NIC LINCOLN, DANCER AND ACTIVIST
I met Nic when I was still new to Chicago. Our story is like a script for an 80s romantic comedy. This was pre Netflix, back in days when video stores were a thing. By mistake I had returned a videotape from another video store to the store Nic was working at. He took it to the other store so that I wouldn’t be charged late fees. I learned about his kind gesture from another employee and decided to leave him a thank you card. Weeks went by and one day, after a long and shitty week, I decided to treat myself with some wine and a good movie. So, I stopped at the video store and that’s when I met Nic. He recognized my name from the card and within minutes we had made plans to get together for a coffee.
Since then I have seen him evolve as an artist and develop a body of work that is not only as creative as he is, but also as passionate, authentic and committed. Here is to making conscious artistic choices and using our talents as a conduit for the kind of social change we wish to see in this world.
When did you started to dance?
I started when I was thirteen. I was waiting for a friend of mine that was taking dance class and the teacher approached me and said “Well, if you're going to be waiting, you might as well take the class.” That's how I started. Seriously.
One of my earliest memories of dancing was taking a class in an old hardwood floor studio. The teacher was showing the difference between an inside and an outside pirouette, and it just blew my mind. I remember trying to understand the difference between turning to the right on my right leg versus turning to the right on my left leg, looking at my feet trying to make the connection between what something looks like, what something is called and what something feels like in your body. That experience instilled excitement, because I realized that things weren't as easy as they looked, and I liked the challenge.
That memory makes me think about the learning process and how it relates to dance. Our bodies maintain these memories from the actual learning process as well as a connection with the emotions we felt when those memories took place. There is a personalization that happens when you're using your own body as the instrument of the learning process. The emotional connection is deep, the learning moments stay within you, and that impacts how you relate to the world around you.
Besides being a dancer, you are also an activist. How does activism fit into the work you create?
The title dance artist and activist came about when I commissioned someone to make a solo for me. At the time, I felt strongly about my tie-in and relationship with the transgender community and my feelings surrounding my personal experiences with the topic, so I incorporated that theme directly into the piece. Performing that piece and seeing the positive reaction that I got from addressing what was a taboo subject matter at the time, made me realize that I wanted to do more of that kind of work.
As an artist, I have a choice to incorporate activism into my work. Sometimes I simply invite non-profit organizations to come to the stage to speak about a particular topic, other times the activism is incorporated in the actual content of the work. When possible, I make sure a percentage of the ticket sales go to an organization I believe in. As a dance artist and activist I have been very fortunate to be able to collaborate with the Human Rights Campaign, OutFront MN and Queertopia.
Tell me about one of you dance performances were you incorporated activism.
This was a show I did at Lake Bowl Theater. I had invited OutFront MN, an organization that fights for LGBT equality, to do a presentation about how conversion therapy is still legal in the state of Minnesota, and so that was the discussion that was taking place during the Q&A we had right after the show.
There was a moment during the Q&A where I was speaking to the audience and I said, pointing at somebody in the audience, “There's nothing wrong with you.” Then, I turned to the singer that had performed in the show and, pointing at her, I said, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” Then, I pointed at somebody else in the audience and said, “There's nothing wrong with you.” There was a moment of pause, and then this guy in his late 20s asked me, “At what age did you learn that there was nothing wrong with you?” And I said, “Forty one, and I am forty one.” I was being sassy but also poignant and everybody laughed, but the look on his face was like he was about to cry. I could tell he thought there was something wrong with him and in that moment he was processing the fact that there wasn't anything wrong with him. I wanted to give him a hug but I didn’t, because I was still on stage in character answering questions from the audience, so I just kept going. Everybody else in the audience was enjoying the humor in the answer, while he was feeling something genuine and not funny. From where he was standing, nobody but me could see that he was silently crying, and it broke my heart. I wanted to hug him, but maybe he would have felt even worse had I walked up to him and hugged him in front of everybody. I don't know.
What is it like to be able to create work that brings up that kind of emotion in people?
Ultimately, my work is about helping others connect with their emotions and understand what they are feeling. That moment was a testament to the work I was doing, because it prompted someone to ask a question that instigated a conversation. That night when I got home from the show I cried.
It’s hard. Being an emotional conduit to people. Being able to maintain a sense of balance between emotional responsibility and the need to communicate what I need to communicate, is always a delicate balance. Taking the initiative to be that truthful with people takes a lot out of me. I have this very intimate experience with strangers during a show, but I can't see the audience from the stage, and people don't always talk to me after the show, so I have to trust their experience was valuable. Sometimes my work brings up some heavy things for people, and I have the responsibility to be honest with myself before I ask others to deal with the concepts I am using in my work. That’s what being an artist and an activist is all about.
What’s the connection between your work as a dancer and an activist?
When I create work that has a direct link to activism, the subject matter and the content has to feel authentic. Inauthentic would be when you're pushing buttons in order to just get a reaction out of people or doing something purely for shock value. Artistic maturity and emotional responsibility is bringing things up organically by creating work you have personal experience with, so you can help others connect with the concept and understand it better. If you don't have any truthful connection with the subject matter, that’s just fucking with people.
Artistic responsibility is about being mindful. There is a thread, although it might be thin at times, between my life experiences, the work, the learning, and the way I choose to convey an idea using a certain movement or a step. There’s a connection between all those things and when you put them together there is learning and healing, for me and for the audience. In the way I choose to convey my work to the world, that’s where the connection between dance, art and activism resides.
Photography by Erik Saulitis