In Practice: Dancer and Activist Nic Lincoln
Lightsey Darst and performer Nic Lincoln chat about work, pleasure, sexuality and the textures of movement.
Nic Lincoln is a performer and activist. He has danced with James Sewell Ballet, Dayton Ballet, Cleveland San Jose Ballet, and Grand Rapids Ballet and performed as a guest artist for Corbin Dances, National Choreographers Initiative and Shapiro & Smith, among others. He is a proud recipient of a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Dance and has been named “Best Dancer” by the City Pages as well as one of three “Artists Who We Love” by Minnesota Monthly magazine. He was nominated for a Sage award in 2013 for his performances of Larry Keigwin’s Glitter Garden as well as the entire solo show entitled Yes! Nic was recently named one of 25 to Watch by Dance Magazine. As a dance artist and activist he has collaborated with the Human Rights Campaign, OutFront MN and Queertopia. His next project is Yes, Sir, featuring solos created for him by an array of male choreographers.
Lincoln and I started this interview over email, as usual, but then we finished it in a phone call. He was frying onions, I was nursing my baby, and here is the result.
What is work?
Something one does to fulfill themselves.
I realize you probably went with the plural “themselves” because that’s where contemporary English usage is trending—away from the singular, i.e., “Work is something one does to fulfill oneself”—but I can’t resist the idea that you mean “Work is something one does to fulfill one’s plural selves.” That’s definitely the work I’ve seen you do! As a performer, you’re various, yet not a chameleon. Whatever the role—a Gene Kelly sailor (in Penelope Freeh’s work), a novice ponyboy (Judith Howard), a dance gladiator (Larry Keigwin), a contemporary artist after hours (Megan Mayer)—there’s some common center. For one thing, they’re all gay.
Lincoln stops me right there. “Why do you say that?” he asks. Well, because I think the question of sexuality is open in all these dances. But he points out that, Howard’s work Dressage aside, none of them are really about sexuality. Lincoln is frustrated by the reductive assumption that because he’s gay, he’s always dancing about gayness. “I’m gay as the day is long, ok—got it, got the memo. But my sex life sucks right now—I’m so busy, it’s nonexistent. If I’m considered to be this big homo, you’d hope I’d be having sex.”
He gets how the assumption happens. Sexuality is like a box. If we see signs of hetero masculinity, the box stays closed. But if we don’t see those signs—or we see others—the box opens, and sexuality becomes a subject. Lincoln used to censor his physicality, editing out the ambiguity, until he realized that “I was denying myself a texture of movement.” Now, “I’m not afraid of being a birdlike, sequential mover.” Whatever that provokes in audience members, “I’m actually just doing what the task is at hand to the best of my ability.”
This idea of sexuality being read from movement texture opens to a discussion about intention, from which I glean the thought that sexuality in performance is like a perfume: it wafts through the house, floating among audience, performer, and choreographer. After all, when I see Lincoln’s performance of the solo Freeh made for him, I’m seeing my perception of Lincoln’s perception of what Freeh thought would be interesting for her perception of Lincoln to perform. If I see sexuality, where does that reside? Lincoln calls himself a “conduit,” but he acknowledges that he’s also inspiring the work.
Back to the idea of fulfillment. I note that his solos often court and then defuse or explode stereotype. Maybe that’s what it is to fulfill oneself/themselves: to get deeper, to flesh it out. So perhaps we keep going because each fulfillment points towards what we haven’t deepened yet.
But we’re a long way here from work—as in clocking in, as in cubicles. I ask him, “How does your work fit into that wider world of work?”
Lincoln references the flight attendant’s instruction to “secure your own mask first before helping others,” but he gives it an unexpected spin. For him, work as fulfillment is survival: “You have to be able to take care of yourself first. The true work is finding out who you are and what your calling is and what your gifts are.” Artists take the hard path of fulfillment first, money second. “Most people flip it”—expend their energy working for money—“and then they don’t get to it”—don’t ever arrive at fulfillment.
If you hadn’t been an artist, you would be ______.
A humanitarian, a philanthropist, a spiritual leader of sorts.
Where do you feel most at home?
In bed. Or in the bathtub.
I’m so surprised. I was expecting a dance answer. “I feel most myself when I’m in the studio,” etc. But in bed, in the bathtub—these spaces cradle bodies. They’re peaceful, even immobilizing.
Lincoln explains this as a matter of necessity. Dancing all day, “I end up burning so many calories that the only time I can lay low is in bed.” He makes rules about what he can and can’t do in bed: can watch movies, can’t check emails. “It’s like a sanctuary. There’s so much work and time in being a solo artist, self-producing a show starring oneself. It takes a lot out of me. In bed I can relax—be myself and wear whatever. It’s the equivalent of having a beer at the end of the day.”
“Your day doesn’t end until you’re in bed.”
“No. I would love an intern. I would appreciate a village if I could get one. So far I’ve had to build it myself.”
What creates freedom—form or formlessness, self or selflessness?
Freedom is space, and space is a form of respect. We all deserve to give ourselves freedom from ourselves. Space with respect is unconditional love.
Lincoln is a fast talker. Usually he seems to be improvising. But as dense and koan-like as the above is, it comes out of him just as written, as if he were reading off a card. Is this something he thinks about a lot?
“I do a lot of studying. Buddhism, journaling, Taoism. It’s my methodology as an artist—bringing my whole self to bear. My spiritual journey is part of that. One of my truths is that I have the choice between being a spiritual leader and being a dancer. So I combined them, and that’s my activism.” He speaks to student groups often.
How is pleasure different now?
Pleasure is the same as it always was; people are having a harder time to find it currently. Too many programs and gadgets are getting in the way. They are having trouble staying present and in the moment. Which is the key to happiness.
You know, that’s a common belief, that we are more distracted than ever before. I don’t know whether it’s true (how would we know?), but if it is, does it have consequences for performance as an art or as a profession? For me, anyway, attending performances is all about being present. Do you think people don’t know how to be at a dance performance, don’t know how to value that space?
Lincoln doesn’t want to speculate on dance audiences, but “When I go to the movies, I think about touching my phone.” He and his friends sometimes reminiscence about the old days in the gay community. “When there was this gay mag that would come out, and everyone went to the bar”—when everything was concrete and personal—“it used to feel a little more special.” He gets more philosophical. “We’re teaching ourselves that happiness is mathematical.” He describes how, since he quit his job at James Sewell Ballet, he finds happiness in simply biking around during the day. “There’s not a button [for happiness]. We’re teaching ourselves that a plus b equals c. So why am I not getting it? We have instant gratification for information. But emotions are not information.”
What can’t you do in your art yet?
Which is the most interesting word, person, role, or concept: husband, wife, brother, sister, mother, or father?
Husband. Someone who has yet to reveal themselves to me in this life.
Related performance information:
Nic Lincoln will perform an evening of solos, Yes, Sir, at the O’Shaughnessy auditorium in St. Paul on Friday, October 16, 2015 at 8 p.m. For event and ticket information: http://oshag.stkate.edu/event/yes_sir.
Editor’s Note: Lightsey Darst is conducting a series of interviews with artists, writers, and other interesting people. Look for repeating questions across the series. If there’s someone you’d like to see her interview, please let her know: lightsey(at)lightseydarst(dot)com.
Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.