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An Art Film Created With Middle Schoolers in Mind

Artist Nicole Miller sees her film To the Stars as being about potential: “I want the kids to feel like they are part of the narrative of what it means to be an astronaut or a brilliant thinker.”

Nicole Miller, To the Stars, still of astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle (2019), commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (image courtesy the artist)

SAN FRANCISCO — Artist Nicole Miller’s multimedia film To the Stars starts and ends in darkness, with a voiceover by NASA astronaut Dr. Yvonne Cagle. At the beginning, she discusses the desire of astronauts to look back at their home planet from space, and how seeing Earth as precious and vulnerable can never be unseen. At the end of To the Stars, Cagle talks about the power of light and the resilience of the body.

Along with Cagle, we hear from opera singer J’Nai Bridges (who played the title role in Carmen in the San Francisco Opera’s past season), choreographer Alonzo King, artistic director of Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Jessica McJunkins, a violinist who has played with Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, and Solange. To the Stars also features some San Francisco middle school students, who tell stories about their lives: attempting to do a triple axel, helping out with a baby brother when a father goes to jail, joyfully playing piano, and being handcuffed with the rest of the family at nine years old.

The hour-long film is overlaid with a radiant laser-light display. The colored lasers are projected onto the screen, spelling out “ad astra,” “prelude,” and, finally, “the end.” Miller says these rainbow lasers are a synesthetic experience, giving us a way to see sound, which shapes light.

Nicole Miller, To the Stars, still of Alonzo King LINES ballet dancers (2019); commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (image courtesy the artist, Alonzo King LINES Balley. Established in 1982. Alonzo King, Artistic Director. Filmed at Alonzo Kind LINES Ballet Dance Center, San Francisco, CA)

Miller made To the Stars specifically for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)’s Phyllis Wattis Theater. Museum officials commissioned a work from her for middle school audiences, and Miller talked to some San Francisco students about discussing their lives after their teachers had screened her film Athens, California, in which she interviewed high school students in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles plagued with gun violence.

Miller sees To the Stars as being about potential. Bridges rehearses songs with her pianist — a lullaby in Spanish to a Black child, the aria “Habanera” from Carmen, and the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”; and King works with his dancers on a piece called “Sutra” with Zakir Hussein. Miller wanted to show the artists rehearsing rather than just presenting their finished pieces: “I think watching people go through a process makes it more attainable,” she said in an interview with Hyperallergic after a screening. “I want the kids to feel like they are part of the narrative of what it means to be an astronaut or a brilliant thinker like Alonzo — not that they are separate from it, but they are the same.”

A week spent with King as he choreographed his dancers served as the film’s foundation, Miller explained. She studied ballet as a child in Arizona, but without dancers of color to look up to, it wasn’t always a positive experience. When she met with museum officials at SFMOMA, she knew she wanted to film King and his dancers.

“When I was in my 20s, I saw the LINES Ballet in Los Angeles and I just wept,” Miller related. “During rehearsals, Alonzo would kind of pull me aside sometimes and just speak to me about his ideas about being a choreographer and being a human and his ideas on life and growth.”

Nicole Miller, To the Stars, still of opera singer J’Nai Bridges (2019), commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (image courtesy the artist)

Along with the middle school students, Miller showcases a high school history teacher who uses step dancing with her students. “I was beyond excited about that,” Miller enthused. “When she’s talking about how it’s a way to display your rage and to productively do something with your rage, that was really profound for me.”

After the middle school students had seen parts of Athens, California, Miller invited them to tell stories from their lives. Some relay horrible experiences they’ve been through; one little girl cries as she expresses her fear that her older brother will commit suicide.

One of the most important scenes in To the Stars for Miller, and one she particularly wants adults to see, is a montage in which some of the children state their ages. “I really think a major issue in America is that most Americans cannot see all kids as kids, so I wanted to be like, ‘This is a 12 year old, this is a 12 year old, this is a child, this is a child,’” she said. “These kids are going through things they should not be going through at this age, like being handcuffed at nine, and the girl who tells the story about her brother. That wailing she’s going through — for me it was an expression of how fucking difficult it is to be a child of color in America. I’m hoping adults will feel a kind of responsibility towards those things happening.”

Nicole Miller, To the Stars, still of students (2019), commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (image courtesy the artist)

At the end of To the Stars, as the graceful and gravity-defying steps of the LINES dancers fade into darkness, Cagle, a surgeon as well as an astronaut, explains how light can penetrate even space. “If we know light has that ability, that capacity, that resiliency, then we should also seek the light within ourselves,” Cagle says. “Because if it’s possible for light to illuminate darkness through a small pinhole in the vast ocean of blackness called space, then there has to be a way for us to illuminate the light within ourselves, for it to shine even when our lives seem filled with darkness.”

Free public screenings of To the Stars, as well as screenings for school groups, continue will at the Phyllis Wattis Theater at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd Street, San Francisco) through 2020.

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