True Crime

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young on the trail of Agatha Christie: Their Assembly Hall is now presented in Switzerland and Austria – thrilling event, marvellous piece

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The visual and narrative invention, lively characters, and high theatrical moments of often hilariously melodramatic payoff are all there once more. Crystal Pite’s latest collaboration with Jonathon Young, Assembly Hall, which premiered on October 26 at the Vancouver Playhouse, races through 90 non-stop minutes with the page-turning propulsion of a good whodunnit. Think Agatha Christie meets medieval romance, because in addition to a dead body, there are knights in armour and a sorrowful lady in white languishing in a forest.


But this is Pite and Young, the Canadian duo behind the heartbreaking Betroffenheit and hilarious Revisor, predecessors to this third full-length dance-theatre piece created under the umbrella of Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot. So there is also much more: throw in Robert’s Rules of Order and a quote by Goethe: “The spirits that I summoned I now cannot rid myself of again.” Both of these are listed among the many “paths” Pite and Young explored while figuring out what they wanted their latest project to be, shared in a Message from the Creators found online on the website of the presenter, DanceHouse. 

Back to the whodunnit: the dead body—or, at least, the temporarily, sort-of dead body—is found in the kind of shabby hall where people might gather to hold bake sales, run youth groups, and attend exercise classes for moms and tots. It’s a well-used community space, lovingly designed by Jay Gower Taylor (Pite’s longtime collaborator and life partner), with a basketball hoop in front of the hall’s small homey stage, standard-issue stacking chairs, and faded paint on the walls. The body is discovered lying on the floor where the Annual General Meeting of a group of medieval re-enactors is about to begin—and so Assembly Hall, too, begins. Of course, nothing is straightforward in Pite-and-Young-land, and neither Glenda (Renée Sigouin), who is first to arrive at the meeting, nor the audience can be quite sure about the state of the body or what it signifies—though by the show’s end it surely signifies something.

Here’s what I am sure of: Pite’s perceptive choreography, wed beat-by-beat to Young’s recorded script—the dance-and-theatre double whammy at the heart of their collaborations—is performed with virtuosic rigour by the eight dancers. They lip-synch to their characters’ recorded voice-overs with uncanny precision, while at the same time tending to the needs of the dance. This involves portraying the shifting and restless, or tired and slumping, the bossy or meek or uncertain or impassioned movement that reveals their characters’ states of mind. The performers portray these inner realities with exaggerated, sometimes comic-strip clarity and wit, while also remaining real flesh-and-blood people. Engaging as this uniquely styled movement is, the solos, duets, and ensembles where dance breaks free of words were hugely appreciated. I would have loved a bit more of Pite’s choreography untethered by words. 

Young’s clever and free-flowing script moves easily between a rule-bound and argumentative AGM, exciting medieval cosplay, and unsettling real battles by real knights. The eight actors who voice the characters do so with sure intentions and colourful inflections, the conversation rhythmical, at times deliberately repetitive, and always carefully paced, almost becoming a dance in its own right. If the script doesn’t resolve its themes by the end, it certainly provided ideas for a good post-show conversation on the way home. 

A premiere by Crystal Pite is a rare treat in her home territory on Canada’s west coast. She’s too much in demand around the world, having created over 50 works for companies including London’s Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and, a little closer to home but still toward the other end of the country, the National Ballet of Canada. We catch very few of these commissions here in Vancouver, although Ballet BC occasionally remounts one, most recently The Statement, made for Nederlands Dans Theater 1.

Pite’s European presence was established when she left her position as a dancer with Ballet BC in 1996 to join William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. She was already a choreographer, a calling that continued to develop in Frankfurt. Her company, Kidd Pivot, founded in Vancouver in 2002, would be called Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM between 2010-2012, acknowledging generous German support during a residency at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm. The You Show and The Tempest Replica premiered there. 

An interest in narrative was evident in many of her earliest works, which often explored elements of story. This seemed to culminate in the strong narrative drive of The Tempest Replica, which dared to tackle a whole Shakespeare play, but then, a few years later, came Betroffenheit. This collaboration with theatre artist Jonathon Young, a co-founder of Vancouver-based Electric Company Theatre and a gifted actor, immediately made sense. It gave her a partner with which to continue pushing the pairing of words and dance to the utmost, to explore both the limits and the reach of theatre and dance.

Here again, in Assembly Hall, story—a suspenseful, layered narrative—drives the evening, and here again dancer-voice actor pairings establish larger-than-life characters. As in all her work, dancers seem inspired by Pite’s ideas about movement, revealing new aspects of themselves as performers. Given the fact Kidd Pivot operates project to project and that, like Forsythe, Pite seems drawn to the independent-minded, the line-up does slowly change. Familiar faces in Assembly Hall include Doug Letheren, the Director of the Complex in Revisor, now cast as Shaun, the AGM’s chair, an ordinary fellow who wears glasses and unmemorable street clothes. Until he has his star turn as king. Ella Rothschild, a severe Minister Desouza in Revisor, is here a sweeter, lighter-limbed Mae—“I designed the posters,” she proudly announces during the group’s introductions. 

Gregory Lau, who took over the the title role from Tiffany Tregarthen in Revisor, is the unobtrusive character Dave. You know Dave, who can never make up his mind, who is always there but never noticed, the guy who is needed only to make up a meeting’s quorum. Slight, insecure Dave undergoes one of the work’s most significant transformations as, once the 93rd annual Quest Fest begins, his pretend knight is thrust into adventures that are possibly, maybe, real.

Lau’s duet with Renée Sigouin to a faint, echoing version of the earlier full rendition of Tchaikovsky’s lush Piano Concerto No. 1 is full of the close entanglements Pite choreographs so beautifully, when the supported and the one supporting are in perfect synchrony and balance. Sigouin devours her roles as both opinionated Glenda and the powerful but languishing lady in white.

Every dancer is a standout, including Livona Ellis and Brandon Alley, familiar to Vancouverites from their time with Ballet BC, and Rena Narumi, who we first saw as a Kidd Pivot apprentice in 2010 and then as Interrogator Klak in Revisor. Rakeem Hardy’s solo to a summary of the minutes of the last meeting is a marvel of speed and precision—none of it digitally enhanced!

Many of Pite’s loyal behind-the-scenes troupe return. Jay Gower Taylor’s deliberately faded set, together with Tom Visser’s dynamic, shifting light design, allows the constantly changing realities of Assembly Hall to instantly manifest. Costume designer Nancy Bryant pulled off the intricacies of costumes that need to be quick-changed more than once from everyday skirts and trousers to medieval garb with hints of whimsy, like the flutter of wings on one. The work’s soundscape of orchestral music, sighing winds, and, in one scene, the sour cawing of crows, also shifts focus with agility, designed and composed by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe (the latter two are among the voice actors).

After the Vancouver premiere, Assembly Hall toured across Canada and will doubtless follow the usual trajectory of Pite’s work with further touring around the world (there are British, French, Italians, and Americans among the co-producers). 

Assembly Hall is another ambitious Pite-Young collaboration, one in which the splendour of Tchaikovsky and thrilling swordplay by knights in armour are set against the mundane business and minor squabbles of an AGM. Yet engrossing human drama is found in both situations: there are, the piece seems to say, secret and momentous possibilities within us all.

Tanz Mai 2024
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 101
von Kaija Pepper

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