Jiří Kylián & Jason Akira SommaA year of mentoring

Published in September 2008icon-clockTime to read: 4m55s

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.

by Roger CopelandSeptember 2008
  • Jiří Kylián
    The Mentor
  • Jason Akira Somma
    The Protégé

Job Creation

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.”

Give and take

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.

King for a day

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.


Rolex Mentor and Protégé