Dale Shields’ framed photo is the first one you see on the wall as you walk through the lobby of the Atlanta Ballet building toward the rehearsal studios. Given what Shields does for the company, it’s no surprise. As the “ballet mistress,” she is the vital thread that connects the dancers with every aspect of the ensemble’s intricate inner workings: not just their daily technique class but the costuming, the photo shoots and the hours of rehearsal that transform a ballet from a collection of half-learned steps to a fully formed work of art.
“Basically, I am responsible for everything that has to do with the professional dancers in the company,” she says. “I am teacher, nurse, parent, psychologist, all those things. I am responsible for how we grow the dancers, how we build their artistry. You have to find the best way to get the highest quality from each individual because they are all different — that’s what we love about them.”
At least once a week Shields teaches company class, that daily morning ritual for every professional dancer. “I don’t care how old you are,” she says, “if you are the baby in the company or you’ve been here the longest, you are constantly trying to improve. The class will allow that and as a teacher I have to give that.” She also teaches the visiting young dancers who attend Atlanta Ballet’s summer intensive each year.
Her biggest role, however, is scheduling the daily running of the artistic side of the company. “It’s a monster. It takes up a huge amount of my time,” she says. “The dancers live by that piece of paper, the schedule. It’s their lives.” She figures out who is teaching class each day, which pianist is playing when, and which rehearsal is booked in which studio. She ensures that the rules of the dancers’ union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, are followed at all times. She is responsible for giving visiting choreographers the dancers they want, when they want them: “Everyone wants the same people at the same time, so how do you do that?” She attends every performance, gives the dancers individual feedback after the curtain goes down — and has no idea how many hours a week she works.
Now in her 50s — she is coy about her age — Shields has a ready smile, says “great” often, rarely hesitates as she talks and exudes a finely organized intelligence along with the kind of ready-to-move energy you see in Olympic runners at the starting line.
Shields collaborates with the many contemporary choreographers whose works have enlivened the company in the last few seasons. These international dance makers work with the dancers for only a week or two to download the overall vision of their ballets. Shields learns every step, every nuance, every musical phrase, and after the choreographers leave she is one of three ballet mistresses who rehearse the dancers in the weeks and months leading to premiere. “It’s my job to make sure the vision of the choreographer is true to what’s happening on stage,” she explains. “I make sure that the dancers are doing everything on the right count, with the right inflection. We have video, but it’s the human artistic part of the process that’s important.”
For big ballets like Hamlet and Roméo et Juliette, Shields shares this role with veteran ballet mistress Rosemary Miles. “She is the best colleague,” Shields says. “One person can’t see it all, so the two of us with our different ‘eyes’ can catch things that one of us couldn’t.”
Miles, formerly with England’s Royal Ballet, Shields and Sarah Hillmer, the youngest of the three ballet mistresses, are a perfect multigenerational triad, each bringing her own unique experience and vision to the company.
When Shields joined Atlanta Ballet in 2006, the company was rehearsing Giselle and Sleeping Beauty. Just one full-length classical ballet in a season involves immense hard work, much less two. Shields had danced the principal roles in both ballets during her long career with Ballet Internationale in Indianapolis, but setting them on a group of dancers she barely knew, in a new city, under the direction of an artistic director she’d met only a few times, was daunting. She felt thrown in the deep end, but knew she could help them get to where they needed to go. And she has.
When artistic director John McFall began to add contemporary works to Atlanta Ballet’s repertory, Shields could see the dancers were “a bit out of their depth.” But they were open and eager to learn. “Seeing the evolution of how they digest the new information and use their bodies — it’s incredible. Wonderful. I am in awe that they are so versatile.”
In recent seasons, she has worked with choreographers as diverse as Ohad Naharin, Sir David Bintley, Jean-Christophe Maillot and the company’s resident choreographer, Helen Pickett.
Shields has been in the dance world most of her life, starting with her studies at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After graduating from Butler University with a degree in dance, she joined Ballet Internationale and quickly rose up the ranks, garnering glowing reviews along the way. She did every role ballet dancers dream of — Giselle, Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and contemporary roles in works like The Moore’s Pavane.
Early in her career she married fellow dancer Tim Hubbard and 17 years later gave birth to their daughter, Kelsey Amanda. “When you have a child, your vision is different,” she says. “As a dancer, you are your instrument, so you must be totally and completely absorbed in yourself. Everything in your life is built around your body and your health. It has to be in order to create the best product. I was ready for it not to be all about me.”
She retired as a performer and became principal ballet mistress at the company in Indianapolis. Ten years later, Ballet Internationale folded and Shields found herself looking for other opportunities. Atlanta Ballet became her new professional home.
As a dancer, Shields was always the one who remembered the choreography from one day to the next, a key skill that enabled her to transition easily to the role of ballet mistress. She had also been trained by some of the finest coaches, including Irina Kolpakova, a one-time leading ballerina with the Kirov Ballet and an esteemed academician.
After our interview, Shields ran to change into black stretch pants and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. She grabbed a white three-ring binder and raced down the hallway into Studio One where McFall was creating his new work “Three,” the ballet that debuted in the season finale, MAYhem.
Sitting close to the CD player, she became a quiet and watchful presence. As the choreography started to take shape, Shields studied every move, quickly taking notes in pencil. “I think that step is on five and,” she told McFall quietly at one point, using the counting language familiar to dancers. It was clear McFall was relying upon her acute observation, her memory and her experience. And it’s clear Atlanta Ballet could not do what it does without her.