Portland Ballet’s Nell Shipman is Living Her Childhood Dream

The dance company’s artistic and executive director on the ballet that hooked her and what it was like to stop dancing.

Nell Shipman first joined Portland Ballet in 2004 as the lead in the company’s production of Carmina Burana and never left. She began teaching and choreographing before becoming artistic director in 2015 and director of Portland Ballet’s school in 2016. Now artistic and executive director, Shipman is leading the company through its first full season since the pandemic. Performances include Boy Meets Girl, Firebird, and, of course, A Victorian Nutcracker, scheduled for December 18 and 19 at Westbrook Performing Arts Center and December 22 and 23 at Merrill Auditorium. Shipman created most of the choreography for the holiday classic, which will be unveiling new set pieces and backgrounds this season. “Every year, when the final chords happen and the curtain is closing, I’m covered in chills, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,’” Shipman says. “It’s the holidays. I love it.”

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about ballet?

It’s more accessible and more relatable than people realize. Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballets. Everybody has heard of it and probably seen it or at least they just know the story. That’s fantastic because that ballet is amazing, but it’s about a man who falls in love with a swan who was turned into a princess by an evil swamp monster. It sounds a little out there. It sounds kind of fairy tale-like. But when you experience that story of that man falling in love with that swan to that music and the evil swamp monster comes out, it’s real. Going to a ballet is an experience, but some of the things that you feel when you’re watching these things are almost unreal because they’re so real. There are things that are happening on stage that are very accessible and very relatable to the human spirit. It might be dressed up, but it’s really powerful.

“When you’re a dancer, you know one day you’re not going to dance anymore.”

Is ballet something that you always pictured yourself doing?

I always knew that I wanted to dance, but I never was like, “so by this age I’m going to be doing this.” When I was about 12, I knew, yes, I’m going to do something with dance. I ended up going to college to dance and then got jobs after that.

What originally drew you to ballet?

My teacher growing up used to be a Radio City Music Hall Rockette, so I grew up doing old school Broadway jazz, a lot of tap, and all kinds of stuff. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I was like, ballet is speaking to me. When I got into college at Butler, I really dove deep into ballet, and then it just became a part of me. It was like, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Was there a particular experience or production that hooked you?

When I was little, I got some VHS cassettes. One was the 1977 ABT version of Giselle with Baryshnikov and Makarova dancing the leads. That video in particular was like my Bible. I watched that all the time and I knew every aspect of it. And Giselle, to this day, is my favorite ballet. The music, the story—it’s everything. I don’t think I knew it at the time. I was just enraptured with the story and the music and the sight of it.

I’m sure a lot of people who wanted to do something at age 12 didn’t end up doing it. Why do you think you were able to do it?

You have to really fight to work. And I just did that. There was a time when I was in Chicago living with no furniture and just doing what I had to do to take class. I used to go to summer intensives in New York where I would do work study where I’d get up at six in the morning and go to the studios early to clean the bathrooms and wipe down the mirrors and stuff like that so I could go and participate in the intensive. I worked really, really hard. You just have to decide what you’re going to do and try your best to do it. It’s hard. I heard “no” all the time.

Since you’ve been dancing your whole life, is it difficult to see other people being the ones on stage performing?

I don’t feel that way at all. I love it. I could tell some of my favorite teachers would get really excited to see their students be better than they were. And I feel that deeply. When I see people go out there and do things that I could never do or that I’ve done but better, it’s like, “Yes, that’s what I’m talking about.” I don’t feel sad about it. I don’t feel like I’m missing out because I’m still experiencing it. When you’re a dancer, you know one day you’re not going to dance anymore. Going into it you know that, and you know that it’s not very far away from you. Sometimes people dance well into their whatevers, but I didn’t, and I’m not mad about it. I’m proud of the work I did, and now I’m excited about the work that I get to do.

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