OC-based creative powerhouse the Assembly Dance specializes in choreography that’s often mixed with improvisation for unconventional spaces and events. Last November, co-founder/director Lara Wilson and dozens of the Assembly’s collaborating artists were integral to Elizabeth Turk’s spectacular Shoreline Project; they performed and assisted the 1,000 volunteers in executing the mass improvisation on Main Beach for Laguna Art Museum’s Art & Nature Fest.
In 2017, I first saw the company perform Recess, an improvised delight at the Westside Museum, filling the former sail-making factory with humor, gorgeous movement and more than a hint of mayhem.
Now, as 2019’s artists in residence at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Wilson and four dancers have been investigating boundaries while creating How to Draw an Outline, which debuts—and runs—for one night only in the Fullerton venue’s outdoor amphitheater, as well as devising a workshop called “Boundaries Practice.”
About three weeks before the Sept. 12 public performance, I attended a rehearsal knowing only what I’ve written here so far. But through the course of the afternoon, the piece was outlined before my eyes. The purpose of that day’s rehearsal was to begin stringing together in sequence the solos, duos, trios and quads the company had created since work began in February. I couldn’t think of a more fortuitous time to step into their world, for that’s when craft and creativity freely cross over. Transitions were invented on the spot, morphing into what had come before and informing what followed.
For the three hours I was there, Wilson and dancers Haihua Chiang, Taylor Unwin, MarieElena Martingano and Ally Pawlowski worked steadily, calmly and with great focus. The sun made its way from stage left to right, heating up the entire black surface. Clad in socks and sweats, the dancers all eventually put on shoes. Birdsong in the tall trees, noises from Malvern Avenue and an occasional breeze swept into the amphitheater.
While I made friends with Wilson’s dog, who rejected me at first, an entirely new character made an entrance: large sheets of thin plastic that will catch and billow in the moving air and provide various partitions, borders and thresholds.
“Take the plastic with you,” Wilson coached as a dancer moved upstage toward the white backdrop. “Keep it rolled. . . . Use it like a pencil—but more like dancing than drawing.” No matter how unnervingly the plastic behaved, sticking to their legs or getting trapped underfoot, the dancers kept going, nonplussed. “If you step on it, use your foot to manipulate it,” Wilson offered while drawing an arc on the floor with the wily material. Accepting the prop as a dance partner, another improviser to be assimilated into each moment, often resolved the obstacles it posed.
Associations hit me freely as I watched—a birth, a treacherous traverse, a corpse shrouded—which would shift as the soundtrack suddenly gushed with rushing water. Still in progress, the audio score includes Fez Gielen’s podcast Platinum Ranch covering the uncanny music of Lubomyr Melnyk, known to play 19.5 notes per second on piano and able to sustain 14 per second for an hour. He developed his “continuous music” while accompanying the master dance classes of choreographer Carolyn Carlson at the Paris Opera in the early 1970s. His “unbroken line of sound on piano” reached transcendence through the sustain pedal and an out-of-body experience spurred by hunger. “What I do on piano is physically impossible,” claimed Melnyk, injecting a mad kind of humor into How to Draw an Outline.
Wilson ran sound herself, so she was way upstage left, then had to zoom back out front to observe, often holding the dog. She deftly used words to define a quality she sought, but sometimes, she was onstage putting her own body in the physical position to invent what might come next. “How do we get to the knotting part?” she asks. She then spins by way of answer: “Like a compass,” she tells the dancers as they immediately pick up the turn. In my mind’s eye, I see a sundial. The speed is somewhere in between the two, and I wonder what device appears in each dancer’s imagination.
Most notes aren’t prescriptive, but rather, they empower the dancers as inventors. For an exit across the whole space during a storm, Wilson tells Unwin, “Don’t stay in your own lane.” When they run that section again, Unwin forges a new path that zigzags with verve.
“That works for now,” Wilson comments, a reaction she repeated all afternoon. She liked the new bits and already had ideas for more detailed work, but it was time to move forward with the entire piece.
During a water break, Wilson tells me about how her parents moved to Florida a couple of years ago and immediately had to evacuate for a hurricane. The disaster recovery was an impetus behind Chiang’s solo, which evokes resiliency and strength despite the massive undertaking. From the solo, they had made a reverse discovery: The work needed a storm.
Before running through everything they’d done, Wilson checks in with the dancers about the scorching floor and their energy levels. We’re okay, they nod. Whether they are marking the movement or executing it at 80 percent, they appear to be at 100 percent within the confines of their bodies.
After delivering more notes, Wilson describes what to expect in the coming rehearsals: more elements layered on, more stripping away.
I had seen the dancers as mythic beings giving birth to the universe and as people moving on a stage in Fullerton. They take care of the space, the props, one another. One dancer exited by sliding off the front of the stage, seeming to pass from air into liquid after being pulled into the world feet-first. Then she picked up the papers I had left in the front row that had taken flight in a sudden gust of wind, as if they were part of the outline. Melnyk’s quote that “what I am doing is physically impossible” re-enters my head.
How to Draw an Outline is being created by five women who are unafraid to jump into liminal spaces: between craft and creativity; appropriate and inappropriate boundaries for female dancers; the frontiers of interpersonal relationships; current events and natural/manmade disasters. My impression is the work is deep, feminist, yet decidedly universal. And they are ready to redraw it at any moment.
I hear Melnyk’s voice again, this time on the blurring of time and space as he plays, describing quite aptly what I’d seen: “It’s a wondrous, marvelous thing.”
How to Draw an Outline at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6595; themuck.org. Thurs., Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m. $15-$30.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.