Dance and theatre gold: Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Assembly Hall

Sadler’s Wells, London
March 20, 2024

They’re back, turning words into movement and twisting a knife into our emotions. In Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Assembly Hall, Kidd Pivot have a work that, on paper, just should not be a subject for drama but which, in their hands, turns into gold.

How many times have you squirmed in your seat as dancers writhe on stage in silence, or rather against the background of self-conscious sniffs and coughs of the audience. Choreographers seem to think that this is innovative and ‘cutting edge.’ Well, maybe the first time.

Enter the first performer in Assembly Hall. He nails it. His writhing immediately focuses the audience centre stage. It’s intriguing, mesmerising. We want to know more. Who is he? Why is he doing this?

Renée Sigouin and Gregory Lau (centre) with Kidd Pivot
in Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Assembly Hall
Photo Sasha Onyshchenko

That is not to say that Pite and Young do not use music effectively. They do, and brilliantly. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 as you have never considered it before is just one example.

The set is very reminiscent of Betroffenheit with the additional tweak of a stage crowned by a basketball hoop. Cinderella-like, the clock is ticking. There is a meting but the hall has only been booked until six o’clock, and there is the all-important refreshment break to consider.

Dave (Gregory Lau), Woody (Brandon Alley), Gail (Livona Ellis), Boyd (Rakeem Hardy), Bonnie (Meg Roe), Mae (Amanda Sum), Shaun (Jonathon Young) and Glenda (Gabrielle Rose) are having a meeting. They are discussing QuestFest, their annual enactment of a medieval tale. Jackie Weaver, eat your heart out. Procedure is everything. Titles are everything. Order is king.

Kidd Pivot in Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Assembly Hall
Photo Michael Slobodian

Anyone who has ever experienced a committee trying to design a horse but ending up with a camel will understand what is playing out here. There is even a ritual to be enacted to establish the quorum. And, of course, we want to know why there is a vacant seat.

But all is not simple. There is the medieval tale. We discover that the knight occupies the empty seat, his inaction a betrayal that plays out again and again.

There is another secret to be revealed too. We see the enactment, both moving an hilarious, ably abetted by Tchaikovsky. The famous piano concerto at first underlines the humour, even ridiculousness, of the cod medieval scene with its dubious fairy tale and naff costumes, but which unexpectedly morphs into a pas de deux that is deeply poignant.

Kidd Pivot in Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Assembly Hall
Photo Michael Slobodian

Such societies and the organisational meetings that underpin them really matter to people. The lines between reality and fiction become blurred as escapism into an imagined past cushions the blows delivered by an increasingly cruel world. The rituals of the agenda provide certainty, the refreshments a shared experience, the re-enactment status for the lowly who make not a mark in their day to day lives. No matter that they are hanging on by a thread, the upkeep of their hall and the lack of interest from new people shrink-wrapping their world into its own little bubble.

Assembly Hall may not have the tragic edge of previous productions but in it we see eight individual catastrophes unfold before our very eyes. The technique of illustrating dialogue with enhanced movement is brilliant and powerful. Hours of meticulous rehearsal have produced a seamless execution that sucks you in and plucks the heartstrings.

It is perhaps a little over-long and rambling towards the end but that is a minor quibble. Assembly Hall: a dance production that truly speaks to the ills of contemporary society and that is not afraid to make us laugh along the way.

Assembly Hall is at Sadler’s Wells, London to March 23, 2024