Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 7)

After holding key roles at a world-famous dance company for over three decades, celebrated Czech-born choreographer and Rolex dance mentor Jiří Kylián was seeking a new direction in his work, focusing on cross-disciplinary projects and the great potential of contemporary technology. In his choice of protégé, Jason Akira Somma, a young New Yorker who combines dance, photography and film to produce innovative forms of art, Kylián found a gifted young talent ready for a playful, enriching and exacting exchange of knowledge.

Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 7)

September 2008.

The protégé in Dance talks about the start of the mentoring year. Interviewed by Roger Copeland in New York

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts initiative?
The combination of altruism and autonomy. The Rolex mentorship is committed more to the process rather than the product. And what better way to experience that process than under the guidance of one of the greatest artists in your field?

Have you ever had a mentor before?
Yes, the idea of mentorship has always been important to me. You can read all the books you want, but it’s through observing the wisdom of the body that you acquire true knowledge in any given aesthetic. And if the person you’re observing is a master – and if you have an opportunity to interact with that person over a period of time – that’s the best sort of process.

What was your first impression of your mentor?
I was amazed by how welcoming he was. Unfortunately in the art world these days, we’re a bit jaded; and we assume that anyone in a position of power or who’s a prominent figure in their field is going to be rude and have their eyes narrowed by arrogance. Jiří is the very antithesis of that. I knew I was going to like him after our first hour together because neither of us mentioned art even once. We talked about life.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
I think Jiří and I are very similar as people, but fairly different aesthetically. Jiří is a choreographer’s choreographer. There’s a clarity in his work that comes across even to audiences who’ve never witnessed a dance piece before. By contrast, I’m not sure I ever know what I’m doing.

Do you think that your mentor’s guidance will change your approach to your work?
If it didn’t, I’d be the biggest fool in the world.

Mr Kylián is in his early 60s and you're in your late 20s. How do you think these generational differences will affect the collaboration between the two of you?
I hope they don’t. Jiří is very alive and perceptive and very up-to-date about the world around him. He’s grown up in the digital era just as much as I have. Or so it appears. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s imperative to understand the past and equally important to understand the present. And if you fail to acknowledge the youth, you yourself as an artist have died.

Can you talk a little about the “hybrid” nature of your work, your involvement with still photography and video, as well as choreography and dance?
I was a visual artist before becoming a dancer. What I can’t “say” with dance I try to say with film. What I can’t say with film I say with photography – and what I can’t say with photography I say with other means like illustration. These different media all act as an extension of my life in different ways. Dancers and choreographers are literally the peasants of the art world. My hybridization is partly a new way of trying to survive as a dance artist in America. By transferring dance from its ephemeral state to a more permanent state via photography and video, I have more options for showing and selling my work.

You seem to have one foot squarely planted in the world of the art gallery, another in the contemporary dance world. Can you talk about the way these different interests cross-fertilize one another in your work?
Going to gallery shows and art exhibitions inspires me because I look at them from the vantage point of a choreographer and that helps me think about the art of dance in new ways.

Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

Job creation (Chapter 3 of 7)

Question: What’s the fastest way to attract a waiter’s attention in a crowded New York restaurant? Answer: Just yell: “Actor!” or “Dancer!” It’s an old joke, but a revealing one because it tells an inconvenient truth about the way many young artists in the United States – and various other countries – actually pay the rent.

In fact, when I first visited Jason Akira Somma in New York, he told me his own real-life version of the joke: “A European film crew recently asked if they could shoot some footage of me ‘at work’. I said: ‘Sure’ and provided them with the street address. But when they arrived at the location, the director looked really confused. It took me a moment to figure out why. They were expecting to find me in some pristine rehearsal studio choreographing a dance – rather than waiting tables at the Jaffa Café in lower Manhattan. ‘I thought we were going to film you at work,’ said the director, trying to conceal his obvious frustration. ‘But this is where I work,’ I told him.”

The ironic twist to this tale is that the dance company of Somma’s mentor for the 2008/2009 Rolex programme is one of the most generously subsidized in the world: the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT).

Jason Akira Somma grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and attended an experimental public school that allowed him to spend 50 per cent of his time studying visual arts. Later, during his time studying dance at Virginia Commonwealth University, Somma’s passion for the visual arts began to creep back into his life: “I made an important discovery very early on in my college years,” he says. “Other dance students started commissioning me to do photo shoots for them or to document their choreography on video.

Economic pragmatism played a role in helping to define Somma’s eventual career path: “In the U.S.,” he observes, “public funding for the arts hardly exists; and dancers and choreographers are the peasants of the art world. My hybridization is partly a new way of trying to survive as a dance artist in America. By transferring dance from its ephemeral state to a more permanent state via photography and video, I have more options for showing and selling my work.”

Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

Give and take (Chapter 4 of 7)

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.

Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

King for a day (Chapter 5 of 7)

Somma seemed deeply appreciative of the rare opportunity he had been offered by Rolex. “You know,” he said: “I’m feeling a little schizophrenic. When I’m with Jiří in The Hague or Munich, the dancers we’re working with know who I am and want to learn something about my creative work. I even got to accompany Jiří when he was honoured in the Netherlands last December by Queen Beatrix. But when I’m back in New York working at the café, I’m at the bottom of the food chain, with people barking orders at me all day long and expecting me to be their servant. Life is strange. One minute I'm waiting tables, the next I'm meeting the Queen of the Netherlands. Then back to waiting tables.”

I visited Somma, after he’d returned home to New York. Like the European film-makers, I also asked if I could observe him “at work”. But once again, the only work he had scheduled for that week was his job waiting tables at the Jaffa Cafe. And yet, watching Somma “at work” as a waiter, I was treated to an object lesson in the creative uses of boredom, the way in which the drudgery of routine can stimulate rather than smother a young artist’s creativity. While noisy patrons in two different locations were trying (simultaneously) to command his attention, Somma – without missing a beat – waltzed over to my table – where he proceeded to quickly assemble an impressive work of “found” sculpture, utilizing two forks, a saltshaker and a handful of toothpicks. A small-scale work to be sure; but a work of art nonetheless.

Extracted from an article written by Roger Copeland for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2008/2009 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Roger Copeland is Professor of Theater and Dance at Oberlin College in the United States. His books include the widely-used anthology, What Is Dance?, and Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. His essays about dance, theatre and film have appeared in The New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic and many other magazines.

Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

After a year with the master (Chapter 6 of 7)

Jason Akira Somma talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

How would you characterize your relationship with Kylián?
Jiří likes to joke that he’s not my mentor, he’s my “TOR-mentor” But in truth, he’s become my life coach. Jiří now feels like family; and like family we’re continually checking up on one another. When we met for the first time, we talked non-stop for over an hour without mentioning art even once. That was when I realized how truly lucky I am. I've always thought that what separates true artists from the rest is their willingness to take in the world around them and to appreciate all aspects of life. When I was introduced this year to the great choreographer William Forsythe, he told me I was lucky to have Jiří as a mentor because of who he is, not because of what he does.

Did you ever take a class with the dancers at Nederlands Dans Theater?
Are you kidding? I’d look like such a klutz. I can’t hold my own with those ballet-trained virtuosos.

How does your experience as a performer and choreographer affect your dance photography?
Because I’ve been a dancer too, I know instinctively when the performers are going to reach the arc of a movement – so I know when to “click”. In my best dance photography, the camera becomes an extension of my body.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from watching Kylián in rehearsal?
Without a doubt, group shape. Jiří is the grand architect of bodies in space. On a more philosophical level, Jiří’s shown me that we will always encounter obstacles when we try to create new work and that the true test is how we choose to deal with those obstacles. But, regardless of the ways in which your original vision might be compromised, the audience isn’t going to know what you first had in mind. They’re only going to see the final product.

Jiří Kylián and Jason Akira Somma

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 7 of 7)

Interview with Jiří Kylián

Is a dance mentor different from a dance teacher?
Absolutely. A teacher prepares you for a profession. A mentor teaches you about life.

Jason says that you’ve become his “life coach”.
That’s true in a way. And our relationship is very playful, a sort of learning through joking. We’ve even played pranks on one another. I love it when this crazy guy knocks on the door and says: “Here I am again.” But there’s a more serious side too. I’m old enough to have met and worked with so many wonderful people. And I can tell Jason stories about these extraordinary people. I’m an open book and I encourage him to tear out whatever pages might be helpful to him. I can also serve as a gateway through which he can meet some of these remarkable individuals and, hopefully, be stimulated by them too. In that sense, he can have many mentors.

Why did you choose Jason as your protégé?
That’s easy. I was fascinated by his great range of interests. And his curiosity. I knew that our partnership could then go in many different directions. I was also eager to learn more about the digital media he’s so knowledgeable about.

Tell me about the work you’ve choreographed for the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. How did you decide on the title, Migratory Birds?
Imagine yourself working in a theatre like this beautiful opera house [the National Theatre, Munich] and you open all the doors and windows and birds fly in from one side and out the other. Professional dancers are like migratory birds. They fly in and out of companies from many parts of the globe. In Migratory Birds, there are dancers from Brazil, Spain, Australia and Germany. I’m Czech, Jason’s an American, and the woman operating the tape recorder for rehearsals is from South Africa. Also, like birds, dancers are always defying gravity.

Is it fair to say that your own choreography differs from both the sort of emotionally-wrenching dance theatre we associate with a European artist like the late Pina Bausch and from a more typically American choreographer like the late Merce Cunningham who emphasized abstract movement as an end in itself?
Cunningham was a hugely rational artist. Pina Bausch based her work on deep humanity and emotionality. I’m a very rational person, but I also like to dig into the psyche of human beings. I want a marriage of the two. An exploration of the human condition must go hand in hand with the most immaculate movement design or shape. That way, you amplify the emotionality of human beings through the shape of their movement.