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Assembly Hall: Motion to Dissolve

by | Oct 27, 2023 | Review | 2 comments

publicity photo for Assembly Hall, Kidd Pivot

Renée Sigouin in Assembly Hall (photo©Michael Slobodian)

Gosh. So many great things.

Assembly Hall, the latest creation from choreographer Crystal Pite and playwright Jonathon Young, is so narratively eccentric it will resonant in different ways for every person who sees it. Let me tell you a bit about what it meant to me.

First, the container. In the set-up, we realize we’re watching the annual general meeting of a medieval re-enactment society, the General Assembly of the Benevolent and Protective Order. The society has fallen on hard times — rising costs, dwindling membership — and they’re going to vote on whether to dissolve the organization. They’ve tried it before and have always ended up tabling the motion.

But we’re not in a literal reality. Like other works from Pite and Young, this is a dance/theatre hybrid. So the eight characters’ voices are recorded and, when we hear that speech, the onstage performers, the dancers, don’t just lip sync the words, they embody them with exaggerated postures and flamboyant gestures. The effect is simultaneously operatic and camp.

The text isn’t mundane either, although it’s concerned with mundanity. When the chair of the society asks if they have quorum, the vice chair notes that every member contains three, including one who leads and one who comes after. She says something like, “In the one, there is a multitude. And, in the multitude, there is one.” So they have quorum.

Then the story unfolds. The chair can’t vote. Three of the remaining members want to dissolve the society and three don’t. That means that Dave, who is so innocuous his chair might as well be empty, has the deciding vote. The others bully Dave into role-playing, give him a medieval helmet, and the reality flips.

In the storybook set on the raised stage of the dusty gym where the re-enactors were assembled, Dave finds himself confronted by a mourning damsel. She’s wearing an extravagant white dress — all netting in the skirt — and she’s weeping: her companion has been murdered. When Dave tells her that he’s just come from an AGM up the road, she says he has been in the royal court: his mission was to help the abandoned group, but he didn’t even ask what they needed, so he is doomed to wander forever in regret.

And that’s what Assembly Hall was about for me: grief, but more specifically, regret —disappointment in oneself, inadequacy, shame.

And that resonates on so many levels. Aging, for one. Inevitably, growing old involves recognizing squandered resources, lost potential, failures in individual relationships and social responsibilities. But, of course, you can feel all of that without being as old as I am.

Between Dave (Gregory Lau) and the damsel (Renée Sigouin), there’s a pas de deux of absence, of the empty space where a loved body used to be. I couldn’t help but think of my recent failure in a relationship with a close friend.

In thinking about the court and Dave’s inability to cast a deciding vote at the AGM, I recognized my inaction in the face of climate change. But that’s just me. As I said, everybody will have their own responses.

And everybody will wonder, as Dave does, about the possibility of redemption.

More about that in a bit. Let me tell you about the production.

Pite is clearly intrigued by the musicality of speech and its embodiment. But, wordlessly, she’s also exploring, the relationship of the individual to the group. There are several Daves at one point and they stutter sequentially across the stage in a series of stop-motion images, like a sequence of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge. At other points, a group of dancers will seamlessly elevate an individual, making them look like they’re flying.

And self-consciously, in an effort to make meaning perhaps, the dancers arrange themselves in tableaux reminiscent of old paintings. There’s high drama in this, but also humour as they fiddle with tiny adjustments to get the image just right.

That attention to detail — and the dancers’ phenomenal ability to isolate and articulate their movement — is fundamental to the evening’s extraordinary level of visual stimulation.

You can hear similar grandiosity, humour — and dislocation — in the composition and sound design that Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe have created. It juxtaposes the pounding, romantic chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, the nostalgic sounds of a scratchy phonograph, and the otherworldly wind one character describes as “a lament not of Nature’s making.”

Nancy Bryant must be one of the best costume designers in the world — and I’m not speaking hyperbolically. Here, she starts with plaid shirts and pleated skirts then moves into feathered helmets, pounded metal breastplates, and a king with an enormous crown who looks like sexy Jesus.

Tom Visser lights Jay Gower Taylor’s appropriately musty gymnasium set with dramatic shadows worthy of Rembrandt, but sometimes the cues come so quickly it’s like Rembrandt’s in a disco. It’s great.

The evening is phenomenally engaging viscerally. And intellectually.

Considering the possibility of redemption, it challenges, at least for me, the notion of the singular hero, the individual quest — and presents the possibility that there’s redemption in releasing the focus on individual failure and in recognizing the commonality of suffering: “In the one, there is a multitude. And, in the multitude, there is one.”

ASSEMBLY HALL Choreographed and directed by Crystal Pite. Written and directed by Jonathon Young. A Kidd Pivot production presented as part of the DanceHouse season. Co-produced by the Edinburgh International Festival, Sadler’s Wells. Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Centro Servizi Culturali Santa Chiara (Trento, Italy), National Arts Centre (Ottawa), Seattle Theatre Group, Canadian Stage, DanceHouse, DanseDanse (Montréal), Le Diamant (Québec), and Electric Company Theatre. On Thursday, October 26 at the Playhouse Theatre. No more performances.

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  1. Marie

    Awesome review of Pite dance – theatre performance ! Thank you! There was some bro see! Do you know how it would be possible to see this show again ?…. archives , video … ?

  2. Corinne Noël Caulfield

    What an insightful, engaging, and well, touching(!) review of a show so rich with layers and nuance and pathos and humour and violence and tenderness, etc. that I wouldn’t know where to begin in trying to speak about it. Thanks!


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