Choreographer Roy Assaf lets his dance do the talking

Hadar Younger and Roy Assaf perform in Assaf’s “Six Years Later.”
Photo by Gadi Dagon

Don’t believe everything you read about Roy Assaf’s choreography.

The Israeli-born dancemaker doesn’t enjoy speaking about his work and has, in the past, allowed others to take the lead in describing and marketing his dances to the public.

“Maybe I need to be more careful” about what appears in the program notes, he says during an interview via Skype.

He’s speaking between long, thoughtful pauses about two choreographic pieces that comprise “An Evening,” which brings this rising choreographer from Ramat Gan to the Washington area for the first time.

“An Evening” takes place Friday at CityDance at the Strathmore Music Center, then moves to Dance Place in Washington on Saturday and Sunday.

Assaf — his first name is pronounced Ro-EE — grew up on a farming moshav, Sde Moshe. It was there he began dancing — no lessons — just dancing. For family occasions and holidays everyone always waited to see Roy dance. He didn’t start formal lessons until his teens. At 16, he began a Friday afternoon dance class at the nearby community center in Kiryat Gat where the teacher taught the group dances to pop hits, like Madonna’s “Rescue Me.”

“I wonder if Michael Jackson had a formal education in dance,” Assaf said. “There’s no doubt that he was a marvelous and famous dancer. Is there someone who told him how to dance, how to move? He had no ballet, no modern dance. I’m a little like Michael Jackson.”

At 18, he signed on for his required army service, joining the elite paratroopers unit. He still danced at the community center on his weekends off. Nearing the end of his military service, he took an unscheduled leave to attend a class by choreographer Emmanuel Gat. His three-hour pass was just enough time to take class and have his father drive him back to the base.

After the class, in the car, he got a call offering him a spot in Gat’s company. Assaf danced and choreographed with Gat from 2003 through 2010 before moving to the Netherlands, where he did a stint with NND company.

“An Evening” features “Six Years Later,” a nuanced and intricate duet, which received first prize in an international choreographic competition. The piece could be about a relationship with its closeness and its struggles. Assaf tries to demur, when asked about the work’s inspiration.

“I don’t [like] to give a synopsis to my dances,” he says. “In all my dances there are shreds from my personal experience, but as humans we share the same experiences.”

“The Hill” has often been viewed as a piece that commemorates the bloody battle of the 1967 Six Day War on Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill, where 36 paratroopers were killed by Jordanian soldiers. But not exactly, Assaf says. He described the process, which evolved over eight months in the studio. First it was a male solo, but he so loved the way the dancer moved that he decided to join him. It became a duet, then a group work. Adding music toward the end of the process sealed the deal.

The music he selected, “The Israeli Army March” and “Giv’at HaTahmoshet,” lends a militaristic feel to the work, and the movement performed by an all-male cast features collegial folkdance-like chains contrasting with kinetic falling, catching, grasping and crawling.

Assaf says: “You don’t need to live in a war zone in order to feel compassion, to feel for others who are dealing with it, or to feel frightened, or to feel very deeply. Or to feel a conflict. What is a conflict about, in a relationship or between countries? Even though I’m sharing something that might be from my personal experience, in a deeper way it relates to everyone.”

He adds: “When I started to work on ‘The Hill,’ I didn’t say, ‘We’re going to make a piece about war, about soldiers’ brotherhood, about my personal army experiences.’” And, the piece resonates, with its militaristic march, its all-male cast and its images of collegiality amid battle. But it wasn’t intended to be only about Israeli military conflict. Yet, Assaf says the song — and the physical images — have become ingrained in Israel’s DNA and that, too, carries meaning.

And it begs the political question. Assaf, like his many Israeli contemporaries in the dance field, insists he is not a political artist. “I just can say the political situation in Israel bothers me. I think about it a lot. It’s a part of my routine. … I’m a human being who is bothered by many things. I’m using dance sometimes, as a filter, maybe unconsciously.”

Roy Assaf Dance in “An Evening,” Oct. 6, CityDance at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda. $15. Lisa Traiger will lead a post-show conversation with Assaf after this performance. Oct. 7 and Oct. 8 at Dance Place, 3225 8th St. NW, Washington. $15-$30. For information, call 202-269-1600 or visit

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