Hardworking, intelligent, knowledgeable, curious, ambitious, extremely talented, positive, and very supportive of his community. These are some of the adjectives that I came away with following my interview with Jacob Jonas, who was recently included on Dance Magazine’s 2018 “25 to Watch” list and whose company will perform January 11 – 13 on the Side Door Series in West Los Angeles. Jonas co-founded Jacob Jonas The Company in 2014 with his life partner and dancer, Jill Wilson. Both Jonas and Wilson perform with the company while also running it. Jonas handles the artistic side of the organization, while Wilson acts as managing director. From the outside looking in, I have a sense that Wilson is also Jonas’ muse.
A Los Angeles native, Jonas began his dance journey after meeting the street-performing group Calypso Tumblers. He was 13 years old. For the next five years, he would spend his after-school hours, spring and summer breaks giving his full attention to learning from and performing with the Calypso Tumblers. Jonas continues to have a relationship with the group and he considers its leader, Raymond Bartlette as one of his mentors.
Jonas graduated from the Beverly Hills High School, but said that he did so by being creative with how he passed his tests. “By my senior year,” He said. “I was working so much as a dancer; I was teaching and training. I was getting home at 11 or 12 o’clock at night and having to be at school the next morning at 8am.” Jonas went on to explain that his teachers sent him to see the school’s guidance counselor, who arranged for Jonas to become part of the school’s Independent Studies program where he was allowed to build his own curriculum.
Later, while looking on Pinterest, Wilson came across RAW Artists, an independent arts organization for and by artists. She and Jonas applied to enter the 2012 RAW competition that included entries from 9 categories in 50 cities across the US. The categories included artists from visual art, fashion design, film, music, performance art, hair & makeup artistry, and photography. After a series of competitive showcases each month, they were selected as LA’s semi-finalist; and advancing to win the LA Performance Artist title. RAW then took the finalists from each of the 50 cities and had them compete on video for a panel of judges. Jonas and Wilson were awarded the National Award for Performance Artist. Choreographer Donald Byrd was one of those judges in 2012 and one of the prizes was an hour’s mentoring with him.
Having just won the Capezio ACE Award, Jonas was in New York to perform on that showcase. Byrd was also in New York and invited Jonas to meet at Starbuck’s in New York’s Columbus Circle for the mentoring session. “We really hit it off.” Jonas said of their meeting. “I had a lot of questions. I told him that there was a lack of mentorship in the dance community and how grateful I was for this opportunity.”
Jonas went on to tell Byrd that he wanted to be a choreographer and wanted to have a mentorship with another choreographer. Byrd invited them to spend two weeks with his company, Spectrum Dance Theater, in Seattle, Washington which lead to Jonas being cast as one of the lead roles for one of Byrd’s new works. Two weeks turned into a three month stay for the couple. Byrd became a mentor for Jonas; introducing him to more concert dance, daily ballet classes and different choreographic concepts. Wilson was a big part of that experience, also performing with the company and they still maintain a close relationship with Donald Byrd.
I asked Jonas to explain what influence, if any, Bartlette, Byrd and another person whom he admired, long-time street dancer Vincent “Mr. Admiration” Foster, had on his life, his choreography and his work ethics. “I came to him,” Referring to Raymond Bartlette, “at a very interesting place in my life where I felt that I had to be surrounded by certain people. At the time I was being bullied in school, but they were my friends, so I was forcing myself to be with people who were putting me down.”
It was not just the physical aspect of the Calypso Tumblers that attracted Jonas, but also their comradery, teamwork and energy that inspired him to want to work with them. It was Bartlette who taught Jonas that he did not have to be around people with bad energy.
“He taught me about good energy. Then came the hard work and having a good work ethic.” Jonas said. He explained how each person in the Calypso Tumblers was a specialist of his own style, and that he wanted to learn from each one of them. “I want to always be in a position where I am not good, but where I can become better and grow.”
Jonas stated that this was the beginning of his inquisitiveness and to this day he emails people in all aspects of life to educate himself about what they do. He met legendary popper, “Vincent “Mr. Animation” Foster in Venice where the Calypso Tumblers were busking, another term for street performing for gratuities. Vincent “Mr. Animation” Foster took Jonas under his wing and taught him how to pop.
“We would go into the studio at around 8 at night and he would teach me the techniques of popping.” Jonas said while demonstrating several popping moves. “He had this personal thing about being very isolated from people because he had been misunderstood about the way he thought.” Jonas related to this quality and over time, they developed a deep relationship. Sadly, about a year ago Vincent “Mr. Animation” Foster was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street in Las Vegas. He was just 49 years of age.
When asked how he chose dancers for his company, Jonas explained that when he first began making dances he asked friends around him like Jill Wilson and Renee Stewart if they would work with him. They agreed. As time progresses, he has held auditions every year. He related how dancers with a more traditional technical training were easier to find through the audition process. Auditioning for Jacob Jonas The Company takes place over a four-day period which allows Jonas not only a chance to explore the talents of a dancer, but time to see how they would fit in with the other members of his company. The street dancers are harder to find because one will not see them in auditions. Dancers who have been with Jonas since the beginning include Marissa Labog, Lamonte Goode, Anibal Sandoval, and Jill Wilson. Jacob “Kujo” Lyons, a renowned performer, now works with Jonas, as do Nic Walton and Joy Brown, a freerunner and a tricker.
Jonas explained how he likes to find dancers with different backgrounds such as contemporary ballet and street dancing, and utilize the strengths of each dancer. “There’s a lot of growth that takes place during the rehearsal process,” Jonas explained. “but for me, I’m always attracted to the integrity of the people.” He added. “If rehearsal is at 10, they’re not showing up at 10:15. They want to be there because they want to facilitate a vision. It’s not that it is just my work. It is as much their work as it is mine, but it is the vision that is so much bigger that any of us.”
Dancer Charissa Kroeger was quoted in the LA Times as saying, “it is the drama of Jonas’ choreography that is one of its most appealing traits.” She went on to say, “Some creators go about their work based strictly on emotion. Jacob starts with a concept and approaches it through physicality, and the physicality brings out the emotion. It’s energetic rather than portrayed.”
I asked Jonas about this statement of Kroeger’s. “Charissa was involved in a project called Fly, which is a very rigorous and physically demanding piece.” He said. “I guess, because I grew up as a street performer, emotion wasn’t the priority. It was always about how can you blow it up? How explosive can you be, because you have an audience standing there for 30 minutes and they’re going to give you money at the end of the show. It was always so athletically appealing, but there was no artistic meaning.”
As he ventured into the concert dance world, Jonas asked himself how he could keep the “explosivity” of street performing, but then have meaning behind it. With his choreography, he thinks about the overall concept or meaning of what he is working on, but doesn’t always relate that to his dancers. He also likes to find ways to have dancers inspire him through how they move. As a director, Jonas likes to ask them “What can I do to pull out of you what is needed. After all, that is what the audience is going to see and relate to.”
We spoke about his competitiveness, with himself mostly, and his statement in an LA Times article by Jessica Gelt, “Artists fail when they aren’t able to make their art a brand.” Growing up with certain insecurities and making the decision not to go to college, Jonas wants the profession of an artist to be as important as that of a doctor or a lawyer. He was at the Kennedy Center in New York and heard Board Chair David Rubenstein and artist Yo Yo Ma speak about “the importance of being an artist and how we are contributing as much as an engineer or a scientist.” He quoted them as stating that “to be a citizen artist means that we are contributing to society.”
“The idea of branding, and the other things that I’ve said,” He added. “I’m trying to tell everybody, ‘look, I’m spending so much hard work on this because I want to show everyone that it is important.’” After being in the business longer and having exposure to the community, he realizes that his statements may have been insulting to those who have been in this business much longer. He never meant to offend anyone.
Jonas stressed to me how he wants everybody’s dance to succeed, not just his own. He genuinely cares if others succeed because if they do, then everyone succeeds. The ones who graduate with an MFA now more often set their sights on becoming university faculty members, as that is where the financial stability is. “These young kids who are passionate about dance are so bright, and there are so much more resources and information that we could be giving them, that I have learned the past five years of doing this.” Jonas said. He feels, and it is true, that what he has learned could and should be taught in university dance departments along with technique, composition, dance history and repertory. “What I’ve learned is very teachable” he stressed.
Some in the dance community have reacted negatively toward Jonas because one of his first full evening concerts was commissioned by the Wallis Annenberg Center of Performing Arts. In reality, Jonas worked very hard for that gig. He is not just a talented artist, he is an excellent businessman; a quality that is necessary to succeed in this current environment.
Jacob Jonas is also the creator of #CamerasandDancers on Instagram. At age 17 he became interested in photography and worked to create a photo book of famous dancers. The book never materialized, but through that process he learned about dance photography. Jonas produces this Instameet called #CamerasandDancers. He partners with an institution such as a museum or library, a dance company and with a photographer who has a large following. There is a different shoot each month, with an equal ratio of dancers and photographers to create as many photographs as possible. Jacob Jonas The Company has around 80,000 followers on Instagram and #CamerasandDancers has a portfolio of 35 different meets.
I led the conversation toward how Jonas feels about his work as an artist. He told me that he thinks what makes art so unique “is that art is a response to your life experience, and that is why no one’s art can be the same because it’s only a response to what you’ve lived though. So, I’ve had the life that I’ve had, and my work should reflect how I feel about it. How I feel about life, routine and how the things that I observe and want to change or acknowledge.”
“When it comes to creative concepts,” He added. “I always want to tell stories. If I’m not telling stories narratively, then I want to design. I think about architecture and design. A beautiful building may not have a story behind it, but it’s gorgeous to look at. I want audiences to walk away and question ideas. I want them to have a response to what I do, not to just say ‘that was great’.”
Jacob Jonas The Company is performing January 11, 12, & 13 at the Side Door Theater. Jonas is presenting two older works titled One Me and One Pair Off premiering two dance films and a new work titled Regret Minimalization Framework. Performances are at 8 PM and tickets are $25. Seating is limited, so purchase your tickets now. For venue location and tickets, click here.
Cover Photo: Brad Romano (@bradromano)
To visit the LA Chronicle Performance Calendar, click here.