Susan Shields Ballet Cocktail
American Repertory Ballet, Boston Ballet II, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Richmond Ballet, Washington Ballet
Center for the Arts
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia
April 28, 2007

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2007 by Alexandra Tomalonis

George Mason University has an excellent dance series. This season, it included performances by Mark Morris Dance Group, Moscow Festival Ballet, Momix, Shen Wei Dance Arts, several folk and international ensembles, and D.C.–based choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. The Center for the Arts offers free parking, good sight lines, and reasonable prices (tickets for Susan Shields’ show ranged from $22 to $44, and the 12–event series starts at $195 and tops at $390). Every time I’ve attended a dance event at GMU, the house is full or nearly full; the Center is Exhibit A in the case that there IS an appetite for dance today. Make the tickets affordable, and they will come.

The house seemed very happy indeed last weekend, watching Susan Shields Ballet Cocktail. With one exception, the ballets were light in tone and easy on the eye. The chance to see five regional American companies is a rare and welcome one. Few choreographers have a range wide enough to fill a program without the audience feeling it's seeing the same thing repeated, but despite the similarity in tone among the works presented here, Shields can put on a varied show. She can also move dancers — something one might think is de rigeur for a choreographer, but the easy way steps flow and dancers are deployed over the stage show Shields is a rare bird. I’d seen her “Uncertain Song” at Washington Ballet’s 7 x 7 program last spring, and was interested enough to want to see more.

Either Shields’ has changed “Uncertain Song” substantially, or it looked very different on a proscenium stage than it did in Washington Ballet’s studio. I’d remembered the piece as an intriguingly imaginative reworking of one of ballet’s most beloved clichés: a happy lyrical couple (in rose) contrasted with a more troubled couple (in lavender). What I’d liked last spring was the way Shields went beyond the clichés and created individuals; it was a new look at love. Unfortunately, what I saw last weekend was a very generic “isn’t love beautiful” lyrical piece (set to songs by Joseph Canteloube).

"Dark Hugs Me Hard," danced by the Richmond Ballet, was completely different, the one dark work on the program, and an interesting one. The dancers, in flesh–colored leotards that made them look like ghosts — or, more ghoulishly, corpses — dance in the contemporary style (no steps, but the dancers, especially the women, had beautiful long lines). At the end, two dancers literally leap apart from the group and dance about as though free. The work ostensibly deals with grief, but it looked as though it were danced by the objects of grief rather than grievers. The set — two huge window panes against which water pours, realistically emulating rain — set the mood.

The other three works on the program were pleasant romps in a cheerful mood. Each was different. “Concerto Caprice,” danced by the Pittsburgh Ballet, was the most formal. Six couples danced to the music of Vittorio Giiannini in Shields’ relaxed, semi-classical style.  “Sunlit Song” dressed the dancers of Boston Ballet II in sunshine yellow tops and white pants, and sent them tooling about the stage.  “I [heart sign] Kenji” was a big production closing number for American Repertory Ballet. Set to music by Kenji Bunch, the work was like a piece of candy with a soft center: a central lyrical suite surrounded by high–energy Broadway–style moves.

Each dance was well–made and well–danced by eager young dancers. Shields’ work is mainstream, not cutting edge, easy to understand and easy to like. She’s upfront about what she does. Ballet–trained but encouraged to go into modern dance by Washington School of Ballet’s Founder–Director Mary Day, Shields ended her career at White Oak, and says in interviews that her interest is in making dances with a ballet base, but a modern dance flavor. The result, as pleasant as the works are, is ballet for people who don’t like ballet.


Volume 5, No. 18
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Alexandra Tomalonis

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