Interview: Mikah Smillie: “I got a call and pretty much had to start the next day. It really was a baptism of fire.”

Friday 11 August 2017 by Samantha Whitaker

When the National Youth Ballet’s (NYB) founding director, Jill Tookey, sadly passed away in April last year, she left a big shoes to fill at a crucial moment in the company’s calendar. Fortunately, Mikah Smillie, formerly professional dancer with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, was ready to step in: “I got a call and pretty much had to start the next day. It really was a baptism of fire.” she explains.

Mikah helped the NYB successfully complete its season, and after a rigorous interview process was officially appointed the post of artistic director in October. “As a kid, I performed quite a lot and those really were the most exciting and inspirational moments in my childhood,” she says. “Equally, I feel really strongly about artists like myself, in the transitional period of coming out of performing and moving into something else, needing somewhere to channel everything they’ve learned – and that really is what NYB is all about.”

The company offers more than a hundred aspiring dancers aged eight to 18 the chance to experience what it’s like to be part of a professional company during its annual 10-day residential summer school, which culminates in a series of glittering performances. Each student learns and performs two pieces, choreographed and taught by some of UK’s best talent, as well as its rising stars – some of whom are NYB alumni. “It’s so inspiring for the students to work with professionals and start making connections, and to learn how to work both individually and as part of a team, building something collectively,” Mikah explains. “Whatever these young people end up doing, these are all important life skills.”

This year, the summer school will be held in Birmingham, with performances at the Crescent Theatre and at Sadler’s Wells in London. “Finally getting everyone together in one place is what I’m looking forward to the most,” says Mikah, who works remotely from Glasgow, while her colleagues are based at the NYB headquarters in Kent. “I just love connecting everyone up and feeling the buzz, excitement and support. It’s a huge, creative and nurturing circle.”

As well as being Mikah’s first year as artistic director, 2017 also marks NYB’s 30th anniversary, which will be celebrated with a specially themed programme for the students to perform entitled Time in Motion. It features seven short works that follow a journey through time, choreographed by established professionals – Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson, Birmingham Royal Ballet first soloist Jonathan Payn, English National Ballet School director of dance Samira Saidi and New Adventures associate director Etta Murfitt – as well as emerging artists Ruth Brill, Arielle Smith and Louise Bennet.

The showcase will also include a piece choreographed by one of the students – the winner of NYB’s annual choreographic competition, which is held during the summer school as part of the Beyond Ballet platform. This encourages the students to develop a piece from scratch, taking advantage of support from NYB’s professional team as well as their peers. Beyond Ballet also offers training in other areas of the industry, such as stage management, rehearsal direction and costume design.

After 20 years as a performing artist, the opportunity to take the reins at NYB couldn’t have come at a better time for Mikah: “I’m absolutely satisfied that I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I’ve performed in some great places like New York and Japan, and worked with incredibly talented people. Now I’m happy for the next generation to take over.”

Just nine months in, Mikah has already made some bold and ambitious plans for the future. “We want to make NYB a truly national company, providing more performance opportunities across Scotland and Wales, as well as England. We’ll also forge new partnerships and widen our outreach programme to engage a broader range of students.”

This year, NYB held auditions in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, as well as London, and offered masterclasses at the same time, taught by some of company’s professional ambassadors and alumni. “We’re taking the fantastic opportunities that are already there and developing them further. It’s important for us to give the best experience to the children we possibly can,” says Mikah.

With her work cut out at NYB, Mikah is still hoping to keep her hand in rehearsal directing and teaching at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “I think the variety is healthy and it keeps you up to date with the industry and everyone in it,” she says, adding that she’s particularly busy at the moment renovating her flat! Mikah is also a keen dance photographer, which provides a lovely creative release: “I remember I was in New York and I woke up one morning thinking ‘I’ve got to buy a camera.’ It was the best thing I did.”

See Time in Motion at Sadler’s Wells on 3 September. Find out more about NYB at nationalyouthballet.org

Mikah spoke to Samantha Whitaker. Samantha is an editor and freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @swhit1985

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