Dance Faculty Member Returns to Find Her Artistic Home

Posted: October 4, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lynn Burke

While a member of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Susan Shields, MFA Dance ’03, was amazed to see Fairfax, Va., listed on the company’s itinerary along with such destinations as Italy and San Francisco.

In fact, since the performance date was also her birthday, she thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t a joke, they were performing at Mason. “Of course, when we got here, I was blown away,” she says.

Mason was still a commuter school when Shields, a native of Vienna, Va., left the area to begin her career in dance. She began dancing at age 4, training locally in some of the area’s smaller studios and then with the Washington Ballet. She attended Madison High School, leaving early each day for dance training. She ended up graduating early, finishing through correspondence courses.

“I started working, basically,” Shields says, but after a couple of tours to South America and some local touring, she discovered she wasn’t happy. The director of the Washington Ballet School suggested Shields see the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company perform. Shields did and fell in love.

“It was balletic and musical and gorgeous but had just that something extra,” she says. “It really suited my aesthetic.”

Susan Shields
Susan Shields
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Shields moved on to modern dance, spending a few semesters at the Dance Conservatory at Purchase College in New York. At age 19, she moved to New York City and began touring internationally with the Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. Then she successfully auditioned for the Lubovitch company, which was a dream come true.

After 8 years with Lubovitch, Shields found herself at a crossroads when its touring company folded. At age 28, she thought she might be finished with dance. She had earned her bachelor’s degree at Empire State College, and an internship at NBC News convinced her she still belonged in the theater. But after doing some gigs with Mark Morris’ renowned dance company, she realized she wasn’t interested in starting over with another group even though she loved Morris and his work.

Having taught a little at Mason and New York University, Shields found she had a knack for teaching and decided to pursue that when she moved back to Northern Virginia to be with family. A quick phone call to Mason’s Dance Department soon had her back in the studio.

Two years later, Mikhail Baryshnikov personally called her to invite her to dance with his White Oak Dance Project. Shields took a leave of absence from teaching to dance with Baryshnikov. At that point, she was working on her master’s degree at Mason and was required to take the Advanced Technique course—a class she taught.

“So the chair decided that dancing with Baryshnikov was probably equal to advanced technique,” and gave her academic credit for it, says Shields, who is now an associate professor of dance at Mason.

Today, along with her teaching responsibilities, Shields has ventured into choreography. She has done work for the Pittsburgh Ballet and the Washington Ballet and is completing a commission for the Richmond Ballet. Last year, she took some of her students to China for the International Cultural Festival where they performed her work “Sunlit Song.”

“That was a really neat experience—a fantastic opportunity for our students, a fantastic opportunity for me,” she says.

But her most important ongoing project to date has little to do with dance: her four-year-old son Theo. Theo is the same age Shields was when she started to dance, but so far, “he has no interest in taking ballet…yet.”

This article originally appeared in the Mason Spirit magazine in a slightly different form.

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