Where the Boys Are

Johannes Malchow

Martial artists who compete against each other want to defeat their opponent – it is a struggle for superiority. Yotam Peled takes a different path: he lets his performers not only fight, but also pause, collapse, fail – until their vulnerability becomes visible. The clash of bodies becomes a play of forces to discover one’s own weaknesses and strengths in the opponent. Space is created for new ways of touching – playful, tender – that we rarely allow ourselves in everyday life. A conversation.

Yotam Peled


Yotam Peled

For ten days, together with two professional fighters, he explored the similarities between combat and dance practices. The result is a half-hour performance entitled “Where the boys are”. It will not be seen again in this form. But it will continue to develop in order to become visible again as part of the platform “Explore Dance” in March 2023 at Fabrik Potsdam.

Yotam Peled, the title of your “work in progress” contribution was “Where the Boys are.” Why this title?

It is the title of a music track I really like listening to. I first knew it as a cover – though I didn’t know it was a cover back then – in which a man sings a line that goes “Where the boys are, someone waits for me.” Then I realized that the song was actually originally sung by a woman (Connie Francis, 1960), and that the cover was by a male singer who covers a lot of love songs written by women to men, because there simply are no songs of admiration written by men for men. What interested me is the fact that it is about “where the boys are.” And then I started to deconstruct it: where can be a place, but it can also be a state of mind. “Where” is a state that we can find together, by asking the boys what their “crazy” is, where they want to go, what fantasies they have that they can fulfill alone or together, and what pain they might have that they are afraid of sharing.

The song was also an invitation to reflect on boyishness versus adult masculinity. On how we allow ourselves a certain level of intimacy or innocence, an approach to the other, an ability to share the same space – which adult men usually have a hard time doing. I love this idea of allowing yourself to go a bit mad, and to be and do things that you don’t normally allow yourself to be or do. I think especially as a man, you are expected to stay stable, to be reserved, not to let your emotions out, not to be foolish, not to be childish. This boyish play/fight element occurs a lot in the piece; it is something that I think happens a lot among boys or even young animals.

And then on another level, it touches on my reflection as a queer, gay man, and the fact that for most of my life, I have felt uncomfortable in masculine spaces, and safer around women. This is the first creation for some time where I work with men – in this case men who have a martial arts background. This was a beautiful exchange. Andreas and Nicolas, the two performers, have never actually danced. Andreas originally comes from a boxing background, Nicolas from wrestling, and both are now practicing kung fu.


It is interesting that you succeeded in inviting two professional fighters to participate in a dance project.

When I invited them to be a part of this contemporary dance project, connotations of craziness immediately came to their minds. “Are we going to do crazy things?” they asked. “Are we going to have to get naked?” “Do we have to do crazy things on stage?” Because that was their idea of contemporary dance performance. And we laughed about it and talked about it, and I said, “No, you’re probably just going to do what you want to do; we’re going to work together.”

You have a martial arts background yourself – maybe that helped to convince them?

Yes, it definitely helped because I went through that process myself – going from athletics, martial arts, and acrobatics to dance. I think I’ve always worked with my body and moved, so that wasn’t the hard part, but being expressive, being creative, being vulnerable and exposing myself – that was a huge thing. Maybe it was interesting to experience that myself first and then to experience it with them, even though we have very different martial arts backgrounds. The martial art that I have been doing since the age of 13 is capoeira. Capoeira is a non-contact martial art, which means you don’t really fight by touching or overpowering the other person; it is not competitive, whereas wrestling or boxing, for example, are fighting disciplines that have more of an impact on the body. You can get hurt, and you can exhaust or defeat your partner. So there is a big difference. But at the same time there is a common language that can bring us together.

How does it make you feel when you practice capoeira?

I think there is a rush. There is an excitement. There is a certain necessity or urgency to the moment. It is very instinctive. It connects me to an ancient, dormant or animal side of me that somehow takes over. Everything is very simple, very vivid, and very energetic. That’s my experience with non-contact martial arts.


You started dancing after your military service in Israel. Did your army experience influence this decision to turn to dance?

I started dancing when I was 21, after completing my 3 years of military service. I can’t say what would have happened if I had grown up in another country – I’m not sure I could have danced at 18. Having reached that level of maturity, but also having had the experience of military service made me understand that I needed to do something for myself. After three years of serving someone else, becoming something for someone else – putting politics aside – but just being in a system like that, where your body is a vessel, where it does not belong to you, where you have to endure, to wait, to serve – after that experience it was clear to me that the choice I was going to make now was for me. To really find what I needed, and not be afraid.

For a long time, maybe my whole life, there was a part of me that wanted to dance. But after I finished my military service, I realized: I didn’t owe anything to anyone. There was a kind of catharsis. I had not been doing combat service, my life and my body had not been in danger, so I was privileged in that sense. But it was still a lot to take in. Funnily enough, when I started creating my own work, my first dance pieces were really about deconstructing a lot of patterns used in the army. For example, in my piece “Boys don’t cry,” I used uniforms, boots, a lot of drills, roles, commands, shouts, and body positions in systematic ways. As this was my first piece, it was easiest for me to deal with the body in that way, while later I was able to soften it up a bit.

So dance was a way to process that army experience?

Yes. When we talk about masculinity, I think that not only in Israel, but in general, many men carry their army experiences as some kind of scar or trauma, like an unresolved issue. In my case, I don’t think I have experienced anything that has left a real scar on me, but I know that many others have. And our society doesn’t necessarily give us space to transform those experiences. Even among the men who serve, there is not that intimacy that allows them to always rely on each other, to support each other, to cry for each other, to hold each other – you know, all the things that you need to do when you are 18 or 19 years old and you go through such difficult things.

What else did you find in dance?

I remember my first steps in dance: I felt as though I was in a completely different body, I found myself taking a different approach to my body. When I started doing martial arts, I had to toughen up a lot. I had to be strong, I had to be something. In a way, dance allowed me to be soft. It allowed me to experience myself in a more vulnerable, exposed way and to question whether my body had to be a certain way. Many questions of gender, masculinity, and sexuality came up as part of this process. I started dancing without being too intellectual. The only thing I had to think about was: do I have to be this way, or can I be different? When I was doing martial arts, I always had this idea that came from myself, but also from my teachers or colleagues, that there was a defined way I should be. Whereas in dance, I found that I had more options.


How was the idea of combining fighting and dance practices born?

In Berlin there is a martial arts studio called “Fenriz,” which focuses on mixed martial arts and jiu-jitsu. I have been giving acrobatics workshops there for the last five years, and I was always very taken with the people who trained there. When I came to teach the workshop, I would see people fighting, and I was kind of excited to see them. For me, it was almost like a performance. There was a necessity and simplicity to the way they were searching together, playing with and overpowering each other. There was something that drew me in.

So I asked a friend and colleague of mine, Aska?, if she would like to do a project together with me in the gym. The main focus was on finding out where dance and martial arts meet – from a very practical perspective of footwork, armwork, tension, patterns of movement, to questions about how we treat each other in space, and spiritual aspects. It was actually very surprising how simple it was.

My friend and I, who are more into dance, were both surprised to see how many aspects there are to dance as well. Andreas and Nicolas, the performers in “Where the boys are,” were also involved in this project. That is how I got to know them. So this residency (in Zurich) was a continuation of that project.


When I saw the performance, I thought about the term “martial arts” for the first time. Is martial arts more art than fighting?

Yes – in fact, there is a whole world around it. It is not just a physical encounter; yes, some of it involves opponents fighting, but that is not the main aspect. From what I have heard and seen of martial artists, I would say that they meet themselves much more than they meet each other.

Martial arts involves not only physical practice, but also meditation work, reflection work, a whole spiritual practice. Especially in the East Asian martial arts. As you say, we are talking about martial arts; I definitely see those who practice them as artists, not fighters, even though sometimes it is hard for them to call themselves artists. I see their artistry in every move they make.

The two performers inspired me a lot. They are complete human beings and bodies. They both attend a kung fu school, and in kung fu there is a lot of work with elements like water, fire, earth, and metal, or with different animals and their styles of fighting. This in itself is a whole universe you can work with.

So I learned from them, simply by observing them in their practice, seeing how they encountered each other, seeing their courage, seeing their wildness. And then I tried to understand it and deconstruct it.


At the same time, martial arts is about fighting, even if this happens in a very controlled way. What role does violence play? And what is your relationship with violence?

In relation to the performance, I found it interesting that the elements that I felt were more violent or aggressive were not necessarily the physical encounters between the two performers. We talked about it sometimes. Violence can be directed towards yourself rather than towards the other body.

What is your own relationship to violence?

I would say I am not a violent person. So I was a little afraid sometimes to choreograph the two performers fighting and hitting each other, but they needed it, they liked it. They don’t just like it because they want to hurt the other person, they like it because they need this encounter with the other body; it helps them understand things, it helps them soften, it helps them release tension. It allows them to learn from each other. So it is a very complex way of seeing the other.

I think we often look at violence as coming from a place of cruelty and power because we see it in war, we see it when someone abuses another, when someone uses violence against a helpless person; but when martial artists or professional fighters meet, the violence comes from a place of respect and understanding and is part of a game. They both have power. That is very different from a person hitting another person in the street.

I also recognize that I have violent or aggressive patterns inside of me that I personally have expressed through dance. When I look at my last creation, it is very violent – quite dark, even. I throw my body into a lot of difficult positions; I think a lot of dancers do that in their work. Sometimes the violence we exercise towards ourselves is much bigger than that we exercise towards a partner, especially when there is an agreement between the two.


There was a moment in the performance when the two performers were punching the wall. Was this an illustration of violence against ourselves?

Yes. Or when they were punching themselves, for example. For me, these moments are also violent – not necessarily in a dark way, but in this expression of pain. I work a lot with pain. For me, pain is evident; it exists, there is no way to avoid it. So for me, it should exist on stage and in my work – because I don’t want to hide it. I still feel a great need or desire to work with pain and transform it, to let it out. And maybe throwing yourself against the wall is a way of working with your pain that is healthy to some extent.

Is martial arts a healthier way to release violence rather than internalizing or suppressing it?

Yes. My sister is a yoga teacher and has moved into therapy, and she does what is called shadow work. Part of this shadow work involves giving a physical and emotional space to the sensations that we usually internalize or suppress because they cannot exist in the public space. We cannot be really loud or mad or cry or show anger; there is a whole range of emotions and sensations, even experiences or trauma that we have been through, or thoughts we have had, that we cannot express.

But they get stored in our body; the body remembers them. So it is almost like they continue to vibrate inside us and need a spaceto be, to exist in reality. And I think that’s a very good reason to fight, to dance, to shout, to play. Children practice that much more than adults.

We recently did a piece called “Alpha,” which is about club culture, because you see a lot of emotionality in club culture, especially in Berlin. Rage and joy. A great range of emotions. You can tell that people need that. It is like a community ritual: People get together to let it out, to be emotional.


Does martial arts also offer a place for men to get close to other men – not in a sexual way, but to experience affection and intimacy, something that is not always possible in most societies to the extent it is for women?

Yes (laughs). That is true to a certain extent. Yes, it is a space to be intimate, to have affection, to have emotions. To share something with the other person. In capoeira, for example, I could sing and dance and fight and play with other men in a way I never would have otherwise. However, there was something about the touch that was always pragmatic. The hands, for example, only touched to do something: to manipulate, to hit, to lift, to scratch – they have to have a pragmatic function. They do not just touch for the sake of touching.

I am very happy that we managed to introduce into the work the touch that is simply there to feel the other. What are you going through right now? To support, to understand, to communicate, to sense, to guide, to just be present. I loved it, because when we invited that kind of touch, or sometimes stayed in one position and breathed together, it allowed the performers to melt into each other, to find softness, find comfort, as well as enabling them to support each other or even to make jokes with each other’s bodies.

There is something special in this ability to comfort each other physically without it being sexual in any way. Because it is easy for us to hug the opposite sex, and maybe women can embrace each other rather easily, too, but men and men not so much, I would say. I am very happy that the performers were also open to that.

And there is one theme that came up a lot, both from them and from me: The idea of companionship, of supporting each other. Of being together on the same journey. How can you define this physical and emotional intimacy between men? There is the idea of rivalry, or of brotherhood. But those types of relationships are often coded in masculine terms, whereas with companionship, I think, you are just being very close to the other. With the other. This was a nice term.


Another term you used in the description of the performance was “vulnerability.” I’m curious about the insights you have gained through your work on vulnerability.

This is a practice I have been using for myself as a performer for several years now. I am very happy that a choreographer I worked with introduced me to the idea, and since then, part of everything I do involves failing. Not being afraid of surrendering or weaknesses, of dark sides. But mostly, not being afraid of failure. Making fun of myself instead. And using it in dance, as a technique, as a way of communicating. For me, vulnerability relates a lot to being approachable, to being human, as compared to, say, more classical art forms, where – especially in dance – the performer is perfect and exists solely as something very graceful, showing only courage, strength, and skill.

For me, vulnerability is allowing yourself to experience other sides of yourself. Sides that exist, maybe, when you are alone; fears you have, doubts. I like to play with it in a very simple way, showing and exposing it, but also sometimes by making a joke out of it; for example in the performance, by hitting the wall, or hitting oneself, or collapsing, falling, shaking. For me, it is much more interesting both as a performer, but also as an audience, to see performers go through this, rather than just showing how great they are.

Do you think, as an artist, you can go further once you allow for vulnerability?

For sure. It is not easy, especially because what you feel and share is not always well received by the audience. So it can also be traumatizing. I also don’t think the stage is necessarily a place to bring out everything. It can also be tough for the audience. I (as part of an audience) don’t necessarily want to know all your problems.

But I think it is necessary to exist. To be on the stage. There is a big part of me that won’t fully exist if I hide it and keep it in the shadows and don’t put it on stage. I will only be half of who I am – and the audience will only see half of me. But the more I let it exist, the more I find a connection with the audience. They can relate to what is happening because they can see themselves in the performance. First of all because they are failing as well. I think it is liberating and interesting to have space for that as a community. Of course, I am not going to pretend that I’m a community healer. I create performances.


As a choreographer, what do you want the audience to feel and experience?

I think the first and most important thing is that I want the audience to connect with their feelings and their bodies. I feel like this is kind of a lost art. The sense of existing physically in space. Living in Berlin, for example, a lot of very good performance work is very intellectual, and my body and my heart are often not present in the theater. So I see myself in that role, at least in my work, as one who introduces that and ensures there is no wall separating the audience from the performers.

And then, let’s say, more specifically in this performance, the idea of shedding layers, setting aside our armor. We have these shells that protect us. And I would like to create a space in this performance where it is okay to let go of these shells, to be other things, to show ourselves.

The process that I go through with the performers is a major one in the sense of them understanding who they want to be, how they feel about their bodies, how they feel about each other; and I would like the audience to get closer to themselves in that way, to reconnect with their own bodies, but also with something inside themselves. An inner child, an inner being that is maybe lost somewhere under layers of intellect and or social codes. Like a liberating experience, to some extent.

Maybe also to be foolish. I let myself go slowly with choreography. I’m still a young choreographer, I am starting and figuring out my way, but I’ve noticed that the first works I did were so serious. The topics are very heavy, a lot of drama, a lot of darkness, and I like that too, it is a part of me, but in this work, I allowed myself to have fun. It is great and beautiful when people can smile and laugh. I think it is important that people can have fun. When our performance is over, I like to see a lot of audience members with a smile or an expression of relief on their faces. Or a sign that something has been awakened in them.


As you explained, the show I saw was not a ready-made performance, but the result of a ten-day research residency. Will it disappear again? Was it ephemeral?

It will evolve or disappear. I don’t think it will disappear. My experience here at Tanzhaus Zurich has been wonderful – there was no pressure to produce anything. It is a space given to you as an artist to do what you want. My feeling is that we will continue to work together, even if it is in a different format.