As a child, Nikki Feirt Atkins wanted to become a dancer and a doctor. And she did. She studied at the Joffrey Ballet School and danced with, among others, Lee Theodore’s American Dance Machine. In February 2012, she founded American Dance Machine for the 21st Century (ADM21) with a mission to create a “living archive” of great masterpieces of American musical theater choreography. She also is an M.D., who trained at New York Presbyterian Hospital (both Cornell and Columbia), where she worked as a pathologist and did translational research for 7 years. She successfully raised funds through Kickstarter for ADM21’s debut this fall at The Joyce Theater in New York City. For more information, visit http://www.adm21.org and https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adm21/save-a-dance and http://www.joyce.org.
Who was the young woman who joined the Joffrey Ballet School many years ago? What were her plans?
Well, I wanted to be a dancer from the time I was 3. My father would ask me what I wanted to be and I would say “A dancer and a doctor.”
Everyone must have chuckled at such an unexpected combination but here you are.
Exactly. Sure enough, here I am. I started dancing school when I was 3 in Newark, N.J., where I was born. By age 8 or 9 my dance teachers thought I should attend a pre-professional ballet academy. I initially studied with Fred Danieli at Garden State Ballet; then when we moved to South Orange I studied at New Jersey Ballet. I was a serious ballet student, but I studied other things as well: art, piano, flute, lots of things. My mother wanted to keep my education well-rounded.
Why do you think you loved dance so much?
I think it was an innate thing. I loved to move to music from as early as I can remember. It’s a lot about the music for me. It just resonates with me. Expressing myself through my body, through movement is a natural thing. I always choreographed in my head while listening to music. So it was innate.
There was no single event that sparked your interest?
I already knew I wanted to be a dancer, but my mother took me to see a lot of cultural events. I saw Alicia Alonso, Maria Tallchief, Rudolph Nureyev dance. I also saw Arthur Rubenstein play piano. It all influenced me, I think. I remember seeing a movie of Maya Plisetskaya, a renowned prima ballerina who danced with Bolshoi Ballet. She became my idol. She was—and still is—extraordinary.
In high school I wasn’t just focused on ballet. I had the good fortune at New Jersey Ballet to work with Matt Mattox. He was a great jazz dancer who did a lot of film work. He did a lot of Jack Cole’s dances in film and was a phenomenal teacher. So he introduced me to jazz when I was 14 and it changed my world as a dancer.
I never had the desire to dance “Swan Lake” or the classics. I fell in love with jazz. And then I wanted to study every dance form I could find. I studied East Indian dance, Afro-Cuban dance, Graham, Horton, hip-hop, everything. I was still following a ballet trajectory but I felt I needed to learn it all.
Were you still thinking “dancer/doctor”?
I attended college at Washington University in St. Louis for a while. My parents very much wanted me to go to college and “Wash U” had a dance program. The dance programs then were not nearly as good as they are now. I ended up studying with the St. Louis Civic Ballet and taking molecular biology. But I couldn’t focus on both then; it was just too much.
I decided I was young and I needed to be in New York City dancing. I went there and auditioned for the Joffrey Ballet School and the Alvin Ailey School. I was offered scholarships to Joffrey and Ailey and I chose Joffrey. I was in their trainee program.
But I went through a lot of personal turmoil and left ballet. I went back to jazz and performed for a short period of time but then I just decided to stop dance altogether. I wasn’t able to handle it emotionally.
I went back to college. I got my B.A. at New York University in performing arts and biology, Magna Cum Laude. I went to medical school, then did my training in anatomic pathology at Cornell and Columbia. I worked as a pathologist at Columbia for seven years, while doing research.
When you were a full-time pathologist, did you feel dance pulling at you?
I did but I closed it off. I couldn’t even watch any dance. The transition really had been devastating for me. I felt as if something had been cut out of me.
Were you still in contact with the dance world?
I stayed very close to [Edith d’Addario] the executive director of the Joffrey Ballet (company). The Joffrey Ballet had moved to Chicago in the ’90s but the school, not connected to the company, stayed on in New York.
I decided to go part-time as a physician and I became the Director of New Artistic Programs and Development at the Joffrey Ballet School. I developed a business plan to help create a non-profit component and helped initiate major changes. Although the school decided not to become a non-profit organization, it seems to be doing quite well now.
After working with the Joffrey Ballet School, I connected with Chet Walker, a Tony-nominated choreographer who recently choreographed Pippin and was a co-creator of Fosse. We worked together on a project whose aim was to recreate the works of the legendary choreographer Jack Cole, whose dance numbers were seen primarily in nightclubs and movies. His work was brilliant. We watched many films of his choreography. As I was looking at films of Cole’s work, I was also looking at other great choreographers’ work, such as Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett, Susan Stroman and more.
So I thought instead of just focusing on Cole, why not recreate The American Dance Machine [troupe]. I had worked with [ADM founder] Lee Theodore and the original American Dance Machine in the ’70s and had loved it. She was another major influence in my life.
I didn’t want to reproduce ADM exactly, though. I wanted to bring it into the 21st century for young dancers and choreographers to see and to learn the original intent and nuances of the choreographers who created the works. I researched trademarks and founded American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, a non-profit 501c3 organization in February 2012. We were honored to received grant support and great choreography from the Jerome Robbins Foundation early on and were thrilled to receive permission to perform works by living choreographers Susan Stroman Jerry Mitchell, Rob Ashford, Pat Birch, Andy Blankenbuehler and others. We performed several studio showings and in various NYC dance programs—Career Transition for Dancers, Dancers Responding to AIDS, Dance Against Cancer, the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards and the response to our work was amazing.
With choreographers who are no longer alive—like Jerome Robbins or Michael Bennett—we had the great fortune of having the original dancers on whom the dances were choreographed teach the young dancers. Young dancers love it. Especially when they get the chance to work with Donna McKechnie or Robert La Fosse, who was one of Jerome Robbins’ muses, Marge Champion, Nicole Fosse.
We reconstructed a Bob Fosse piece with Nicole Fosse. Several of the original dancers who were involved in the original show, reconstructed the dance from their notes and memories. We videotaped it, as we do everything. We videotape the “process” and then the performance and we archive it all. The young dancers were then taught and choreography and performed it with us. Everyone was thrilled!
We’ve done five studio showings and other performances as I mentioned earlier, and the young dancers work very hard because they feel that it’s such a gift to learn from these Broadway giants.
Where does Kickstarter come in?
The Joyce Theater [in New York City] came to see one of our studio showings and invited us to perform a season there. I didn’t feel we were quite ready in 2013, especially financially, so we’re doing it this year, Nov. 11-16, 2014. It’s very costly to put on eight shows, so we’re trying to raise funds through Kickstarter.
We’re hoping to raise $43,000 by Sunday, Aug. 24, 12:00 am EST. We’re doing great so far: We were named a Kickstarter “Staff Pick” the first day of our campaign and raised 19% by Day 6, but we need to keep the momentum going. We must make our goal of $43,000 or we don’t get to keep any of the money contributed. Kickstarter has a great reputation and I think it makes it more compelling when people know you don’t get any of the donations unless you reach your goal—then you get to keep all of it.
Will the money fund the season and other projects?
Oh no. The money will only partially fund the season. We’ll need to raise more and I’m working very hard on that.
Is there any time in your busy life for pathology still?
Yes. One day a week I work in private practice. I still want to keep up my skills. I did 12 years of training after going to med school at age 41 so I feel I shouldn’t lose those skills.
The majority of my time is spent on my work with the company, except for that one day. Margo Sappington is artistic director. She was a member of the Joffrey Ballet many years ago and is a choreographer and friend. She choreographed “Oh! Calcutta!” and was Tony-nominated for one of the revivals of “Where’s Charley?” I felt she had the perfect blend of ballet and Broadway to work on this project and we’ve been very much in-sync with our ideas.
Do you feel you’re helping save history that might otherwise be lost?
Yes. It’s very rewarding. Beyond the terror of wondering how we’ll finance it all, the actual mission of what we’re doing feels amazing.
There was a dancer who had played Cassie [in “A Chorus Line”] on the road. She was a good dancer and a she had a great voice, but she would get to the end of every audition and then not make it. She worked with Donna McKechnie and did several shows with us. Now she won’t be able to perform at The Joyce with us because she has been cast in one show after another. That’s rewarding, too. I love working with the young dancers and seeing them grow.
We’ll be touring in 2015-16 and then I hope we’ll be back at the Joyce after that.
It isn’t easy to generate all the funding you need, is it?
It’s a difficult time to be in the arts and the non-profit world, relying on donations. But I’m encouraged by the response and support we’ve had from the start.
We’re not old enough yet to seek government funding. You need to be at least three years old and we’re not even two-and-a-half years old. We do have funding from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, which we have had since the first year.
Do you have the energy to keep going?
I certainly hope so. We’re doing a lot of exciting work. It’s just a matter of finding the funding. There is no shortage of great dance works to be reconstructed and preserved!