A publication featuring student work from the Department of English and Communications at Salve Regina University.
BY LINDSAY LACHAPELLE
Editor’s Note: The tall ship Providence was severely damaged in a January 2015 blizzard–some time after this article was written. The sloop’s captain told the Associated Press at the time that the ship would be repaired.
D ocked between sleek, modern yachts and rusty fishing vessels is the tall ship Providence. Fifty feet above the ship’s deck, Nichole Raab dangles in the ship’s thick rope. The rough, unforgiving ropes, suspended from the ship’s yardarm, are her only anchor. Coiling them around her long legs and strong arms, she creeps higher. The brutal wind whips through the sails, but she doesn’t waiver. With her face turned toward the sky, Raab weaves her legs through the double ropes, moving furiously through straddles and splits in the air. Suddenly she releases her arms and plunges down the rope. Her body twirls, spirals and then finally catches again, this time straddled upside down, facing the dark water beneath her.
A 6-foot-tall, Midwesterner with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Nichole Raab is an aerial artist who always felt most comfortable when she was climbing trees. At age 32, she can now be found scaling the rigging of Rhode Island’s official flagship, the Sloop Providence. A striking blond, with a warm smile and an appetite for adventure, Raab is a performer, storyteller and entrepreneur. Her latest project, a nonprofit organization called The Art of Sailing, combines her longtime passion for arts with her newfound love for sailing.
As part of The Art of Sailing Project, Raab strives to blend different areas of art into her performances. “With performers a lot of the time, you have the opportunity to create competition or to create community,” Raab says. She chooses community and reaches out to musicians, dancers, storytellers, and other aerial performers to create more dynamic displays. Channing Griggs, a musician and storyteller who works with Raab often, is one of her closest friends. The two met during Raab’s first summer on the ship, when she was in the early stages of developing her nautical aerial arts. Raab and Griggs work off one another to create organic acts in which Griggs plays mostly “gypsy-fused, classical swing” music with her clarinet as Raab syncs her movements to Griggs’ rhythms. “We’re still jelling together,” Griggs says.
A story that they often tell when Raab performs in her aerial net is of a mermaid captured by a lusty, women-crazed crew. The crew cuts her fin in half to try to make her a woman and then ties her to the mast for display. Stranded, she struggles and writhes in pain inside the net. Then another ship, whose captain sees the helpless mermaid, commandeers the ship that captured her and frees the mermaid. The captain and his crew nurse her wounds and protect her until their love finally transforms her into a woman. “It’s the delivery that makes it,” Griggs says. “It’s simple, descriptive, but timed well.”
Sailing life and aerial arts, according to Raab, share a fundamental connection. “It’s all movement,” she says. “I’ve realized after sailing on her and seeing the mass amounts of crowds that love to see her and enjoy her, that it’s the same kind of translated energy,” says Raab. “Each part of the movement of the ship is the same movement within myself.”
Raab’s love affair with the Providence began in May 2011. She was enjoying lunch on the waterfront with her family in Newport, R.I., when she first spotted the ship that would serve as her inspiration. “I had seen ships before, but there was something and she drew me in,” says Raab. “Playing on the rigging was just a natural thing for me to want to explore.” Drawn to the majestic relic from the Revolutionary War era and its tangles of rope, she decided to investigate. Raab instantly felt an emotional connection when she smelled the ship’s ropes, lines and hull. She envisioned herself ascending the rigging and swinging between the sails. That night, overwhelmed with excitement, she emailed the captain to see if he would allow her to perform aerial stunt work on his ship. “We all thought she was crazy,” says Thorpe Leeson, owner and captain of the Providence, “but we said ‘bring it on.’”
Leeson had purchased the ship from the state of Rhode Island only about a month before Raab discovered it. Constructed in 1976, the Providence is a replica of the 18th-century original, which was the first ship commissioned into the Continental Navy. Left abandoned in a shipyard in Providence from 2007 to 2011, the ship become Leeson’s main project.
“She’s a bit of a rescue project,” says Raab of the Providence. “But I want her to be very close to the community so people can come aboard and explore her.” Raab helps draw people to the ship with her performances. Few passersby can resist the sight of a tall blonde woman swinging from the ship’s ropes and performing dangerous drops and flips. Raab’s contribution to the reconditioning and promoting of the Providence goes beyond just her aerial performances, though. She also hosts “ship-shape” classes aboard the ship in which she teaches a variety of fitness classes and workshops that fuse leadership skills with movement exercises. “I’ll basically teach any technique that I do. So I’ll teach tap, jazz, ballet, modern, improv and then any aerial art skills,” says Raab. “I like to mix together whatever I’m doing for people that aren’t movers to create comfort in their body and use that as communication.”
When she’s not teaching classes, Raab attends dance workshops and classes to condition her body and acquires new skills. At Dance Expressions, a new dance studio in Newport, Raab takes a weekly adult contemporary class. Even on land in the studio, however, she is able to connect her movement to sailing.
“Leap, leap, double stag, double stag, step, turn, calypso…ready? Altogether,” the dance instructor commands.
“Wait, you call it a Calypso?” Raab asks.
“Yeah, it’s a leap out of the turn. Front leg straight, attitude in the back,” the instructor responds.
“Huh,” says Raab, clearly appreciating the nautical reference to the sea nymph from Greek mythology as she tries out the move for herself.
As an only child growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Raab relied on her creativity to entertain herself. “I didn’t have a brother or sister to interact with, so I’d just create something wherever I was,” says Raab. One day when she was 7, her father picked her up from dance class and told her that a surprise was waiting for her at home. In her mind, she imagined a shiny new bike. Instead she found a child. “We go home and I’m running through the front door like, ‘Where’s my bike? Who’s the kid? Where’s my bike?’ and the kid was my surprise,” says Raab.
Raab’s mother and grandmother had been rummaging through a garage sale when a 16 year old asked them to watch his 1-year-old son. But when the father didn’t return, Raab’s family took the little boy into their care. For the next three years, they fostered the child. Even after he left, they continued to foster children until Raab was a senior in high school. “It became too heart-breaking,” says Raab. “[The children] always had to go back to their bad situations.”
According to Raab, many of the children who passed through her home had mental disabilities including the two girls her family adopted and who are now Raab’s sisters. Because of her fascination with nonverbal communication, Raab enjoys working with children who have autism and mental retardation. She helps them communicate their thoughts and frustrations through their bodies.
Raab’s dance career began not long after she learned to walk. To channel her abundance of energy, her parents enrolled her in her first dance class at the age of 2. She trained in almost every area of dance including tap, ballet, jazz, modern and improv. Later in her dance career, Raab began to study aerial skills including two-point rig work, silks, aerial carousel, harness work, some trapeze and “whatever else was safe to climb on.” In addition to dance and aerial performances, Raab also trained in stunt work that included the mono-wheel, floor tumbling and trampoline.
Although she excelled at dance, she never planned to pursue it as a career. She studied at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and earned degrees in biology and chemistry. Raab planned to become a marine biologist but couldn’t let go of her passion for dance. She was the only non-dance major allowed to perform with the conservatory students. “My dance teachers kept encouraging me to be a dance major,” says Raab. “But our bodies have a shelf life, and it’s an uncertain life that is a dancer’s life. You never know where your next paycheck is going to come from.”
Still, after graduating with her degree, Raab put her biology career on hold and traveled around the country searching for a dance job. She began at a modern stunt work company in California where she developed her strength and power as a performer. Her journey then brought her back to her hometown, where she joined an all-female aerial acrobatics company called Voler. Raab attributes her skills, growth and confidence to working with Voler. The women, most of whom were self-taught, served as equal partners in the company. They worked together to develop concepts, costumes and themes. Raab continues to perform as part of the Voler Company whenever she returns to Kansas City.
“Part of why I’m still doing what I’m doing and creating is because of all the rejection I have faced in my life,” says Raab. “I don’t fit in everywhere. A 6-foot-tall female doesn’t fit in a line with 5-foot-5 females.” Throughout her career, she received plenty of “we’d like to hire you but you don’t fit in here” rejections after auditions. In fact, the rejection she faced in her life drew her to the Providence. “She’s one in herself,” says Raab of the ship she identifies with. Much like Raab in the world of dance, the Providence is an enigma of the sea. She is a unique sailing vessel that was left to rot before Leeson and Raab adopted her.
In her work with the Providence, Raab has not only mastered the art of naval performing, but she’s also learned how to manage the ship as part of the professional crew.
Raab has several hopes for the Providence next summer. She’d like for the ship to have its own tour in which the ship and its crew would travel to different ports, performing and hosting workshops that teach others more about sailing. Raab knows, however, that she has physical limitations. She needs to recharge her body so she can prolong her aerial work. Her usual three shows per day may not be realistic anymore. Still, she will strive to do her best for the ship, even when her aerial days come to an end.
“She’s my vision,” says Raab. “I want her to be my [work] and my home.”
SLIDESHOW OF THE PROVIDENCE AND AERIAL ARTIST NICOLE RAAB | PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTORIA DELLA SALLA