This Dancemaker Is One of the Most Original Choreographic Voices Today—And He Grew Up Without Formal Training

Photo by Keren Kraizer, courtesy of Assaf

As a child—with no formal dance training—Roy Assaf knew the transformative power of an audience. Starting from the age of 5, he would prepare dances for family gatherings. "I remember that all the guests would form a circle around me," he says, "and I would execute what I had prepared for that event." Now, as one of the most exciting and wholly original choreographic voices today, Assaf has harnessed that ability to transfix onlookers by creating straight-from-the-gut, highly physical dances that intimate complex inner narratives. The bodies in his Israel-based company weave, rebound, change direction, pant heavily and always move with purpose.

His newest work premiered December 6–10 in New York City. This time, instead of choreographing on his core company of a handful of dancers, he created a work on all 24 of the Juilliard third-year dancers.


How he chooses music: "What attracts me is the tension created between a certain piece of music and a certain movement. There almost always has to be a twist—some crucial disagreement between what the music says and what the movement says. It can be a tiny, subtle gap or a blatant dissonance. Every so often, I make the choice to pair music and a movement that are saying, in my view, exactly the same thing. In that case, the twist is in the context—in the contrast between what comes before or after that moment."

How he begins a new piece: "I begin with an excuse—any excuse—which will make everyone in the room move. The excuse can be teaching a bit of material, which often begins to undergo transformation by being handled in a new way, being seen from a different perspective. The excuse can be throwing out a task, which hopefully will trigger the dancers' desire to set off on an adventure. It should bring them to a place where they are personally invested, a place where they are obsessed to keep on exploring."

On working with different-sized casts: "When I'm invited to start a new process, the number of dancers is irrelevant. I work with what I have. It's not easier or harder because of the number. I actually think it's a great advantage when someone makes a decision [about the number of dancers] for you—I like it. It's exactly like the tension between music and movement: It's the encounter between someone else's wish or fantasy and my own."

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Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

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Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

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Courtesy Meg Brooker

As the presidential election approaches, it's a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

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