Nell Shipman may not have grown up in Maine, but it was her New England roots that pulled her back to Portland in 2004. Timing is everything, and the Portland Ballet Company auditions for Carmina Burana (in which she landed the lead role) aligned perfectly with her planned return to the East Coast from Colorado.
A “late” starter to ballet in her teens, Shipman started training in dance at the age of four in classic Broadway, Jazz, and Tap, studying “all things performance.” Although she loves to dance, her ability to relate movement to music made her realize choreography was her calling. After joining PBC, she knew she wanted to stick around. Shipman helped out where she was needed, doing office hours, teaching classes, and bringing her creative skills to the company’s attention with a choreographed piece she submitted to Portland Dances. Eventually, an injury led to her dance retirement. Not long after, she received the title of Resident Choreographer.
Shipman assumed the role of Artistic Director to the Portland Ballet Company in 2015, and the Director of Portland School of Ballet in 2016. When asked, one of the most satisfying parts of her job is the way it allows her to work with the entire spectrum of dancers within the company. In her role as both Artistic Director and teacher, she has the opportunity to work across a range of ages, and she can see the breadth of experience and joy in dance they demonstrate. She relishes the exuberance of the smaller children, as they come in to audition for the Nutcracker and excitedly share their best moves. Equally as satisfying is working with the dancers in the Company and collaboratively creating the dances that they perform. They bring in ideas that were not originally part of the ballet, and the choreography becomes richer for their input.
During these times of COVID-19, Shipman has been so appreciative of the flexibility of her position. While many classes were moved online for several months, she says it has been nothing less than amazing that she has the ability to bring her two children (entering first grade and fourth grade this year) to work with her. Shipman and her staff have worked behind the scenes to keep the Company running during the pandemic.
This summer saw the Portland School of Ballet opening their Summer intensive program with additional procedures in place, as well as smaller class numbers. This unusual time period has allowed them to do renovations to their space, updating some of the outdated fixtures. While in-person classes have resumed this fall with additional safety restrictions in place, they were also in the process of adding cameras in their rooms at the time of our interview. These cameras will allow families who don’t feel comfortable coming in for physical classes to continue their studies from home. Their reopening will also include smaller class sizes and staggered classes so that social distancing can be observed.
During our shoot, Shipman’s right-hand woman Milena turned on one of her favorite pieces of music, from Sylvia. A blissful smile flitted across Shipman’s face as she recognized it. We all have our own ways of coping with life, with stress, and with the gifts which we are born with or have cultivated. Dance is a form of expression, a way of moving our bodies and using them to express our emotions; something that feels even more important than ever while we all deal with the myriad of emotions from life during a pandemic. Dance, and choreographing dance, most surely are Nell Shipman’s ideal forms of expression.
Describe your style in one sentence.
I think my style changes a lot, but I love the patterns and silhouettes of the ʼ70s, and you can probably find that hidden somewhere in what I am wearing every day.
Is it “Maine” style? If so, how? If not, how does it deviate?
I don’t think so. I have definitely picked things up along the way, so there are parts of Maine in there, but lots of other odds and ends as well.
First outfit you remember picking out and loving, feeling great in?
It was a glorious dark green vest and matching elastic-waist wide-leg pants number with the added bonus of a puffy pirate shirt. I was about 13 and pretty sure that was the greatest thing that one could ever find in a store, conveniently all on one hanger.
How old were you when you felt like you developed a style of your own?
I am probably still developing one.
Last memorable outfit:
It was a glorious dark green vest and matching elastic-waist wide-leg pants number with the added bonus of a puffy pirate shirt. I am kidding! I think it was a pair of black cigarette pants with fantastic embroidery on them and a simple asymmetrical cream shirt. I am usually somewhat laid back in my approach to fashion and style, but that outfit feels a little more forward for me, so that’s fun.
Favorite bricks-and-mortar place to buy clothing in Maine?
Right now, it’s anywhere that is convenient. Like I can get batteries, milk, and a dress shirt at the same time. But when I had time to shop, I used to love to go to Material Objects. That place has treasure on treasure on treasure.
Do you thrift? If so, where?
Best clothing shoes or accessory bargain of all time:
I feel like I have a lot of these because I only bargain shop, and I can’t pick favorites because my favorites change all the time.
Most you ever spent on something to wear?
Well, I get nervous if I pay over $26 for an article of clothing, so this answer is less than thrilling. Because $26.
Who is your style icon of all time?
Part of me wants to say any member of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem from the Muppets, but really I don’t think I have one particular person. I think personal style is fantastic, and there are so many people who express themselves so well through it. So, them.
Who is your style icon in Maine (dead or alive)?
Jenny Frank. She was a dear, dear friend of mine. Her style was perfection.
Mountains or coast?
What would you refuse to wear?
Shorts. I don’t like them. Never have and never will.
Do you own Bean boots? If yes, how many pairs? If not, what do you wear in the snow?
I do not. I have a pair of Columbia snow boots that are big, clunky, and warm that allow me to wear huge comfy socks. They’re magical.
Where you do get your style inspiration? Magazines, movies, social media?
I think I get inspiration from the people I am in contact with, either daily or in passing. It’s not necessarily their style but the way they carry it. I think what makes people feel confident is always stylish, and I think it’s fun to see what that looks like on different people and then how it translates to me.
What is your current “go to” outfit or item of clothing?
A pair of flare-leg, dark-wash jeans.
What do you change into after a long day?
I wish it were more fabulous, but really just typical things . . . comfy t-shirt and sweats.