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."