Exeleon Magazine

Nikila Cole: A Creative Pioneer

Nikila Cole_Exeleon Magazine

The ability to generate and realize new ideas, concepts, and solutions is an essential skill for business leaders in today’s global environment. Developing this knowledge is both an art and science. While some people are naturally more inclined towards creativity, this particular skill can also be learned. Through creative leadership, we can develop a new breed of thinkers and doers who will provide solutions to our most pressing societal issues. 

Nikila Cole is a name synonymous with this said creative leader who understands the importance of collaboration and takes part in activities that promote innovation. 

In this exclusive interview with Exeleon Magazine, Nikila Cole shares her story of mastering the art of storytelling. 

What according to you makes one a pioneering leader? How do you integrate the same thought into your leadership?

A pioneer breaks down barriers and established norms, forges paths where none existed before, and follows their own inner voice to chart unknown territory with courage and confidence. When one is leading other people on such an endeavor, all of this needs to be matched with responsible care, understanding, and wisdom to avoid reckless action that can endanger the well-being of others. 

I’m a creative in the creative industry. While most of my ideas are new, inventive, and open pathways to new ways of expression, I’m very aware that my industry is collaborative, and, as a leader, I have a responsibility to create an environment for others to safely express themselves, and bring their best creative voices forward, all while I maintain a strong, cohesive vision. This helps us create the best possible product in a fun, creative atmosphere. I like people to wake up excited about their workday.

Talk to us about your growing up years. What is your earliest memory as a leader that you can remember?

Ha ha! My first memory of being a leader was age 10 when, during a rehearsal as a young professional stage actor, I tried to advise the adult actor standing next to me how to move to a slightly different position so they could be seen better by the audience.  The director of course quickly put an end to this, advising (quite loudly) that I should concentrate on my own position and leave the directing to him. It seemed I was always interested in the total picture of what was happening and it was difficult to learn to concentrate on myself only. 

Nikila Cole On Set_Exeleon Magazine
Nikila Cole Filmmaking with Andy Gryn

What prompted your interest and subsequently your foray into the filmmaking space?

The shock was actually mine because as a dancer/choreographer with a long career,  I just assumed I would do it forever. Like Martha Graham, I ate, slept, consumed, and thought ‘dance’ every waking moment and also like her, I thought they would roll my old, arthritic body onto the stage after one of my productions, I would bow gracefully, and then be rolled off again. Once, during a very long recovery from an ankle injury, one of my dance colleagues mentioned that she thought I didn’t really do dances on stage. With my interest in combining voice, humor, theater, and other odd forms of expression with dance, she felt I was actually ‘making movies’ on stage.

When I asked her what she meant by that, she couldn’t explain, but I pondered it for quite a while before I walked down the street from my West Village apartment in NYC and enrolled for an Overview course in Film Production at the NYU School of Continuing Education. “just to see what it was all about”. Well, did I ever find out what it was all about!! A whole new planet opened up for me and my life changed completely. When I won the Best Film award at the end of the Production course, I knew I had found a new passion – one I couldn’t have predicted, and while I still consider myself a dancer at heart – that all simply infuses my whole approach to what I do in film and television. Once a dancer, always a dancer – but new pathways simply expand and grow more parts of one’s talents and skills. 

What are the challenges that you face while working on a new project?

My process isn’t unlike what other artists face while embarking on a whole new “canvas”. In the beginning, one is immersed in the joy and passion of discovery of a completely new and different palette. I tend to explode onto the new ‘canvas’ with ideas pouring out of me that was possibly brewing for years or even a lifetime until triggered. Phase 2 is the hard work of slogging through challenges, difficulties, doubts, fears, anxieties which can definitely cloud the vision and cause a lot of ups and downs emotionally. 

After however many dark nights of the soul one has to endure, we come to the best part: Phase 3 when one has hopefully solved many of the issues and problems, conquered some of the doubts and fears, and is simply moving forward knowing there’s no turning back.  Every project has its own lifetime and way of being made. I’ve learned over the years to accept the process and have learned to surrender to the knowledge that the difficulties and challenges are simply part of the journey.  I seem to move through them a little faster now – mostly because, with more experience, I’ve learned to manage my energy and boundaries better. Ie: I have no time to waste!

Nikila Cole_Dancing_Exeleon Magazine
Picture of Nikila Dancing. Picture Credit: Plauto Baptista

Being an award-winning director, producer, writer, social worker, among others, how do you ensure work-life balance?

Good question and one we all face! Fortunately, I’ve had some very good role models and mentors along the way and, having learned from them plus my own mistakes along the way, I’m getting better at prioritizing what’s important and what needs to be done and creating boundaries around the rest. It’s a constant evolution though because I love absolutely everything I do, so it’s sometimes hard to notice when I’m approaching burnout. 

For example, in my dance career, I used to push myself so hard that I’d invariably injure myself or get sick before I saw I was going beyond what was healthy. I learned that the body never lies, so I try to pay attention to the more subtle signs of stress before they get out of control. I now try to navigate my life in a way that I don’t have to get hit by a 2×4 in order to learn a lesson. Not always successful but definitely better! There’s just so much to do and so little time…

What has the journey been like for Nikila Cole over the years? Looking back, what would you have done differently?

I’ve had a rich, full life – jam-packed with adventurous peaks and valleys, joys and sorrows. I’m not sure I would do anything differently because every step of the way, right or wrong, has led me to be the person I am today – someone whose skin I am happy to be occupying. The mistakes have taught me so much, often that I wasn’t listening to my deep inner voice which always knew what the correct course was and I wasn’t listening.  Course correction from the sailing world, along with more than a few editors have taught me that there’s always a solution – I might have to make an adjustment or two, but it’s always there. 

I’ve often had to go against the grain and have fought for so much in my life, that I’ve had to learn to grow ‘bark’, as my friend John Lurie likes to say. I like to think that the awkward, hyperactive sapling I once was (and continue to be on the inside) has grown into a strong but flexible tree – reaching for the sky with roots digging deeply into the earth. It’s not an accident that my first dance/theater company was called “Sephiroth” which means Tree of Life.  

What would be your advice for aspiring and emerging filmmakers? 

Get educated in the industry any way you can. Learn your craft. Pick up a camera. Start shooting. Be humble, and work like hell. Very important – never be late. 

Finally, what does the future look like for you? What is the next project that you’re working on?

The future looks wide open for me and I’m looking forward to it. Provided we don’t destroy the planet or each other in a world war – I’m feeling confident we’re developing the tools to deal with the various viruses that will most likely come our way.

I did a huge amount of writing (and dancing) throughout the pandemic and I’m very excited to head back to the European markets to put together the development puzzles for various projects  including a series about the childhood of one of Europe’s most renowned and misunderstood queens. I’m also developing two feature films, another series, and several documentary projects. Life is rich and exciting. And I can’t wait to see what the next steps are. One foot after the other.

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