The arts booster – Her goal: Accessible ballet

The arts booster – Her goal: Accessible ballet

Nell Shipman


South Portland

Associate artistic director and resident choreographer, Portland Ballet

The cliche? of ballet is waifs in colorful tutus flitting across a stage.

But Nell Shipman, in her career as a dancer and now as associate artistic director at Portland Ballet, strives to shatter that trite notion and emphasize that ballet is much more of a multi-dimensional, complex art form.

“It’s hard to break down the stereotype that ballet is cute, and sometimes it is, but mostly it is incredibly stirring and powerful,” she said, describing it as moving, inviting, graceful, honest, and, at times, funny. “You can actually feel it when you watch it.”

Founded in 1980 as a nonprofit, Portland Ballet stages regular performances – including the upcoming “Halloween Spooktacular” on Oct. 27 and “The Victorian Nutcracker” in December. The company also trains dancers from toddlers to senior citizens, and offers lectures, demos, youth concerts and classes for immigrant and disabled youth.

Shipman has performed in many of the company’s productions (typically in lead roles). More recently, she’s written, directed and choreographed several performances, working closely with composers, instructing dancers, and even designing costumes and sets. She also regularly mentors younger ballerinas.

Ultimately, Shipman’s goals are to inspire the company’s dancers to work toward one artistic vision – and to then bring that vision to the larger community. For example, the company has staged dances in the Portland Public Library windows, and also sometimes shows up in “unexpected places,” she said. It has also collaborated with local photographers and artists to show that ballet doesn’t have to be confined to a theater.

“I think the arts scene in Portland is alive and kicking, and I hope to keep dance part of its heartbeat,” said 32-year-old Shipman, a native of Worcester, Mass., who lives in South Portland with her husband, Travis, and 16-month-old daughter, Nora. “I want the world to know that ballet is accessible. It’s not stuffy. It’s not only for the elite. It’s not unrealistic. It’s the exact opposite of those things.”

Inspired by her older sisters, she began dancing at age 4 and was later taught by a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette. By her teenage years, she got serious about ballet and the “beauty and hidden strength” in it. (And today she still enjoys it, but no longer performs.)

Although she called it her “truest and easiest form of expression,” the challenge of the style is making it look effortless, she said, and also acting to set the mood of the character.

“My outlook on life is to do what you do, do it well, and then share it,” she said. “If it does you good, imagine what good it will do you to give that gift to someone else. I dance. I hope I do it well. And I share it.”

32South PortlandAssociate artistic director and resident choreographer, Portland
32South PortlandAssociate artistic director and resident choreographer, Portland

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