Assembly Hall played at the Vancouver Playhouse from October 26 to 28, presented by DanceHouse. The production is now touring across the country.
Death, absence, arguments, stages within stages and the wistful hearkening towards something magical and ancient, like a cry that echoes across worlds – Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s newest dance-theatre collaboration, Assembly Hall, premiered at the Vancouver Playhouse to a sold-out house on Oct. 26.
At first there are only chairs strewn across the stage, like the remains of a battlefield, with one slumped-over disposed body. The piece opens with dancer Renée Sigouin in a sky-blue turtleneck and attempting to revive a fallen man, played by Gregory Lau. Sigouin places one hand on his chest, which brings him up but does not give him full access to his limbs. In a comically ineffectual manner, she manipulates him limb by limb and we can’t tell if the goal is to stand or to dance. As this is happening, the rest of the cast fills the stage.
The premise of the piece, with an original script by Young, is a gathering of medieval re-enactors deciding the fate of their organization. There is something nostalgic about the hall where they meet: water-stained walls; a worn basketball hoop above a velvet-curtained, elevated stage; a lone flag; red exit signs above double doors. It is the gym of my elementary school, or yours, immaculately tired; all that’s missing is the scent of rubber basketballs and dust.
Eight characters gather for the meeting, and Robert’s Rules are put to use. They speak but their mouths do not move perfectly – the dancers are only “miming” (like other Pite-Young works, the script was pre-recorded by actors). This is disorienting at first but soon disappears into the background. Their conversation is lively and they talk over each other. “Did anyone bring coffee?” They move chairs. “I love the idea of a semicircle.”
The dancers’ movements are a mesmerizing study of gestures, frequent and overdone.Something about the assembly’s antics, the social choreography of opposing personalities, strikes a chord with downtown Vancouverites – there was a lot of laughter.
We hear a voice singing in the distance, and then suddenly, we are tumbling into the first of many fever dreams. Pite’s sharp eye for organizing movement is applied to a medieval fight scene and dramatized to epic video game-style music. The stage is full of swords, javelins and shields; people are dying; a huge flag is waved to signal a revolution. Everything happens so quickly it almost doesn’t have time to register, then we’re back to fluorescent lights, back to the meeting.
In Betroffenheit (2015) and Revisor (2019), Kidd Pivot plays with the line between narrative and abstraction, but Assembly Hall seems to dismiss it entirely. A myth runs alongside the plot – the subject of the assembly’s 93 years of medieval re-enactment. As the work unfolds, scenes from the myth occur alongside the meeting until the two become entangled.
Assembly Hall is brazenly meta – there is literally a stage within a stage. As characters move between them, distinctions between story, myth and abstraction fall away.
Unlike the tired hall, the enchanted world behind the stage is enlivened by gorgeous costumes and beautiful painted backdrops. It is a world in need of a hero, where a woman in a white dress despairs in a magical forest, and kings and knights dine at a table with candlesticks. These vignettes awaken the imagination, but are they only a re-enactment or really happening in another dimension? “You can’t go back,” says the woman (Sigouin) to our anti-hero, Dave (Lau), when he crosses the boundary. Then the seal is broken: soon all the dancers are dressed like Dave, with shiny helmets, executing perfect unison floorwork and canons that resemble stop-motion animation.
Assembly Hall flips unexpectedly from despair to levity and back again, the distance perhaps too great to get emotionally invested. In moments of transition, the dancers glitch and contort under fluttering lights. The effect is as virtuosic and creepy but could perhaps be used more sparingly.
Once one lets go of the desire to unpack it all, there is some amazing dancing to enjoy: fluid, morphing group sequences are punctuated by lifts; there is a sweeping duet between Sigouin and Lau to the crackling sounds of a speaker full of emotional connection; an at first unsettling scene where Rena Narumi, bird-like, “feeds on” Brandon Alley’s battle-ravaged body develops into a gorgeous gravity-defying pas de deux.
Underneath all the narrative layers, there is the curious motif of the empty chair and a repeated phrase, “the one containing multitudes.” After a violent, unexpected murder (foreshadowed by the beginning), the group finally achieves harmony as they attempt to collectively animate a suit of armour. Is it loss that finally binds them together in space and time?
Assembly Hall fades out on a dark and somewhat ominous note, though there is a thread of hope: perhaps we are all the knight, with power to change the story.
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