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Israeli Dance Master Roy Assaf’s ‘Girls & Boys’

His new show in Tel Aviv opening this week brings delicacy to the raw athletic style that dominates contemporary choreography

Stacey Menchel Kussell
March 05, 2018
Photo: Rosalie O'Conner
From Juilliard's performance of '25 People.'Photo: Rosalie O’Conner
Photo: Rosalie O'Conner
From Juilliard's performance of '25 People.'Photo: Rosalie O’Conner

Roy Assaf has difficulty sitting still. During a recent interview at a café, he would often rise out of his chair, whirl around in a quick turn, and undulate his arms and wrists while gesticulating to express the ideas that his words could not.

With a full beard and shaggy brown hair that falls into piercing hazel eyes, Assaf resembles a carpenter more than a choreographer. His warm earthiness is his trademark, and his pared-down, poignant compositions have made him one of Israel’s most sought-after new voices in contemporary dance. Assaf distills dance from everyday movements, and the effect is strikingly textured and emotional. His performers—typically clad in street clothes or plain leotards—do not portray characters onstage; they play themselves.

“I always start completely blank,” said Assaf about his creative process. “I aim to share an encounter with the dancers and to create an environment from which movement encounters can happen. The studio is a space where we can explore and reveal ourselves without judgment or shame.”

The majority of Israeli choreographers in Assaf’s generation trained with Gaga, the style of movement research developed by dance icon Ohad Naharin. Raw and athletic, the Gaga style is viscerally powerful, but it can lack delicacy. Assaf’s approach stands out in Israeli contemporary dance through his ability to capture dynamic movement while retaining smoothness and sensitivity. Refreshingly unassuming, Assaf’s choreography stuns with simplicity.

In 25 People, a recent commission by Juilliard, Assaf examined the choreographic process through a form of meta-theater. Using improvisational exercises, Assaf crafted the piece from the movements of 25 student dancers. He managed to use every dancer onstage in either short solos, duets, or large group patterns, an impressive feat for such a large cast. Both men and women wore the same nude-colored leotards, an effect that created cohesion amidst chaos, with the dancers shouting “Oooooooooh” and “Ahhhhh” and repeating a similar phrase in different variations—“If you put something into a thought, it becomes a thought” and “If you put something into a jump it becomes a jump.”

Vocalization in dance can be a risky move. Dancers who are not trained voice actors can have difficulty performing movement while speaking. It can be distracting, pretentious, and can even offend a dance viewership that has made the conscious choice to watch movement instead of theater or performance art.

25 People integrated vocalization seamlessly. With the emotional power of a Greek chorus, the dancers’ voices provided the main soundtrack to the piece and offered a type of narration. This combination of dance and speech reinforced each dancer’s voice and alluded to their roles in the creation of the piece itself. As one dancer said onstage, “If you put something into a dance, it becomes a dance.”

Born on a moshav in Sde Moshe, Israel, Assaf was not formally trained as a dancer. As a kid, he would dance at community parties and perform homemade compositions for relatives and friends. He had a natural talent that was recognized by local dance teacher Regba Gilboa, who invited him as a teenager to perform in a youth dance club in Kiryat Gat. There, he was spotted by Emanuel Gat, an Israeli dancer and choreographer who would soon build his own prestigious company in France. Assaf was one of the founding members of Gat’s company and danced with him for six years. This mentorship built the foundation of Assaf’s professional career and ignited his passion to create choreography.

“Roy has incredible musicality and a truly natural way of being in his body,” said Gat in a phone interview. “He is understated, which makes his ideas and explorations of the human condition really easy to see. It was only matter of time before he would start building his own work.”

Assaf’s choreographic career took off quickly, and soon after he left Gat’s company in 2010, he began as an artistic associate at Noord Nederlands Dance in Groningen. He won several choreography competitions in Europe including awards in Copenhagen, Hanover, and Braunschweig.

This past November, two of Assaf’s pieces—Six Years Later and The Hill—were featured at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Both pieces depicted intimate relationships but of very different types. Six Years Later, a duet between Assaf and Madison Hoke, showcased the ebb and flow of a romantic partnership. With a score by Handel, Beethoven, and the Scottish band Marmalade, the piece explored physical proximity. Assaf perched Hoke in the air in fiery overhead lifts and embraced her tightly. Hoke amplified the tenderness of small moments. The simple gesture of her head resting on Assaf’s shoulder was as lush and willowy as an ornate ballet adagio.

If Six Years Later was a romantic drama, The Hill was an action film. Set to the folk songs of Yoram Taharlev about a Six Day War battle, this piece examined fraternal camaraderie. Pulling and pushing each other in turns and jumps the dancers were consistently interlocking arms and folding over one another’s torsos. The choreographed rough-housing revealed the closeness of a unit and the trauma that occurs when a band of brothers is broken.

Assaf made a return to Israel with the creation of Girls and Boys in 2015, initially two separate evening-length works that explored gender and community. The Batsheva Dance Company commissioned him to revisit the work and create a dual piece entitled Girls & Boys, which will open this Friday, March 9, and run for a month at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv.

Girls is about togetherness and contact,” said Ariel Freedman, a longtime dancer with Assaf and original performer in Girls. “The psychological element is strong in regards to exploring femininity, but like most of his works, it all stems from movement. How and why we move together.”

While he continues to be commissioned to create new works all over the world, Assaf maintains Israel as his home base and resides in Ramat Gan with his wife and four children. “It is an equation with many variables,” he explained. “Dance is in the Israeli culture and heritage, but Tel Aviv, in particular, is bursting with energy. All of the artists in a small space keep up a momentum, and we feed off one another. It is a competitive atmosphere but ultimately a really supportive environment.”


Read more of Stacey Menchel Kussell’s dance criticism for Tablet magazine here.

Stacey Menchel Kussell is a culture writer who frequently covers Israeli contemporary dance.