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Life and Work with Nikki Nistal

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nikki Nistal.

Nikki, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in a tiny town in Connecticut called Avon. I danced after school and I loved it but I had dreams of becoming an OB-GYN. I loved science and anatomy and never thought I would change my mind. I knew the only place I wanted to live was California, so I worked hard to go to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I got accepted into their Biology program and when I arrived, I auditioned for the dance major. I knew I couldn’t let dance go and so my plan was to double major.

During the audition, I realized very quickly that I knew nothing about classical modern dance or ballet and I was cut. The director told me I was not good enough to join the major, but I could take class for fun on the side. In the moment, I texted my old dance teacher from Avon and my family and I told them I was quitting dance. It felt really weird as I said it, but I really didn’t see any way to continue. This was probably my first major rejection. I went on with my day, went to Chemistry and had In n Out for dinner. I don’t remember why but the next Monday, I showed up at ballet. The teacher looked at me with a very judgmental smile and said you should take this class pass/no pass.

After weeks of attempting to keep dancing and being criticized by teachers who didn’t think I deserved to be there, I decided to audition for the first showcase of the year. I just remember going into the studio and truly believing I would not get cast but standing there strong anyway. I am not sure why I needed to push on, but I did. Surprisingly I was cast in a senior thesis piece, and being one of the only freshmen in the department to be performing on the main stage, I felt like I had made the right decisions. By the spring, I dropped my tedious biology major that had gone from exciting to simmering on the back burner all year. Although I liked science, I was not cut out for the academic focus needed to succeed. I was only 19 but I was forced to make some sort of decision. Finally, my professors asked me to join the dance major, but I could still feel that they were not so confident in my technique. They knew I loved it, but they didn’t think that was good enough.

I spent the next summer in NYC at complexions contemporary ballet’s workshop and yes, I hated it but I worked my ass off to at least try. Following my first year, I slowly began to understand how important dance was to me. The rigor, the performance, the high, the feeling of knowing your body is capable of more than you can imagine. I spent winters and summers in Israel training in gaga. I spent weekends in 7-hour rehearsals. I did everything I could to be doing the most. I am definitely grateful for all of these years. I changed completely as a dancer and as a person and so by my 4th year, I was deep in the world of modern dance. I made the decision to move to LA after school because I wasn’t ready to give up my Cali dream and I also knew that I could try, as hard as I have, and make a place for myself in this dance community. I gotta be honest this is not a gentle or fast-paced city. I’ve thought a thousand times about moving to New York or Europe. I am not even sure as I am writing this why I stay here because making dance is difficult in Los Angeles.

When I first moved here, I did workshops after workshops and took every class. It was tougher than college. I would go into the studio for an hour at the most and leave defeated and unsatisfied. During my first year here I became Danielle Agami’s assistant and worked closely with Ate9 Dance Company. I was honestly so lucky to experience a little bit of this company’s lifestyle. I felt so good about being in the studio for 6 hours a day and I was focused again. It taught me that I want to be in a company. I want to work toward a goal. I want to familiarize myself with my peers’ bodies and work effortlessly together. Dance can be almost supernatural. Really good work suspends the laws of physics, biology, whatever and can make you question reality and yourself. I want to be a part of that work.

Has it been a smooth road?
It could not have been smooth. It will never be smooth. Dancers sometimes seem like they are on a roll booking every gig and creating films, but trust me, it must have been damn hard for them too. I don’t know if I am one to give advice. I am around women every day that are starting their dance careers or ending them and I think its all just personal. The only thing that has made me any success was wanting it so bad that I had to have it. We are capable of more than we think. If we don’t take life and our struggles too seriously, then we can for sure, keep moving forward. I just don’t want to get stuck.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
I love to perform. I love to learn from choreographers, dive into their world, try on their movement and absorb it. I am less interested in making my own work. Since I’ve lived here, I have performed in many different kinds of works. I joined Fabe Dance Company last year and performed in the evening-length piece “Drugs Can’t Buy”. It was an hour and 10 minutes and I was going through a lot of personal stuff. But doing that piece, and forcing myself to be present on stage for the entirety of the piece was one of the most electrifying experiences.

Honestly, as a person I’m proud of how I make people laugh. Each rehearsal or class I’m in is a chance for me to learn, see, be seen, but also make others feel comfortable and playful. I mean don’t get me wrong. I have taken class where I have not felt happy or talkative. But when I am in a process and we are working so hard I love to lighten the mood and make everyone laugh. It honestly makes moving with other bodies more comfortable and less tense.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of her career?
I think there is a time to be ambitious and a time to be generous with yourself. Know the difference and try to have both no matter what.

Contact Info:

  • Phone: 860-462-9699
  • Email:
  • Instagram: @nikkinistal

Image Credit:
Marissa Mooney Casey Shea Michelle Sharp Will Haroldson Lianna Nakashima

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