We’ve seen Nell Shipman as a performer.

We’ve seen her as a choreographer.

This week, we’ll witness her biggest role yet, though we won’t see her on stage. Shipman, who was recently promoted to associate artistic director of Portland Ballet, conceived, choreographed and directs an all-original production of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Portland Ballet will present the new dance piece Friday and Saturday at John Ford Theater in Portland High School.

“I’m planting my feet more firmly on the ground,” Shipman said before a rehearsal last week at the Portland Ballet studio on Forest Avenue. “With other shows that I have done and been involved with, I have asked other people for their input. ‘What do you think of this? What do you think of that?’ But with this show, I’ve grabbed ownership and said, ‘This is what it is and this is what it will be.’ This is my total artistic vision.”

Shipman admits to being nervous.

“Oh yeah,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s like standing on stage naked.”

She is well prepared for the challenge. Since coming to Portland Ballet in 2004 and dancing the lead in the company’s ambitious and wildly well-received inaugural production of “Carmina Burana,” Shipman has charmed audiences with her coy, charming and sinfully sleek dancing style. She has danced numerous lead roles in Portland Ballet productions, and also appeared on stage with PORTopera and the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

At age 30, Shipman finds her career in transition. She is still very much a dancer, but lately has focused her energies on the vision and execution side of the artistic process. She is mentoring young dancers at Portland Ballet, and working side-by-side with company founder Eugenia O’Brien.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” represents the pinnacle of her transition into a leadership position. The idea for the ballet first came up in 2006, when O’Brien suggested the Washington Irving short story would make a good program for Halloween.

In Irving’s story, Ichabod Crane, a Connecticut schoolmaster, vies with townie Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, for the affections of a young woman. On his way home from a social gathering on an autumn night, Crane is chased by a Headless Horseman and is never seen again.

The local boy marries the young woman, and the story suggests he was the Headless Horseman in disguise.

The story, originally published in 1820, has been told in many formats, including on film and on stage. But never before, until now, has it been told as a ballet.

Shipman, whose parents read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to her at Halloween when she was growing up, worked with composer Kirt Mosier of Missouri to create an original score. Shipman was researching the Irving story on the Internet when she came across two songs Mosier had already written, “Ichabod’s Walk” and “Hessien’s Ride.”

She contacted the composer and asked if he was interested in writing a full score.

Mosier, a public high school music teacher in Lee’s Summit, Mo., accepted the challenge. He will be in Portland for the premiere.

Mosier’s music will be performed by a 14-piece orchestra, including several players from the University of Southern Maine School of Music and the Portland Symphony. Robert Lehmann, strings professor at USM, will conduct.

Shipman conceived the visual aspects of the story, choreographed the ballet and designed the costumes the dancers will wear. She also designed the set and created the overall aura of the show. She wants the ballet to feel more like a ghost story than a fairy tale.

The music is melodic and moody, and the choreography is fun, flirty and quirky. There are 21 dancers in the cast, including Joseph Jeffries, who dances the role of Brom Bones. Jeffries has danced professionally for 14 years, most recently with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male drag ballet company.

O’Brien said Shipman has earned her new responsibilities. When she arrived at Portland Ballet in 2004, she came with solid credentials. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance performance from Butler University in Indiana, and had worked with the David Taylor Dance Company in Denver.

She has flourished in her time in Portland, and become one of the city’s most recognized dance professionals, O’Brien said. She has tackled challenging roles and worked with other performing arts group to bring dance to the fore of their programming. In so doing, she has become an ambassador for dance in the community, O’Brien said.

“What she has done is show both a way to honor what Portland’s dance history has been while also helping secure an innovative future,” O’Brien said. “She has demonstrated her depth of training and versatility, and has proven herself capable in so many areas.”

Shipman relishes her new role and responsibilities.

She enjoys working with “all these young, hungry dancers coming through the door. I see this as an opportunity to give them a chance,” she said. “I’ve been dancing since I was 4, and I knew when I was 12 years old that I wanted to be a choreo-grapher.

“Portland Ballet has given me a chance, and I’m glad to be in a position to give something back.”


Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]