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By Michael Huebner
The Birmingham News
December 06, 2009

 

 During the Second Intifada, a period of intense violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Assaf Benchetrit was wrapping up his shift at guard duty when bullets began whizzing overhead. He reacted like any soldier should — by exercising control and discipline.

“When you hear the bullets, you think, maybe you could get it,” recalled the former Israeli soldier. “You do what you need to do. If you start to think, you get scared. You cannot do that — you just follow orders.”

Benchetrit’s preparations for such circumstances came from a surprising source — the ballet floor.

Before fulfilling mandatory military service starting at age 18, he spent a year studying dance at the Rubin Academy for Music and Dance in his native Jerusalem. It helped shape an attitude that helped him through combat, and to which he would return a few years later.

“I feel ballet helped me in the military,” said the 29-year-old Alabama Ballet dancer. “Ballet gives discipline. In the military, there are people who are very young who need to do things they don’t want to — to be on time, to wake up early with not more than six hours sleep.”

It’s not entirely unlike the grueling rehearsal and performance schedule for “The Nutcracker,” except the most treacherous battle involves an army of mice and a decorative kitchen utensil. Friday through Dec. 20, Benchetrit will perform the holiday classic to Tchaikovsky’s music and Balanchine’s choreography at Samford University’s Wright Center. With Jenna McKerrow Wilson, he will dance the key role of the Cavalier in the Sugarplum pas de deux Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and Dec. 19 at 7:30 p.m.

“He’s great to dance with,” said Wilson, an eight-year Alabama Ballet veteran. “We have very good chemistry, and we can communicate very well. Some people take it very personally if there’s an issue, but we are both committed to having things look the best that they can.”

The duo’s common ground has helped bridge two very distant cultures.”We’re coming from such different places, it’s amazing how we can communicate with ballet,” Benchetrit said.

 

THE FAST TRACK

Even more remarkable is Benchentrit’s quick rise as a dancer. “He has wonderful facility, yet he started so late,” said Artistic Director Tracey Alvey. “He obviously completely fell in love with it. Bottom line, it has to be a passion.”

Though she is less than two years younger than Benchetrit, Wilson has more than twice the experience. “It’s really extraordinary to gain all that knowledge in that short period of time, not only the technical aspects, but telling the story and the presentation,” she said. “Those are things that come with experience.”

Benchetrit, in fact, had never seen a production of “The Nutcracker” before 2004, when he was cast in one — with the Joffrey Ensemble in New York. Raised in Jerusalem, his arts training consisted of classical guitar study and a year of ballet. After the military, he entered college with a math and computer science career in mind, but dance was too alluring to ignore. “I started to take more and more classes because I thought, OK, I will do it just part time,” he said. “I started dancing more and more and thought, let’s give it a chance.”

Gaining experience with the Panov Ballet and the Israeli Ballet, he landed a contract with the Joffrey Ensemble, then with the Arlington, Texas-based Metropolitan Classical Ballet. Last year, he was appointed guest principal dancer with the Jerusalem Dance Theatre.

Coming to Alabama Ballet was a natural transition. “I looked at the requirements and saw that they asked for short dancers (he’s 5 feet, 7 inches),” said Benchentrit. “Being a short dancer can limit you a lot, especially if you dance in an average or tall company. I saw that, and thought, this is what I want.”

After moving to Birmingham in July, he landed principal roles in “The Nutcracker,” and in “Don Quixote,” scheduled for late February. Just days ago, he received permanent resident (green card) status, further cementing his future in America, and at Alabama Ballet.

“Sometimes it’s not about how you dance, but if you fit the company,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better place. I’ll try to give my heart.”

 

Michael Huebner is classical music and dance critic and fine arts writer for The Birmingham News.

 

© 2009 The Birmingham News

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