Susan Shields, MFA ’03, may not tell you this, but she’s rather important. After all, she calls Mikhail Baryshnikov by his nickname, Misha, so that should give you an idea of her stature in the world of dance.
Now a professor in Mason’s School of Dance, Shields was a well-known performer before setting her sights on a second career as a dance educator. Trained at the Washington School of Ballet, and briefly at the conservatory dance program at SUNY-Purchase, she began her career as an apprentice with the Washington Ballet. After moving to New York, she joined Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians and later the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.
Though she started out in the world of ballet, Shields felt something wasn’t right with her chosen career path. So with the urging of Washington School of Ballet’s director, Mary Day, Shields left the school for SUNY, which gave her her first exposure to modern dance.
But it wasn’t until Shields went to go see Lubovitch’s company in New York for the first time that something in her clicked. “It changed my life,” she says.
Shields spent eight years touring the world with Lubovitch before realizing her passion for teaching through conducting master classes at various universities.
In 1997, Shields joined the dance faculty at Mason and credits former dance director Linda Miller with urging her to complete her MFA at Mason.
During this time, Shields received a call from dance legend Baryshnikov asking her to join his White Oak Dance Project, a touring company for seasoned professionals. She was able to arrange her teaching and academic schedule so she could return to her performing career and danced with the company for two years.
“That was one of the nicest periods of my life,” Shields says. She explains that performing with Baryshnikov while still being able to teach left her completely professionally satisfied.
Of course, the schmoozing with movie stars didn’t hurt, either. Shields recalls one rehearsal where she and Baryshnikov were practicing a piece choreographed by the world-famous Mark Morris and Baryshnikov’s ex-wife stopped by for a visit—none other than Oscar-winning actress Jessica Lange. “It’s my little brag story,” Shields laughs.
After her tour with Baryshnikov, Shields turned to choreography and another talent was discovered. One of her earliest pieces was called “Sunlit Song,” which she first staged on Mason dancers.
“That was the first time that people took notice of me as a choreographer,” Shields says. “Sunlit Song” led to Shields receiving a commission from the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts for a piece that she created for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which had its premiere at the Filene Center.
Shields has since created works for some of the best contemporary ballet companies, including Washington Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Boston Ballet II, American Repertory Ballet, and, most recently, Ballet West. Her work on Ballet West, “Grand Synthesis,” will be presented this summer at Wolf Trap.
Shields has continued her creative exploration in a new collaboration with Heather McDonald, professor in Mason’s Theater Department. The two have created a moving experimental theater piece combining dance and storytelling called “Stay,” which they recently staged at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater.