Principal dancers Erica Diesl and Russell Hewey during rehearsals for Portland Ballet's "Victorian Nutcracker." They dance the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. (Portland Phoenix/Blair Best)
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One ballerina stands in front of the studio mirror and twists her strawberry blonde hair into a tight bun. Behind her, at the barre, is another dancer swinging her leg from front to back to warm up her hips. On the floor along the wall, sits a young group of ballerinas watching with wide eyes as the Portland Ballet principal dancers prepare for rehearsal. 

It’s a little after 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday in mid-November, and Studio 1 inside Portland Ballet’s Forest Avenue headquarters is filling with dozens of dancers. 

“Where we are now is piecing it all together,” said Nell Shipman, Portland Ballet’s artistic director. 

Nell Shipman, Portland Ballet artistic director. (Courtesy Portland Ballet)

It is the first rehearsal with the entire Act II cast of “Victorian Nutcracker,” and Shipman is focused on making sure each dancer knows where they need to be for the finale and the curtain call, two points of the show when 60 dancers are on stage at once.  

“Welcome to the end of the show,” Shipman said, opening her arms out wide.

The warm afternoon sun peeks through the nearby buildings and scatters across the studio floor. Shipman begins the rehearsal by splitting up the dancers into their designated character groups: Arabian, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Marzipan, Flowers, and Cherubs. 

In Act II, each of these character groups represents a different piece of the “land of the sweets,” and they perform divertissements, which are short dances. Up until this rehearsal, the dancers have rehearsed their divertissements separately. 

“Now, we are molding them all together so that it makes one cohesive story,” Shipman said. 

Tossing her long dark hair behind her ears, Shipman begins to direct the cast through traffic patterns on and off stage and into formations for the final curtain call. 

“Dancing is like sewing,” she said. “There is a thread that connects everything, so, I am looking at that thread and making sure it’s the same from start to finish.” 

After about 20 minutes of choreographing, Shipman turns on the music and analyzes the dancers as they move through the finale for the first time this season.

“The art of ballet is very much alive and ever-changing,” Shipman, who has been directing “Victorian Nutcracker” at Portland Ballet for 10 years, said. 

Each season, Shipman sits in the audience at Merrill Auditorium and takes notes on what she wants to change for the following year. Even having directed the show for a decade, she still notices new details. 

“When I get to the theater and sit in the house with the audience, I start to feel what they feel,” Shipman said. “I gauge their reaction, and that brings up new challenges, because I know this is a traditional part of people’s holidays, and I want to make sure there are sparks and reasons for them to keep coming back.” 

Shipman said she hopes the audience will leave every year having discovered something new in the ballet. 

Dancers rehearse the Waltz of the Flowers in Portland Ballet’s “Victorian Nutcracker.” Performances are Dec. 17 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, and Dec. 21 and 22 at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available online at porttix.com. (Justin Day)

Audience members who see “Victorian Nutcracker” every December won’t have a difficult time finding new details in this year’s production, because Shipman and ballet master Jennifer Jones are debuting several changes to the ballet. One is new choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers, one of the longest dances in Act II. 

Shipman said they have been working on tweaking the Waltz of the Flowers for years, and this season, decided to start from scratch. Jones began choreographing the new dance this summer to have it ready for the first rehearsal in September, and while the costumes will be the same, the formations and steps will be brand new. 

“It has provided so much life for the rest of Act II,” Shipman said. “I think it’s going to be a lovely surprise for audience members who know it, but also for those who haven’t seen it before; I think they are going to be completely entranced.” 

Other pieces of the ballet that Shipman is excited to present this year are the transitions between each divertissement in Act II. “I have been working on these for the past two years, and I am finally tying a bow on it this year,” she said. 

To carry the story of the “Victorian Nutcracker” through the different divertissements making each character group look and feel as if they are dancing in the same world, Shipman is having the lead characters of the divertissements stay on stage longer and interact with one another when entering and exiting. 

“I don’t want it to feel like the audience is just sitting there thinking ‘here’s a dance and now we clap,’ but that they feel as if they are part of this festival and the party that’s being presented,” she said.. 

While a majority of “Victorian Nutcracker” dancers are the same each year, they often play different characters, which also creates new elements for Shipman to work with. “Each dancer brings a different quality to the role,” she said. 

Emma Halter, who dances the lead role of Olivia, poses with the toy nutcracker. (Courtesy Portland Ballet)

One dancer bringing new light to the stage this year is 13-year-old Emma Halter, who plays the lead role of Olivia. Halter has been dancing in the “Victorian Nutcracker” at Portland Ballet for eight years and was the understudy to Olivia last year. She trains five days a week in Portland Ballet’s pre-professional program and said she is looking forward to playing the lead for the first time. 

“Right now, I am just trying my hardest, and it’s coming together,” Halter said. “But once I get to opening night with the lights, makeup, and costumes that’s when it really comes together and I can really get into character.” 

Company dancers Erica Diesl and Russell Hewey are dancing the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier for the first time at Portland Ballet. For the past several years, Diesl has played the roles of Snow Queen and Hewey has been King. Shipman has seen Diesl and Hewey go from dancing the Waltz of the Snowflakes, which she describes as a sharp, commanding dance, to embodying the more regal and caring roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. 

“Watching them transition into these roles is great for the artists, the audience, and the entire ballet,” Shipman said. 

Between the new choreography, lead characters, and the transitions in Act II, Shipman believes this year’s production is going to be special. 

“I love everything about it,” she said. “It is feeling so fresh and elevated, and there’s a new life to it, a new breath coming from it, and it’s really inspiring.”

Portland resident Blair Best is an assignment editor at WGME13 and a freelance writer.