Rose Shields glides across the studio with five other dancers in what seems to be a choreographed sequence, and yet doesn’t. They aren’t as much dancing as striding back and forth from one end of the CORE Performance Company studio to the other. Sometimes they walk in sync; other times they have to maneuver to avoid bumping into one another.
Shields — dressed in blue tie-dyed tights, a black T-shirt over a turquoise tank top and yellow socks — comes to a sudden halt. “Stop!” she shrieks. “What’s going on?” The dancers pause for a moment before they begin to move again, only to bunch together tighter and tighter until the whole thing grinds to a stop.
“Good,” says choreographer Isabelle Saulle, who has been watching from across the room. The troupe is working on a piece called “Point de vue sur coin de rue,” or “Point of view on the street corner.” It’s part of a series on that theme — which are all intended to be performed on street corners — by Saulle and Adolfo Vargas of the Association Manifeste dance company, based in Toulouse, France.
Shields and the other dancers stand waiting as Saulle and Vargas confer in French. The two are at CORE’s studio off Decatur Square as part of an exchange program. Association Manifeste will perform a version of the street corner dance Saturday night at 8:30 at the Rialto Center for the Arts. Next March, CORE will go to France to perform in Toulouse.
During her lunch break at a nearby sushi restaurant, Shields’ eyes brighten when she talks about the upcoming trip, especially because she has never traveled abroad. The Duluth native joined CORE, one of Atlanta’s oldest modern-dance troupes, last year and made a strong first impression in choreographer Amanda Miller-Fasshauer’s “The Liberated Accident” in the Tanz Farm series at the Goat Farm Arts Center in May.
“Onstage, she is luminous — she brings emotional nuance and joyous lyricism to everything she does,” says Cynthia Bond Perry, ArtsATL’s chief dance critic. “Sometimes I wonder if she realizes how talented she is.”
Shields, 28, is the youngest of four children. At age two she attended her aunt’s wedding, and when music began to play, she fell into dance. So her mother enrolled her in a dance class. From there she tried creative movement and then went on to ballet.
Shields’ first love, however, was figure skating. “As a kid, I’d slide across the kitchen floor in my socks,” she says with a laugh. “My mom would be cooking dinner and it would drive her crazy.”
Though she loved to dance, she explored a lot of options. “I was a very hyper kid,” she says. “I tried gymnastics for a season. I got into cross-country. I really didn’t know I was going to be a dancer.”
Looking at herself critically, she knew she had good musical rhythm and flexibility. What she lacked was the “turn out” required for ballet: the ability to rotate her hips and feet to 180 degrees.
“That’s a huge range of motion for a normal person, and if you don’t have that naturally, a common thought was that one never would,” Shields explains. But she refused to accept that, first working with her high school mentor, Danita Emma, and then using yoga and Pilates to expand her ability to rotate. “I’ve been able to gain so much more range of movement in that area. I discovered how to go beyond my limitations.”
She knew she wanted to dance but wasn’t so sure about living the life of a dancer. “You don’t make a lot of money. I was already 18, and most dancers stop dancing at 23. That was the norm.”
But when she was accepted into the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Shields took the leap of faith. Her entire focus fell on dance. She was schooled in different techniques and styles, and in the body’s physiology and the importance of nutrition. She spent hours every day dancing. At freshman orientation, the students were told that only about half of them would remain by graduation. “A lot of them couldn’t handle it,” says Shields. “They realized, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ”
Shields was particularly taken with the choreography classes she took. “Every two weeks, I had to perform a solo piece I’d choreographed in front of the whole modern faculty and students. We were not allowed to use music. You get comfortable getting up there, and making yourself available and vulnerable.”
Brenda Daniels, the school’s associate dean, who became a mentor to Shields, says the young dancer made an immediate impression because she was disciplined and curious.”Our dance program is extremely demanding and rigorous,” Daniels says. “Rose, above all, had a combination of serenity and tenacity that served her very well as a dance student.”
Shields came back to Atlanta with hope and an uncertain future. “My first year, I moved back in with my parents. I did dinner theater.” She also taught dance and became a substitute teacher at the middle school in Duluth that she once attended.
A friend from high school began photographing the local circus group Imperial OPA in 2010, and Shields was introduced to its director. She showed off a few dance steps, some tumbling and martial arts from her kung fu classes, and was brought into the troupe. “I’d always wanted to do aerial, and this girl said they had a lyra [hoop] lying around and asked me if I wanted to play on it,” she recalls. She not only taught herself to move around on the hoop, she began to excel at it.
Shields first gained notice in dance as Baba Yaga in the Brooks & Company production of “Into the Dark Wood” early last year, a performance that led ArtsATL to describe her as “captivating.” Her debut in the Tanz Farm series “The Liberated Accident” signaled a rising star on the local dance scene. Shields looked completely in her element in Miller-Fasshauer’s highly experimental work.
“It was like going on this huge, giant adventure and trip,” Shields says. “And I mean a trip into what we called ‘being in Amanda-world.’ Her imagination creates all these ideas that make this grand design that’s very intricate and beautiful.”
The piece was so nuanced that the dancers had to always be aware of everything around them, especially because there were no musical counts to rely on for timing. It was all based on feeling the rhythm of the other dancers. “I might do this [she extends her right arm as if doing a John Travolta], but I also have to know where my left foot is in relationship to all the people around me,” she explains. “We’re making this big picture and it’s a moving dance. Even if we’re standing still, it matters. It means something.”
Shields says that Sue Schroeder, CORE’s artistic director, has become a major influence on her ability to improvise within a piece. “One thing I’ve been doing with Sue that has helped me as an artist is to be sensitive and smart and willing to listen to my fellow dancers when I’m improvising, not to take over but also not to hold back,” she says. “To play out, to make a dance when you have a structure, but you don’t know what might happen, it’s scary. Every day is different.”
Schroeder makes note of Shield’s genuineness and openness to new ideas. “It makes our intimate work go far deeper,” she says. “Most surprising is Rose’s range of abilities and styles. She is a very versatile artist and performer. She is also is the company representative on our board of directors. She has taken the role seriously, has grown in her leadership skills and makes invaluable contributions to our board dialogue.”
Schroeder thinks Shield’s experience on CORE’s board will only enhance her potential for the future. “Rose has many gifts as an artist, dance-maker, arts leader and human being,” she says. “I believe her challenge will be in deciding what to do and when to do it.”
Shields notes that dancers tend to stay in the moment. While she expects to move into choreography and teaching dance some time in the future, she isn’t holding herself to a long-range plan other than to continue her work at CORE and at Imperial OPA. “I am of the experience that any plan is not going to go as planned,” she says with a laugh.
For now, Shields is intent on exploring her vast potential as a dancer, a talent she describes as giving voice to the unspeakable. “Your body sends energy to other people because you’re living and breathing,” she says. “I think the best way to help other people understand what I’m experiencing and feeling is to express it with my body.”