Interview: It's joyful. It's social. It's global....

Friday 27 November 2015 by Carmel Smith

Leila MacMillan's 'Family Portrait'

Leila McMillan is a Californian-born London-based choreographer, teacher, performer ( with Crystal Pite and Wendy Houstoun amongst others), who also runs the award winning cafe Muxima, in Bow. She practices and teaches the Flying Low dance technique, now widely used by companies like Ultima Vez and Rosas. Flying Low focuses on the dancers’ relationship with the floor but also uses speed with charged movement, making it compelling to watch. We asked her to tell us more, in advance of this way, that way, her Wild Card evening in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells next week…

How did you first come across Flying Low and Passing Through – and what excites you about it?
In 2008 Gill Clarke invited David Zambrano, who created the technique, to deliver a workshop as part of the Independent Dance Summer Intensives. A close friend, Alice Tatge, recommended it and I was lucky enough to get a place after a last-minute cancellation. From the first day of working with David I was hooked. I’m excited by the way the work enables you to move in and out of the earth with speed; it opens up limitless possibilities through your physicality, how you approach the space, and others. It makes you feel alive, alert and ready for anything. It gives you freedom to dance your life experiences, to be who you are. It reminds you of the importance of working within a group. It’s joyful. It’s social. It’s global.

Tell us about working with David Zambrano and the experience of being selected as one of 50 artists to be part of 50 days of Flying Low and Passing Through in Costa Rica (2010)…
David has an incredible amount of knowledge to share. Over the years, he’s been a great inspiration to my own work and path. He’s a large character – full of life, strong, caring and has a huge heart. There’s something infectious about what David has created with Flying Low and Passing Through. It was a great honour to have been chosen to be a part of 50 Days Costa Rica. I feel privileged not only to work with David and train in FL/PT, but also to dance with the other 50 dancers. They’re a beautiful and talented group of artists, who are now an extended family spread around the world. It was a turning point in my life and artistic practice – it flipped everything upside down (in a great way) and created clarity in the direction that I wanted to take.

I first met Christine Gouzelis and Paul Blackman, who work together as Jukstapoz at 50 Days Costa Rica – and they will be part of my Wild Card programme. Since then we’ve been meeting in different parts of the world delivering workshops and presenting Passing Through with 50 collective. I thoroughly enjoy the attention to detail within their work, both physically and visually.

Where do you teach the technique in London –and who is it suitable for?
I teach the techniques regularly at London Contemporary Dance School as part of the BA course; Greenwich Dance, The Place and Tripspace Projects. It’s suitable for professional dancers, dancers in training, actors, movement directors and anyone who is interested in movement that has a good level of fitness.

How do you juggle running a business (Muxima in Bow – winner of a recent Time Out Award, congratulations!) – with your teaching and choreographic work?
Thank you. I’m fortunate enough to work with a fantastic and hugely supportive team at Muxima. We work collaboratively to run and grow the business, which enables the team to work on projects outside the cafe. Muxima supports local and international artists in many ways on a regular basis, first and foremost by offering a space where people can meet. We also programme live music, produce art exhibitions, promote shows or workshops through our networks, design and print flyers, provide a performance platform to try out a new work such as comedy or small scale theatre, present film and host discussions.

Running a café/space for artists, teaching, making your own work – and curating other peoples – how do see your career developing?
All aspects of what I currently do feed one another. Most importantly, I enjoy what I do. I’m not in a rush to make decisions about what’s going to happen in a few years; rather I’m enjoying what’s happening now. It’s been hugely inspiring to create a space not only for artists, but for the local community. This experience has also led to greater appreciation for my time in the studio.

Family Portrait which is part of your Wild Card evening, appears to be a very personal work…
It was developed from a four week research and development period in 2014 with Flying Low and Passing Through. The work is personal in different ways. Since I started travelling around the world, my father asked me to collect old portraits dated between 1900 – 1940/50s in each country that I visited, to use as part of his graphic design work. This took me on expeditions to vintage shops that in some places were difficult to find. I also have a large family portrait from the early 1900s of my paternal grandmother’s family, which was taken close to Bristol. This portrait has always fascinated me, as it’s a part of my heritage that’s been explained, but equally feels far removed. A family portrait is something that we all hold in one form or another, in some cases of family that we have never met, but are still connected to us. A family portrait can tell a multitude of stories.

Tell us about your ongoing collaboration with visual artist Paolo Fiorentini…
I’ve been collaborating with Paolo for many years now, we both bring different elements to each other’s work. He brings a strong sense of art direction and visualisation of the design elements to my choreographic work and has been an integral collaborator for Family Portrait. Beyond this, we have been working for a couple years on a project called Envelop – Paolo presents an element of visual art and I bring an element of movement and choreographic structures. The collaboration can be seen through video, still images and performance.

You came to London from California in 2000 and started studying at Laban in 2001. What do you like about living here – and do you see yourself staying?
London is the most diverse and culturally vibrant city I’ve experienced. It’s filled with as many opportunities as you are open to. My family heritage is English, French and Italian, so in some ways I feel more rooted here. There’s something magnetising about London, it’s a place that always brings you back. I’m not planning to leave any time soon…

this way, that way Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, 3 December (return tickets only)

More on Leila’s projects and teaching: – and on Muxima

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