Dancer to Dancer

Jason Akira Somma's time in The Netherlands

NDT II Rehearsal (Photo courtesy of Jason Akira Somma)

Jason Akira Somma, a 28-year-old dancer living in NYC, is a multi-talented artist—dancer, choreographer, photographer and cinematographer. Growing up, Somma loved photography, but chose to take a different route academically, studying dance in college. He eventually merged all of his passions by choreographing, directing and editing dance films that have been shown on the Sundance Channel and Independent Film Channel. His professional stage career includes performing with companies such as Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and PearsonWidrig DanceTheater. The contemporary and edgy style he projects in his work makes him a fresh face to watch, and renowned Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián thinks so too. He selected Somma to receive the only Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative grant awarded to a dancer. Here, Jason reflects on working with Kylián.  —Lauren Levinson

March 14, 2008

I’m en route to the Hague to meet with Jirí Kylián, former artistic director and current resident choreographer for the Nederlands Dans Theatre, for the first time. I’m one of three finalists Jirí is considering for the Rolex Grant, so I get to spend one day with him before he chooses.

I arrive early at NDT’s theatre space, located in the heart of The Hague. Jirí comes via bicycle and joyfully says hello to everyone. He approaches me, places one hand on my shoulder and offers the other for me to shake. He says, matter-of-factly, “You’re quite tall!” “I try,” I reply, to which he laughs. We retreat to the café area to chat. We talk for almost an hour, swapping stories of travels and interests.

After, he shows me around the theatre. We walk through corridors lined with dressing rooms. I notice that the building is well-insulated and warm; even the stage has heated floors. Jirí asks if I’m familiar with the architect Rem Koolhaas, whom I’ve been a fan of for some time. He informs me that this is the first building Koolhaas ever built. “We’re friends, actually. I could arrange for the two of you to meet,” Jirí offers. My jaw drops. I realize the full extent of Jirí’s power in the artistic world.

March 25, 2008

Today I found out that Jirí chose me! Though I’d already met with him, this news comes as quite a shock to me considering I’m currently working as a waiter at a diner in NYC’s East Village. I took this job after shifting my career focus from professional dancer to choreographer since it’s flexible.

Until this moment, I’ve been spending much of my day with people shrieking orders at me. But now, an accomplished choreographer is choosing to work with me over the next year. We’ll even be collaborating on NDT’s 50th anniversary show, which is scheduled to premiere in December 2009. I’m emotional, excited and overwhelmed.

September 28, 2008

The rehearsal space is an old building with an elaborate Victorian set on stage. Jirí is working on a piece for NDT III, which will be presented at a dance festival and award ceremony in Maastricht, Holland. All of the dancers in NDT III are over 40 years old. One member, Sabine Kupferberg, is fairly renowned in Europe for being with NDT many years and for being Jirí’s lifelong partner. I’m excited to watch the veterans! The entire piece is danced in slow motion, like a moving painting. I’m concerned it will be boring, but to my surprise, the piece is captivating! They’re able to make the simplest actions enticing—a flick becomes a story all on its own. NDT III requires little feedback from Jirí, and they often work out their own problems. I ask Jirí if this is normal. He replies that these dancers are such professionals that they usually know when something is wrong. But with the other companies, he is more involved.

September 30, 2008

I arrive at the rehearsal studio where Jirí is working on a new piece for Nederlands Dans Theatre II (the dancers are between the ages of 17 and 22). He introduces himself to everyone as my “TORmentor” and briefly explains my reason for being there. Rehearsal begins.

I’m amazed by the younger dancers’ technical prowess. They move organically with strength and suppleness. None of them seem to have trouble conquering the physical obstacles Jirí throws at them. When he presents them with a theatrical task, however, their immediate discomfort is apparent. This allows me to see the importance of age and experience when it comes to commanding presence. I understand the logic behind having three NDT companies: NDT I, the main company, NDT II for young dancers and NDT III for older dancers. It allows the audience to witness how a performance develops as an artist matures.

October 5, 2008

After spending a week with Jirí, we’ve become quite comfortable around each other. I notice that he is never impatient or rude and is humorous and fun during his rehearsals. I ask him if he’s ever yelled at his dancers. “Only a few times in my 30 years here, and I can rest assured that the dancers will never forget it!” he says, with a laugh. “I don’t like to yell or to speak down to people. When I yell it comes from a place of frustration due to a weak link in communication or some personal internal struggle. To take that out on someone else is counterproductive.” Clearly this ideology works to enhance the communal aspect of the Nederlands Dans Theatre. No one seems to have any apprehension about approaching Jirí or suggesting something.

Later, Jirí tells me, “I hope to learn from you as much as you do from me.”

October 7, 2008

Back in NYC, I regretfully return to the restaurant. I’m dreaming about my plans to work with Jirí on a concert at the Munich Opera House and the 50th anniversary NDT show. I’m rudely interrupted by a man who barks, “Yo! Can I get a beer?” I realize how Clark Kent must have felt secretly being Superman. I take a deep breath, knowing that my life will change. I walk to his table, pen and pad in hand.

Photo: ©Rolex/Marc van Appelghem 

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