Poetic storyteller, aerial theater artist, and educator Nicki Miller ’03 talks about the inspiration behind her work
The shipwreck scene in Shakespeare’s Pericles was in full swing. Actors and actresses pulled on ropes and large fabric sails, when— snap! —the troupe was suddenly suspended high above the audience, contorting and gesturing, acting in mid-air. Nicki Miller ’03 stood in the audience, rapt beneath the London sky. Studying abroad as a junior at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, she knew she’d found something special: aerial arts. And she wanted to know more.
Miller threw herself into learning the art form—in which athlete-artists perform acrobatics while suspended from ropes, trapezes, fabric, and other apparatuses. She trained in New York, relating the dance experience that she honed at Williston to her new pursuits, and soon ascended to the status of performer, choreographer, and educator.
Now the co-founding artistic director of Only Child Aerial Theatre and an adjunct professor at Pace University, Miller continues to study and share her craft both regionally and internationally. From Toronto to Sweden, Miller has worked with internationally known circus directors and is flying high (pun intended) in her field, while utilizing her platform to empower young aerial artists to create with authenticity and intention. We spoke with Miller about her artistic accomplishments since leaving Williston, the motivation behind her work, and the ways in which the “risk and vulnerability” inherent in that Pericles scene continue to compel her today.
How did you first get involved in aerial arts?
I thought that you had to start as a toddler in the places known for turning out acrobats and circus artists to be able to do it. But I was so inspired that I joined a gym in London. In my senior year, I double-enrolled in movement classes. When I moved to New York, the first show I did was a tiny, avant-garde physical theater show. The assistant director had seen that same production of Pericles in London, and they told me about someone who taught aerial in New York. I was like…I guess I have to do it! I was 23 when I started.
Did your time at Williston influence your professional path?
Linda Seligman was the head of the dance department at that time and shaped who I have become. She brought in other dance instructors every season—we had flamenco, we had popping and locking class. She made an effort to expose us to noncommercial and nontraditional work. Her influence has very much informed the work that I’m drawn to.
During my senior year, I decided to choreograph something and had no idea how to do it. I had a group of six friends who were willing to stick out the process, and Linda was really supportive. The piece combined the modern dance styles that we learned from Linda with some tap dancing, and flamenco influences. Looking back, that choreography was my first attempt at interdisciplinary poetic storytelling, the kind of work that I continue to cultivate now. Because of the trusting, supportive community in the dance department, I got to try.
What four adjectives describe the qualities of your work?
Poetic. Physical. Multilayered. Interdisciplinary.
How would you describe your artistic ethos?
To have the privilege to be creative also bears with it an awareness of how that can be leveraged to do something meaningful. Contemporary circus is an expensive art form, and therefore a lot of wealthy, dominantly white cultures support and create it. It can have a homogenous vibe, aesthetically and narratively. The economics of participation can be exclusionary, and that limits a diversity of voices represented in the work. This is something that I hope to help shift in my career.
On some deep level, I believe that getting in touch with one’s intuition and heart, and being able to align with things in the world that feel true to that, can be one of the most valuable and challenging calls that one can pursue. I try to make work that very much comes from that place.