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Two years ago in New York, at the start of the sixth biennial cycle of the Rolex Mentors and Protégés Arts Initiative, I talked to Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil about his forthcoming mentoring role. On Sunday, this time in Venice, I listened to him on stage in a rollicking gig with his protégée of the previous year, Egyptian singer Dina El Wedidi, in a wild, strange fusion of bossa nova rhythms and Arabic folksong-turned-soft-rock, complete with ecstatic drumming, electric guitars, flute and keyboard.

As if that weren’t unlikely enough, they were playing, as part of the Arts Weekend that celebrates the culmination of each two-year cycle, underneath huge medieval tapestries in the Cini Foundation, on San Giorgio Maggiore – a surreal backdrop.

That cross-cultural fusion is typical of this programme. Across seven artforms (architecture was added for the first time in this cycle), it aims to revive traditional ideals of apprenticeship in the arts by pairing an established maestro with an early-career practitioner. These are selected by international nominating committees, and are certainly wide-ranging: many duos do not inhabit the same continent; some do not even have a language in common.

So for this year’s dance pair there was only one way: Eduardo Fukushima simply moved from São Paulo to join the company of his Taiwanese mentor Lin Hwai-min. Fukushima’s mesmerisingly odd solo dance performance in the monastic dining hall of San Giorgio Maggiore, under the vast Veronese “Wedding at Cana”, will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Other art forms entailed less drastic action than moving across the world: the internet makes possible all sorts of artistic communication and collaboration. The scheme doesn’t require an end-product of any sort, but several duos went well beyond the minimum. Novelist Margaret Atwood hauled her charge, Londoner Naomi Alderman, into the great Canadian outdoors before the two jointly produced an online comic zombie novel, and their hilarious session on Sunday saw two of the blood-spattered undead lumbering about the monastery’s library.

Similarly, Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, of the Tokyo-based firm Sanaa, invited her Chinese pupil Yang Zhao to work with her on building a “Home for All” for the community in an area devastated by the 2011 tsunami. And the rapport between legendary film editor Walter Murch and his Italian pupil Sara Fgaier seemed to have been strong; Fgaier spent weeks in New York working with Murch on the feature documentary Particle Fever. Murch is the first editor to follow in a line of high-profile directors (Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Mira Nair) as film mentors.

The Arts Weekend, when all the artistic pairs come together (with the sad exception of theatre director Patrice Chéreau, who had died just two weeks earlier) proved fruitful in surprising cross-disciplinary ways. A series of “speed talks” asked the protégés to chose an interviewee from another discipline for a strictly timed 12-minute onstage Q&A. The choices, and the results, ranged from the bizarre to the inspired. Alderman quizzed photographer Cindy Sherman about the nexus of horror and comedy in her work: when the lights snapped off at the 12-minute timeout, the audience gave a collective groan of disappointment.

And between the senior figures, too, there was cross-fertilisation of interests: visual and video artist William Kentridge found common ground with Murch’s film work; Sejima’s emphasis on grassroots participation in architecture had Gil nodding solemnly. Thus the passing-on of artistic knowledge – the programme’s explicit aim – runs laterally as well as vertically.

The Rolex Institute, the philanthropic division of Rolex SA, is in typical Swiss fashion reticent about how much it spends on its programmes. Its Awards for Enterprise, which support scientific and environmental projects, have been running since 1976; there are also educational and technological sponsorships. But even without hard facts, it is obvious from the ambition of the Arts Initiative that it’s a very significant spend indeed. Shouldn’t this contribution to the arts be spread more widely, rather than lavished on so few individual artists? was one question at Monday’s press conference. Possibly. But the thrust of this scheme is excellence, its aims high rather than wide. It’s a point of view.

For the mentors of the next cycle, see rolexmentorprotege.com


In the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, from top left:

Architecture: Yang Zhao, from China, next to his mentor Kazuyo Sejima and adviser Daniel Libeskind

Theatre: Charlotte Rampling and Marthe Keller stand on either side of Poland’s Michal Borczuch, protégé of French director Patrice Chéreau, who died last month

Dance: Eduardo Fukushima from Brazil, with adviser Nina Ananiashvili and his mentor, the Taiwanese choreographer Lin Hwai-min

Literature: Naomi Alderman, former mentor Hans Magnus Enzensberger and this year’s mentor Margaret Atwood

Film: Walter Murch and his protégée Sara Fgaier of Italy, and former mentor Mira Nair

Music: Gilberto Gil with protégée Dina El Wedidi and former mentor Youssou N’Dour

Special guests and presenters: Susan Platts, former music protégée, Robert Wilson, former theatre mentor, and Sophia Loren

Visual arts: William Kentridge with past mentor Anish Kapoor and this year’s protégé Mateo López

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