Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London

23 March 2024

Stuart Sweeney

 

A premiere from Crystal Pite, one of the most sought after choreographers worldwide, is a major event. Assembly Hall is the fourth collaboration of Pite and her company, Kidd Pivot, with Jonathon Young, Director of the Electric Theatre Company, both based in Vancouver. Young writes a script, his company record the text and Pite’s dancers lip-synch as they dance. Young is also credited as a Director of the production and in a pre-performance talk, Pite described how Young helps the dancers with acting skills that she can’t provide. This distinctive process continues to work magic on stage,

Filmed versions of the first two of the Pite/Young collaborations are available on subscription to Marquee TV and I return to them again and again. Betroffenheit addresses one man’s troubled journey back from the abyss of grief and Revisor explores government corruption. If you search on Google, you can also find an excellent filmed version of their 20 minute collaboration for Netherlands Dance Theatre, The Statement, concerning corporate malfeasance.

Assembly Hall
Photo: Michael Slobodian

Assembly Hall is a wild ride, mixing the mundane with fantasy and much humour, set in a dilapidated village hall with a basketball hoop and a small stage. The narrative switches repeatedly between the AGM of a group of amateur medieval re-enactors and the story they present each year at “Quest Fest”.

We are introduced to the eight committee members of the Benevolent and Protective Order and each has a specific role except Dave, the loner, ill at ease and lacking confidence. All is not well, financial problems and lack of support have caused problems and the Committee has repeatedly postponed a vote on closing the group and is split over the issue. Young’s script brings out the humour of over-strict committee procedures and the inherent tensions are brought vividly to life by Pite’s frenetic choreography of the ensuing arguments. The action freezes with off-stage noises, a portent of the mediaeval past coming into the present.

Back to the AGM and two of the group start a presentation prepared for outreach to the public. They are enthusiastic and swing each other around in buoyant partnering. Someone is needed to play the role of a newcomer and deadbeat Dave is coerced to put on a helmet. The others have a break, leaving Dave alone and the stage curtains open and we are abruptly back in mediaeval times, with a wailing woman in a desolate forest, whose companion has been killed by a Knight. Soon after, all the AGM group are on-stage fighting in helmets and armour – we are firmly embedded in this dual universe of the past and the present.

In the second half we see a duet between two lovers replete with passion and electrifying movement. A contrasted duet with possibly a vulture inspecting a body which comes back to life adds another remarkable piece of dance. Other members of the group have riveting solos. There are fewer sections of ensemble dance than in some previous works by Pite, but one stands out as seven Daves in helmets dance with the woman who has lost her lover.

Assembly Hall
Photo: Michael Slobodian

Assembly Hall introduces us to a new generation of superb Kidd Pivot dancers: Brandon Alley, Livona Ellis, Rakeem Hardy, Gregory Lau, Rena Narumi, Renée Sigouin, plus two excellent artists we have seen before, Doug Letheren and Ella Rothschild. Scenic design by Jay Gower Taylor and lighting by Tom Visser, Pite’s regular co-workers, are more restrained than in earlier productions, but are effective in evoking the two worlds.

And now I must return to the beginning of Assembly Hall, where we had a premonition of the death of Dave, played by Gregory Lau. He is discovered lying on the floor and  amusingly manipulated back to life. At regular intervals throughout the narrative we see Dave again lying on the floor. In the opening of the final stages, a bedraggled King wanders the stage and the group are once more in mediaeval mode. Dave reappears in full armour and a spear is thrust into his side.

Then we are back to the AGM and the final item of unfinished business – whether to close the association. As the fierce discussions about dissolution continue, Dave, still in his suit of armour, without the helmet, cannot make up his mind which way to vote. The Chair repeats the vote and eventually Dave votes against dissolution, making a 4-3 majority.

And then Dave dies, with a monologue about leaving his body. And for the first time in years, the Committee is united by their memory of Dave. They take off his armour and stand at the front of the stage each holding a piece. And in the final scene, they hold the armour together, in remembrance of Dave, the odd man out in the group, who has saved the association. This echoes the mediaeval story of Quest Fest, where a visiting Knight saves the court of a beleaguered King.

The three paragraphs above are my analysis of Assembly Hall, which only crystallised on a second viewing. None of the other reviews I have read mention this interpretation. The narrative is complex and arguably there is simply too much to take in on a single viewing. If it returns, I will try to see it a third time.