The Telegraph NOVEMBER 21, 2011 - by Sarah Crompton



Sarah Crompton visits New York to discover more about the glamorous Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative.

The Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative has to be one of the world's most extraordinary arts programmes. For one thing, it is so glamorous. It aims to pair mentors, famous in their fields, with rising stars in the same sphere: and since its inception in 2002 it has attracted mentors of the calibre of Martin Scorsese, William Forsythe, David Hockney, Jessye Norman, Sir Peter Hall, and Toni Morrison.

Although money is involved - the mentor is paid fifty thousand dollars and the protégé is given twenty-five thousand dollars plus another twenty-five thousand dollars towards making a work - there is no obligation on anyone to produce a piece of work at the end of the two year cycle. All they are asked to do, is to hold a creative conversation of some sort, the mentor supporting the protégé in their chosen endeavours.

In fact, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the programme whose previous protégé have included the painter Matthias Weischer, the film-maker and writer Julia Leigh and the violinist David Aaron Carpenter, is how much the mentors appear to enjoy the shot of energy given to them by their younger charges.

This year's raft of pairings were theatre and opera director Peter Sellars with Lebanese theatre director Maya Zbib; choreographer Trisha Brown with Australian dance maker Lee Serle; artist Anish Kapoor with South African artist Nicholas Hlobo; musician Brian Eno with Australian composer Ben Frost; German literary giant Hans Magnus Enzensberger with American poet Tracy K Smith; filmmakers Zhang Yimou from China and Annemarie Jacir from the Palestinian Territories.

When they came together in New York, to share their experiences of the year (with only Zhang Yimou absent), the overriding sense was what a two-way process it had been. Serle, who made a dance work performed inside the New York Public Library, was protectively warm towards Brown; Enzensberger had encouraged Smith to write a memoir and she had relished leaving the solitary life of a writer to link up both with him and with her fellow protégés, past and present.

Eno and Frost had formed a bond through email, text messages and visits to one another at work which they believe will continue and deepen; Kapoor was glad to have met Hlobo at a point where he was struggling to find the freedom to think as the demand for his work was growing.

Sellars summed up the mood: "It is crucial for us to know the members of a new generation of artists. They give us energy."

His relationship with Zbib has been particularly warm, enriching for both of them. He visited her and watched her at work in the Lebanon; she invited him into her home. She, on the other hand, saw him direct a production of Handel's Hercules.

"This has not just been an artistic relationship," says Zbib. "It is also a human relationship, and it's very true and deep." Sellars agrees. He says that seeing Zbib and the Zoukak Theatre Company at work in Beirut changed his mind about many things. "It was profound. I spent fifteen years staging four works by the great Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf and yet I had never been to Lebanon. I thought I knew something, but I arrived there and I found I had a lot to learn."

The Rolex Arts Weekend itself is a rich brew of performance and conversation - culminating in a dinner for almost five hundred people at the Lincoln Center, where Jessye Norman sang Climb Ev'ry Mountain to inspire the next generation of mentors who include Margaret Atwood, Gilberto Gil and Walter Murch.

The meetings, both formal and informal, encouraged conversations about culture's role in society - and the ideas expressed were often echoed in the work performed. For example, Sellars had talked in a public conversation at the NYPL, about the way art needed to create space for people to think. He said we were being fed a culture of distraction when what was needed was a different kind of stimulation.

Brian Eno, in the same discussion, suggested that artists should become gardeners rather than architects, sowing the seeds of thought rather than prescribing structures and solutions.

Neither man had at that point seen Zbib's work The Music Box, normally performed in people's homes, which invites people into a room filled with magic lanterns in which she tells the stories of Lebanese women. It was a piece which in its own way fulfilled exactly what they were suggesting.

At the same time, the sheer internationalism of the Rolex Arts Weekend, meant that discussions about the power of art to change society arose naturally. For Zbib, in order to help stimulate debate within Lebanon, it is important to make politicians more aware of theatre and to break out beyond the artistic elite which it currently serves. "So what we do to make politicians notice us and to create a stir is to go to places where there isn't any theatre."

This is a similar credo to Sellars's belief that art is both political and powerful because it creates a different arena for debate and thought. "The most important thing is that art is poetic, and not a news broadcast. If it is not done with beauty you shouldn't do it. For me, art is an alternative to propaganda. Finally, someone is not trying to convince you of something, but to lead you to really subtle truths that are much more interesting than anything we have space for in our current political system."