Somma is working at the intersection of several uniquely contemporary phenomena: indie rock music, the post-Warhol art world, social networking of the sort that didn’t exist before the advent of digital technology and choreography conceived and executed expressly for the camera.
No doubt, Somma’s mastery of new technologies played a role in Jiří Kylián’s decision to choose him as his protégé in the Rolex Arts Initiative. The mentor unhesitatingly admits that “Jason’s knowledge of film, video and digital media is 1,000 per cent better than mine”. Tellingly, in recent years, Kylián has himself become increasingly interested in working with projected media. During the mentoring year, he has begun to rely on Somma as a technical “problem-solver”.
But the mentor and protégé have more in common. Jiří Kylián is one of the few world-class choreographers who specializes in creating work for “mature” dancers. In 1991, he was instrumental in helping to establish Nederlands Dans Theater III, a select ensemble of leading performers who were reluctant to retire from the stage – as most professional dancers do – after reaching their mid-40s.
Similarly – at the other end of the spectrum – NDT also maintains a young, experimental apprentice ensemble whose dancers range in age from 17 to 22. Thus the “main” company is complemented by two offshoots: one younger, one older. Collectively, the three branches of NDT enable Kylián to highlight what he calls all “three dimensions of a dancer’s life”.
As coincidence will have it, Somma also exhibits a long-standing interest in working with older dancers. He directed a playful and affectionate video tribute to his college mentor, Frances Wessels. (But Somma didn’t begin work on the video until Wessels had “matured” to the age of 88!) And Somma has also helped document on video the repertory of Paradigm, a performance ensemble for professional dancers over the age of 50 that was co-founded by another of his university mentors, Gus Solomons Jr.
Kylián recently choreographed his very last dance for NDT, his 101st work, incorporating performers from all three of its component companies and Kylián asked Somma to create a series of video projections that were incorporated into the production.
Kylián is quick to emphasize that he regards Somma as a collaborator. He points out: “I don’t see this mentorship as a ‘master/apprentice’ relationship. I view it as a two-way street, a give and take. As I told Jason at our very first meeting: ‘I have nothing specific to teach you. I just want you to observe and take what you can from our time together. And I hope to learn as much from you as you learn from me’.”
The two-way street already extends beyond the Netherlands. Kylián spent much of last spring in Munich, where he was choreographing an ambitious new dance for the Bavarian State Ballet, titled Migratory Birds.
I had an opportunity to spend a day watching Kylián choreograph this dance, with Somma at his side, both observing and assisting. They were seated in one of the National Theatre’s spacious rehearsal rooms. Somma was assisting Kylián by timing each choreographic sequence with a stopwatch – a vivid reminder that Jiří Kylián is an exacting, if un-tyrannical, taskmaster of a choreographer.
Watching Somma and Kylián function side by side, it was immediately apparent how fully they’ve bonded, how comfortable they are in one another’s company and how surprisingly un-hierarchical their relationship is.