Jason Akira Somma talks about Phosphene Variations, his Location One event, which is part happening, part performance and part exhibit. In Phosphene Variations, which runs September 12 through November 15, dancers including Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carmen De Lavallade appear as three-dimensional holograms. On select evenings, there will be live performances by artists like Julie Atlas Muz, Vanessa Walters and Susan Marshall & Company.
Jason Akira Somma wants more out of dance. He also wants the larger public to embrace it for what it is: a visual art form. In Phosphene Variations, Somma has created an event that is best described as part performance, part happening and part exhibition. Beginning September 12 at Location One, Somma will unveil his interactive show, in which prominent dancers and artists—including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Wilson, Carmen De Lavallade and Jiri Kylian—will appear as three-dimensional holograms. The floating figures respond to touch; Somma wants “the spectator to become the choreographer and director of what they’re witnessing.” On select evenings through November 17, dancers will perform in the space, generating new material for the installation. Opening night is a treat: Frances Wessells, who is 93 and once danced with Hanya Holm and Martha Graham, will grace the space.
Time Out New York: How did this project start?
Jason Akira Somma: I conceived Phosphene Variations back in college, around 2001. Before I got involved in dance, I came from a visual art background. But I kind of did them simultaneously. I saw Gregory Hines perform when I was a kid, and I really liked that—it was amazing.
Time Out New York: Where did you grow up?
Jason Akira Somma: Virginia Beach, which is a very conservative area. No place would teach boys [dance], so my mom kept hunting and finally she found a place that would take me. She talked me into taking ballet because she had classical training. It started taking its toll on my body, so I went back to focusing on visual art, but dancing always stayed with me. When it came time to go to college, I applied to different art schools, and when I went to check out the Cooper Union senior thesis show, I had a strange reaction. I couldn’t explain what it was that I was going through, but I thought, This is not what I want to do. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t want to go as I kept doing these things with my hands. [He gesticulates wildly.] I had this really vulnerable moment realizing that I didn’t know anything about my body, and that scared the hell out of me: that my body was trying to say something that I couldn’t say. So I decided I wanted to go back to school for dance.
Time Out New York: Where?
Jason Akira Somma: I went to VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], in Richmond. They had a pretty open program. I was very lucky because they teach so many different aesthetics. It was a very deep somatic training, and it was perfect for me because I was drawn to the psychology of kinesthetics. It completely changed the way I approached visual arts. The students knew that I did photography and film work, so they started hiring me, and that’s when I found this niche. My dance training was influencing the way I was filming and photographing. Then, I started to see the hybrid between the two that I shouldn’t be alienating. Dance is a visual art, and that’s the greatest thing that dancers undersell themselves on. The true profundity of what it is that we do as dancers is remarkable. It changed not just the way I approach art, but the way I see the world.
Time Out New York: How so?
Jason Akira Somma: I know when someone’s lying to me; I know when I’m in danger. It saved my life: A guy attacked me with a knife and I won. He cut my face, and I knocked him on the floor, and it was because I read his body language. Those are the things that are so profound and that are so overlooked in the dance world—and it’s not just the dance world. The art world has its own problems as well. But there are these performance artists, these people appropriating the body, and yet we are still left in the gutter. Dancers are the peasants of the art world, and we are really just doing that to ourselves. We’ve got to change this. We got to do something. We have to ante it up. So when I came to New York, I was looking for dance gigs. I just wanted to dance. And I was doing a lot of photography for a lot of choreographers and video installations.
Time Out New York: What year did you move here?
Jason Akira Somma: In 2001, right before 9/11. I started paying my way by doing photography, and I kept climbing my way up in the dance community. Being a guy helps. That’s not the feminist in me. [Laughs] My mother was a midwife, so I’m really prone to feminist thought.
Time Out New York: Did you want to perform with whomever would take you, or did you have a plan?
Jason Akira Somma: I didn’t have a mind-set. Now I look back on it, and it was such innocent naïveté—you come to the city and get starstruck by everything. I would audition for everything because I looked at it as a free class. The big one for me was when Bill T. Jones was looking for a male dancer and about 120 men showed up. It was huge. I kept thinking I’d get cut because it was getting toward the end. There was this funny moment when it was two other dancers and me, and one guy was from the Beijing Opera; he was impeccable, and I walked up to Bill and said, “What do you want?” He said, “I’m looking for a dancer,” and I said, “Why am I here? Because I’m not that kind of dancer, so how can I help facilitate what it is?” He said, “I actually need an improviser, but I’m so impressed by what this guy can do.” Later, I was apprenticing [with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company]—I don’t know if it’s because Bill was interested in the other work I was doing in photography and film, but one day he said, “Why do you want to be a dancer? Why do you want to be in a company?” He kind of threw a monkey wrench at me, and I couldn’t explain why I wanted to be in a company outside of the obvious—security, being able to tour and be seen and to dance. He said that I seemed more like a director or choreographer and said, “It seems like you have things to say and you should do them. You’re going to hate yourself. I made the same mistake. When you’re in rehearsal, pay attention—look around the room. Look at the dancers and study them.” I did, and there was this moment when I thought, He’s right–I’m facilitating his vision. So after about a month, I went up to him and told him he was right. He said, “Okay. Wonderful. Since you know this piece, do the 20th-anniversary BAM show with us and good luck.” I thought that was a very generous experience because, to be honest, Bill can be a very difficult person [Laughs].
Time Out New York: What was your next step?
Jason Akira Somma: I kept trying to think, What did I want to say? I didn’t like what I was seeing in the dance community; I don’t mean that there wasn’t good work being made, but that we were operating on an old system that was going to die soon, and I kept thinking, Our generation has to fucking wake up. Grants are going down, everyone’s struggling—there’s got to be a way to do this right. I always knew I wanted to go more into galleries, so I decided I would try to create work that is visual art but dance-based. What is it about my kinesthetic training that’s going to separate me from the average visual artist who can’t do these things? I was seeing people like Marina Abramovic, and what she did was amazing back then, and I’m really happy to see a woman at MOMA getting that type of recognition, but let’s also look at Matthew Barney and Terence Koh, who make a whole living off the body yet know nothing about the body. They know it on an academic level. When I’m watching [Barney’s] films, I can’t help but think how many times I’m watching characters break character. It’s wonderful: He builds these amazing sculptures and sets and costumes, but then it’s being sold short on the performative aspect. It’s so insulting to the dance community that we let this happen. You know, there’s been this resurgence of dance in galleries, and I think that’s a bit silly, too. I have nothing against it, but…
Time Out New York: It feels regressive?
Jason Akira Somma: Yeah. What are you going to bring to it that’s new? That can’t be done in a theater context? What is it that this space has to offer? And that’s why when people ask, “What is it that you do? What do you call yourself?” I jokingly say, “I’m a past-modernist.” I know it sounds pretentious, but that’s the whole point: We’re past modernism; kids are growing up today doing everything, and that’s where the beauty is. Emergent technology at its full fruition; that’s why we’re seeing the whole world struggle right now. It creates a generational gap that’s getting shorter and shorter. I’m already seeing youth that have physical mannerisms that don’t make sense to me. They’re saying, “You need to zoom out.” [He takes his fingers and spreads them apart, as if he’s touching the screen of an iPad.] I’m like, Whoa! That’s genius—I’m watching a baby on YouTube trying to do that with a magazine as if it’s an iPad. That type of knowledge that they take for granted is kinesthetic, cellular memory and neurological. And when the people in power—curators, directors—are disconnected from the youth, that’s a very dangerous place for the arts to be. It’s our duty to keep one hand to the past and one hand to the future, and to bridge that and study that dialogue, because it’s getting scarier to see language changing so rapidly. In that regard, I kept thinking that the body should be the first thing to appropriate it—not for the consumer world to get a hold of it. Technological advancements are designed for our freedom, but they often do the opposite. So this whole idea of past-modernism is that the medium is the message more than ever.
Time Out New York: How does that tie into what you create?
Jason Akira Somma: I try to find ways to tie all these loves into something new. How can we give the audience an experience? How can it be visually as stimulating as the by-product it creates? I engineered this analog invention and this hologram project I conceived in college using optical illusions, before this technology existed. How can we fund ourselves independently from the grants, from having to cater to this system of, I know that I could get a grant, but I know that means I have to follow the usual formula: Dixon Place, Danspace, DTW [Dance Theater Workshop, now New York Live Arts], the Kitchen? That scares me, because we’re limiting ourselves. And with these technological advancements, I also found myself more and more interested in working with the elderly and disabled and, most recently, war-torture survivors. It’s because technology can accentuate details that we can’t traditionally see onstage. Frances Wessells is 93, and I’m touring a live piece with her; that wisdom she has as a performer is not something that can be seen onstage, but it can be if I’m onstage with her using some sort of technological video projection or an interactive interface that can accentuate her movements so it becomes a dialogue.
Time Out New York: What is your concept for this show?
Jason Akira Somma: I had always been in need of a space where we could have a permanent exhibition and a performance space—I wanted both communities to come together. I’m a visual artist; I work with dance. A painter is a visual artist; he just happens to paint. The separation is what’s so dangerous. The art world hates dance. It’s this whole other category for some reason. I don’t know why it’s being displaced, but I had to start calling myself a visual artist and remove “choreographer” and “dance.” With this idea, I had an analog invention, and I wanted to have a permanent exhibition space and a series of performances. These performers will be people interacting with my analog invention. I capture it all in real time. It’s going to come back into this permanent space the following week, so the show’s always growing. You’ll see autonomous film installations that have been created.
Time Out New York: How does your analog invention work?
Jason Akira Somma: I wanted to find a way to make video feel the same way I do when I danced. I didn’t like being limited to an algorithm. I missed the immediacy of being able to interact, so I kept trying to find a way to make the video signal itself become the dancer. To make a long story short, I pulled apart all this old equipment I had and, through using video feedback, I found a way to control and manipulate. It became an audio-visual dance—how my body is manipulating the camera and the equipment I’m using affects the video in real time, so I’m able to react to what the dancer is doing, and that is the dance training that’s coming in: I’m able to follow them in a different way. I’m able to feel that ebb and flow. When dancers first go in there, they’re nervous. “What do you want me to do?” I say, “Just go in there and it kind of speaks for itself.” And when you have a composer, video and the dancer—it’s a new form of hybridization, and it creates a really striking visual-video aesthetic. A little goes such a long way. I don’t even need a dancer. I can also just do pure video feedback and make organic patterns that generate from it. I’m essentially forcing the signal to go through the same process as cellular genesis or mitosis, so you’ll see similar structures within the video, which is interesting because it’s this lifeless thing that we’re suddenly finding the same patterns in nature.
Time Out New York: In terms of the performances, what is the structure? Will there be two performances a night? And will the dancers perform together?
Jason Akira Somma: They’ll be individual performances, but I leave it open to them as well. There’s a loose structure; a lot of it is chance in the science behind the feedback. It can never be the same, so there is always something unique. Some people are coming with premade work, but the idea is to structure it as a happening, and with this happening, you’re able to watch the process and witness the content afterward.
Time Out New York: And the holograms will feature Baryshnikov, Kylian…
Jason Akira Somma: Yeah. Robert Wilson, Carmen De Lavallade, Gus Solomons. I have a fun little lineup. A lot of my friends are confused about how conservative my choices were, but I want to archive these people in a new capacity. A lot of them are still very contemporary in their thought process, so why not try to capture them in a contemporary process that allows the spectator to interact and see them? It’s a new way of reaching new audiences as well, outside of the dictated aesthetics of New York City.
Time Out New York: What was your approach to filming the performers?
Jason Akira Somma: I had to be very Zen about the whole thing. [Laughs] Each one was a different story. Carmen was a delight. She’s so regal. She’s so easy. Robert was tricky because of his schedule. He always over-commits and I had worked with him on a piece before, so I kept thinking, How can I really get him to do it in time? I ended up filming him at the Princess of Kuwait’s house in the Hamptons. A very surreal moment for me. Misha was very difficult because of his schedule as well. I had a very short time to work with him. He was very nice about it, despite the fact I could tell he was exhausted. I could tell by his body language he just wanted to go home. It was a matter of finding out how much each person wanted to be directed and how much they wanted to decide what to do. But it’s fun, and each one is day and night.
Time Out New York: How did you direct them?
Jason Akira Somma: That would be so tricky; I’d have to assess it as they walked into the room, especially with Bob and Misha. You have to be careful. In directing Bob, you’re directing a director. He doesn’t want to be directed. It’s a very tricky thing that can turn into a territorial thing, so I had to be cautious. I would usually give them a psychological place to start and see how they’d take that. If they didn’t take it well, then I’d come back to a more kinesthetic place. I wanted it to be for them; what is it that speaks about them? That is a very difficult thing to do in an hour. I had to act quickly and look for any signs of the moment when they were drifting or not taking me seriously.
Time Out New York: Can you explain how the viewer manipulates the images?
Jason Akira Somma: Yeah. The motion sensors have trigger points. They’re hidden areas that when motioning your hand through the body on the dancer, it will click and trigger another video to happen. You have to figure out how your interactions are affecting that. After so many, it will also give you the option to rotate performers, so you can change to seeing someone else if you want.
Time Out New York: What was it like shooting Jiri Kylian?
Jason Akira Somma: He’s easy. He’s such a nice guy. He’s so sweet. I worked with Jiri through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative program, so I was very lucky in that I’d already spent quite a bit of time with him. And to be really honest, we have a very close father-son relationship. He actually calls me son. He’s so wise. He really understands human nature. I have to be honest; when I first found out he was going to be the mentor, I wasn’t that excited. I was like, Jiri is so traditional…we’re not going to mesh well. And then I saw his new work and I was like, shame on me for even thinking that. He chose me. He had 20 candidates to pick from around the world. He wants to take dance somewhere new. He’s spent 30 years on the stage and he doesn’t think just like that. He’s actually a very aware, very up-to-date person. He knows very much what’s going on, and he wanted to branch out and do more installation-based work. Say what you will, whether it’s classical or not, the architecture of what he does onstage is phenomenal. As far as pure choreography—all the other crap aside—it’s genius. He is really a master. I worked with him on his last piece for NDT [Nederlands Dans Theater]. One time when I was over at his house, I said, “Just say it to me straight: Why are you really leaving NDT?” And he said, “Because I have to be Jiri Kylian at NDT. It’s a very well-oiled machine, and they expect a certain level, and I have become an identity within that that I can’t escape. And inside of me I’ve said everything I want to do, and within that structure it’s time for me to go onto the next stage.” Perfect. Great answer. Anytime I’ve ever done anything with Jiri, it’s a true delight. He’s always good at making fun, no matter how stressful or difficult it can be. I learned a lot from him.
Time Out New York: Did you spend a year with him?
Jason Akira Somma: More or less. I was working in New York, so I was traveling back and forth, and I was sort of following him around that first year. He took me to a lot of personal places that had nothing to do with his work but were things he wanted to show me. One of the first things he said to me was, “I have nothing to teach you. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. One thing I can do is show you my life. If you can see the mistakes I’ve made and learn from them and see the choices I’ve made, then it will maybe affect your work.” He took me to Prague. We walked around and he said, “This is where I kissed my first girlfriend.” It was these little magical moments. He was talking about how it was completely gray and Communist and how scary it was. What was interesting also were the parallels between his life and mine; I grew up in an extreme capitalistic structure. Virginia Beach is a very aesthetically impoverished city; there is nothing for the arts, there are no mom-and-pop shops, it’s all classic suburbia. What I started noticing were the similarities to what I now call corporate communism versus government-based communism, and there were similar things that you go through in deep suburbia. They’re two sides of the same coin! We think we’re free, but how many people are in debt to credit-card companies?
Time Out New York: Did you meet Robert Wilson through the mentor program also?
Jason Akira Somma: He became a mentor outside of the program. They asked me to give the closing speech for the ceremony. It was one of the most intimidating things anyone ever asked me to do. I was speaking at the Royal Opera House in front of A-list artists. Afterward, Robert Wilson said, “I want to produce you.” I said, “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.” He said, “I mean it.” And I said, “All right, give me your information.” I followed up and took him up on his offer, and that’s how the relationship happened. That’s very different. He’s a whole other cult. And that’s where I definitely learned from the outside. I just watched and [whispering, his eyes grow enormous], This is crazy, this is crazy. I’m very glad I’m learning about this side of the world, because it’s not the direction I want to go.
Jason Akira Somma presents Phosphene Variations at Location One Sept 12–Nov 17.