Framework: An Alternative Angle on Aerial

Nicki Miller, artistic director at Only Child Aerial, discusses creative process, challenges, and 'upping the ante' in aerial theater

Only Child Aerial Theatre’s show, “Framework,” is set under a huge, industrial-style steel shed in Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. Aerial acrobats and dancers use ropes, span sets and chains rigged to the ceiling to tell a playful yet dark story of the immigrant workers who built New York City’s urban infrastructure in the 1930s.

“Framework” is one of 72 free, open-air dance performances by 25 dance companies as part of the INSITU dance festival in public spaces over the course of one hot and sunny weekend in July. 

The show was conceived and directed by Nicki Miller, the artistic director of Only Child Aerial Theatre. The acrobatics, choreography, apparatus setup and music all work together to tell a comedic, character-driven story of four construction workers who are alternately trying to do their jobs and goof around, helping each other climb the apparatuses and working around a fear of heights. The choreography brings out the awkward and clumsy side of aerial, as two, three, or four aerialists at a time try to climb each other and two counter-weighted apparatuses. Light-hearted acoustic music accompanies the acrobatics in a live performance by Ben Lieberman and Laura Sisskin-Fernandez, who also act as narrators, dotting the show with funny commentary and giving some dramatic intentionality to the acrobats. 

The slapstick, gag-like nature of the sequences and choreography is hugely different from many aerial shows, which often capitalize on aerial’s grace and beauty as an artistic medium. In this show, as in all of Nicki’s productions, the aerial serves as a medium through which to tell a story, rather than making the breathtaking physicality of aerial acrobatics the centerpiece. For the INSITU performance, Nicki was inspired by photographs of construction workers in the 1930s, like the iconic photo of workers eating lunch on a suspended beam during the construction of 30 Rockefeller Plaza (pictured below). When I sat down to talk to Nicki about “Framework,” she explained that the piece explores sub themes like the displacement of the workers who built New York City and where the arts fit into urban development. Benjamin E. Oyzon designed the rigging around the construction theme, using apparatuses like rope and span sets that could conceivably be found at a construction site, and connecting them with a counterweight pulley system that formed the core of most of the comical gags in the choreography. 

"Lunch atop a Skyscraper," 1932 / Bettman Archive

Building a show around something like an image is typical of Nicki’s creative process. “Usually the way that we work is starting with some kind of source material—whether that's text, a story, an image, a photograph—and then usually some sort of sound,” said Nicki. But even though her pieces are normally inspired by a scene, or a vignette, or a story, the technical and physical demands of aerial always end up dictating a lot of what makes it into the final performance. 

“When you start to choreograph aerial, you realize how much physical skill it takes to execute what you want to do. The movement has to not only be done safely, but on repeat, and on time. I realized that I need to start with pure technique, and I can't worry about adding emotionality, movement quality or musicality in the very beginning. First set a foundation of technique, and then layer that stuff in,” she said. “With aerial choreography you really need to make sure you know where you're going- especially when you're working with multiple people. Everybody needs to stay in communication. Then, slowly you can start to build the piece out, and that's really time consuming. That's the biggest challenge I've found in New York City—that time and space are really hard to come by here. So it's hard to get the resources to add in all of the necessary layers deeply enough for the piece to be fully researched and realized by performance.”

Nicki trains mostly at Circus Warehouse in Long Island City and The Muse in Bushwick, where she also teaches classes. She is amazed by the growth that she has seen in opportunities to learn aerial since she started. “Now there's half a dozen reliable and established places to learn aerial here in the city, plus lots of private spaces, which is kind of bonkers compared to a decade ago,” she said. Nicki has also witnessed changing trends in the art form over the last ten years. “It started in underground parties, and then nightclubs started picking it up, and then Queen of the Night happened, and Pippin happened, and Broadway started bringing in more circus stuff, so there's a momentum around it now that has absolutely built up in recent years.” And she thinks the growth is only going to continue as it becomes more predominant in large-scale productions, seeing similar comparisons in the use of puppetry in theater, which has become more popular and mainstream.  

It took Nicki a long time and a lot of training to reach the level that she is at now. She was first inspired to learn aerial when she was studying acting as an undergraduate in college. She did a semester abroad in London during her junior year, where she saw plays that incorporated aerial as a storytelling mechanism. “They were already physical stagings, but there was also this vertical space and how they used that space. It added this whole degree of energy and stakes that for me as an actor was way more inspiring than naturalistic plays I had been seeing in school. So my first thought was ok, if I'm going to be an actor, I need to be an actor who is strong and embodied enough to express the truth of a character while swinging on a rope from the ceiling. I want to be an actor who can do that,” she said.

But Nicki describes herself at that time as being out of shape with no background in acrobatics and a little bit of experience doing dance. So when she graduated school and moved to New York City, she jumped on the opportunity to get certified as a personal trainer, with the goal of supporting herself while also getting in good enough shape to pursue her dream of becoming an aerial theater artist. A few months later a colleague told her about a place she could take aerial classes, and Nicki decided it was time to bite the bullet and take her first aerial class. That was nine years ago.

Learning aerial didn’t come quickly or naturally to Nicki. “I was kind of a slow learner with aerial. I took a really long time to build up strength and body awareness because I just didn't have much of a foundation before that,” she said. And the learning never stopped. “I feel like I'm still finding my ability to physically execute the visions I see in my head. The ante is always upped. You reach a certain level of ability, and then you imagine being able to do more.”

But many people are not imagining themselves doing crazy aerial acrobatics in the air. Most people haven’t ever seen an aerial performance. Which is exactly why Nicki was excited to direct a piece for the INSITU dance festival that would bring aerial into an outdoor public space for free. “Being able to do a free, public performance of aerial theatre in New York feels like a milestone for the art form in this city. It helps generate energy and enthusiasm around not just the performance of aerial theatre, but around aerial and circus as activities people can learn themselves. I'm excited to show the piece because it is way to demonstrate the playfulness and poetry of embodied expression, which is a great thing for people to see. So if I'm able to help inspire people with this somehow, that is really exciting to me,” she said.

Back at Socrates Sculpture Park on July 8, people are milling around, sipping fresh-brewed iced coffees, looking at the exhibits and taking shelter from the sun under the trees. When “Framework” starts many of them gather around the steel shed to catch the performance, laughing at the gags and gasping at the flips. The kids in the audience are totally in awe. Who knows, maybe some of them will want to learn aerial?

If they do, Nicki hopes that they embrace the new opportunities for diversity and creativity that push the boundaries of what aerial has been in the past. “There's just so many other ways that aerial can be performed,” Nicki said. “Yes, it's a physical discipline, and when you learn it safety is always first. But as you become more familiar with it, it becomes an art form. People can be really creative with it if they take the time. I personally feel a responsibility to tell stories and explore ideas that are topical/resonant when I create. And it can be intimidating to do the work! But in the end I'm so excited and grateful to be able to contribute another angle to that conversation.”

Molly Schwartz is a librarian, writer, and audio producer. She works at the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), where she produces a podcast called Library Bytegeist. You can find her on Twitter @mollyfication

Cover: Performers in "Framework." Clockwise from top left, Nicki Miller, Kyla Ernst-Alper, Sylvana Tapia, Leo Abel and Ayla Weisz. Photo by Benjamin E. Oyzon.