Susan Shields thought she had retired at 30. Her eight-year stint with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company should have been the finale to a robust performance career.
Eager to begin her own choreography career, she moved from New York to Fairfax, not far from where she grew up, to teach and choreograph at George Mason University.
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.
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.
She left Washington for New York, and there, enjoyed a successful dance career marked by both talent and impeccable timing, performing with the Mark Morris Dance Group, Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians and Eliot Feld Ballet.
It wasn’t until her late 20s — the period when many dancers start evaluating their post-performance options — that she decided to try choreography,
“Transitioning from performance is always a funny time for dancers,” Shields said. “Choreography isn’t part of the natural trajectory. Many choreographers don’t even have dance careers before they choreograph, so it never occurred to me until later. It just wasn’t encouraged.”
Working as an instructor at George Mason University afforded Shields the bodies and resources to choreograph. She embarked on a steady freelance career simultaneously, working for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Washington Ballet and the American Repertory Ballet.
Ballet West commissioned “Grand Synthesis” for its “Innovations” program, which fosters the creation of new works by contemporary choreographers. Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West, chose Shields for the program after his ballet mistress Pamela Robinson-Harris saw the Richmond Ballet perform Shields’s “Dark Hugs Me Hard” in 2006. He thought Shields was the perfect choreographer to inaugurate the program.
“Susan’s work is exactly what the title says. It’s a grand synthesis of energies. Since Susan has training in both classical ballet and modern dance, you see the melding of these two worlds together.”
Shields modified the piece this month for the current dancers and Wolf Trap’s stage. The piece is set to British composer Graham Fitkin’s “Log,” a score written for six pianos that changes tempos throughout the piece, allowing for abrupt changes in form and speed.
Sklute and the Wolf Trap Foundation chose Shields not only for her strong ties to Washington, but also because her piece complements the choreography of both Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” and Kylián’s “Sinfonietta,” which the company will perform in the program.
“When I first saw the program I thought, ‘I’m not worthy!’ ” Shields said. “ ‘Balanchine! Kylián! Shields?’ I laughed and laughed. Performing between Balanchine and Shields makes it impossible for [critics] to pan anyone but me!”
A risky business decision
There are few arts organizations that have not been affected by funding cuts during the economic recession. Freelance choreography has always been an expensive venture for companies, demanding time and resources. Often, it’s a risky business decision. Will audiences turn out for a new work? Will the company recoup its investment? Many artistic directors at major companies have became reluctant to commission new works.
“World premieres have always been expensive ventures for ballet. There’s a lot of pressure to produce works that will be a hit,” said Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet. “There are fewer opportunities because of the expense.”
“Choreography is a lonely profession. You never know when you’re going to get your next commission,” Shields said. “I’ve been very fortunate, but I’ve noticed a slump in the past few years. Companies can’t afford new work, so they have to bring old work back.”
Shields noticed a change in the frequency of her commissions, particularly after her success with the Richmond Ballet and Ballet West. She hoped the exposure would lead to a steady stream of commissions. But after the world premiere of “Grand Synthesis” in Salt Lake City, which received widespread praise, she went a year without receiving a single commission. To her, it seemed most companies were opting to perform established crowd pleasers like “Sleeping Beauty” or “The Nutcracker.”
“I was optimistic after ‘Grand Synthesis’ because I worked with this very high-level company. I thought it was a really big break for me,” Shields said. “When the phone didn’t ring, I kind of stumbled around. I thought, ‘What do I do now? How can I get the word out?’ ”
Some artistic directors remain committed to patronizing contemporary choreographers. The Washington Ballet plans will debut “¡Noche Latina!” at the Kennedy Center in May, commissioning two world premieres by emerging choreographers Edwaard Liang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and also performing a company premiere of Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba.”
“Putting three premieres by freelance choreographers into one evening allows an audience to see a glimpse of what’s going on in contemporary ballet,” Webre said. “Combining works with a popular theme, as we did with ‘¡Noche Latina!’, also piques audience interest.”
Sklute thinks that the “Shields, Kylián, Balanchine” model, or pairing world-renowned works with world premieres, is one way artistic directors can perform new pieces without having to worry that they won’t fill seats.
“Our audiences know who George Balanchine is,” Sklute said. “Kylián is an international name as well. With these names, audiences feel confident in what they’re seeing. I can then put a ballet by a new and lesser-tried choreographer with them, which allows audiences to take the chance.”
Shields is mindful of the hurdles but remains devoted to her craft and her students. “Whether I’m choreographing on one of the better ballet companies or on my students, I love the act of doing it,” she said. “That realization was a very reassuring moment for me.”
Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 8:30 pm at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap; $4-$40.