingness to stretch herself won Orr over. "She fits into the [contemporary] mold. . . . She's just a bit further out there. It's a chance we're willing to take. I believe in the work."
It's her first time back in the ballet fold since she left the Washington Ballet, and Shields notices herself returning to lessons learned from her modern mentors: The clean, spare patterns she gleaned from Dean's minimalism, the intense musical sensibility inculcated by Morris and, most important, her fearless acknowledgement of beauty, modeled from Lubovitch. "For this dance," the choreographer says, "I just wanted to make it as beautiful as possible."
PITTSBURGH BALLET THEATRE -- Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Rd., Vienna. 703-218-6500.