Roy Assaf: The Hill and Ate9 Dance Company: Exhibit b
Tuesday, July 18
Reynolds Industries Theater

If I hadn’t seen the program notes, would I have known that both pieces in the show shared by Roy Assaf and Ate9 Dance Company were about Israel?

Probably not. But I might’ve had a sense that both were by Israeli choreographers. Not because of my encyclopedic knowledge of dance makers’ vocabularies, but because there can be something very distinctive about Israeli choreographers and the pieces they create.

Take the Roy Assaf piece, The Hill. Based on the 1967 Israeli folk song “Giv’at HaTahmoshet,” which is about a battle in the Six Day War, the piece is spare, consisting of just three men. After a campy beginning set to patriotic music, the three interact almost constantly: lifting, falling, winding over and under one another with innovative partnering structures and a pace that never lets up.

The men clearly aren’t from this county; the masculinity and heterosexuality in their movements feel too subtle to be American. And yet, unlike so many European dancers, they aren’t virtuosic movers. Had I still not known the company was from Israel, the echoes of folk dancing halfway through the piece would have given it away, together with the expressive movement at the end that hinted, for the first time in the piece, of men in battle, together and yet alienated.

The second piece, Exhibit b by Ate9, has a more obvious Israeli provenance. From the first image—a woman soloing at the back of the stage—it’s obvious that the choreographer used Gaga to create the piece. This movement language, created by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and very popular in Israel, looks different from other styles. Hips, shoulders, and chests jut out or collapse in ways that aren’t typical of modern dance conventions, and it can turn dancers into creatures that only sort of resemble humans.

That’s the case with Exhibit b, which features eight dancers in various formations. The dancers are amazingly technical, their movements almost military in their precision, with particular attention paid to the positions of feet, hands, and heads.

Initially, the piece is deeply satisfying, featuring unusual movements and highly trained dancers—exactly what I appreciate in a modern dance performance. But after a while, the precision begins to feel mechanical, and the dancers’ daring leaps and other pyrotechnics start to look a little like showing off. Unique, unconventional dancing is a hallmark of Israeli choreography, but without a sense of heart or humanity, it’s just empty movement.