RECESS by The Assembly Was a Blast With Its Serious Sort of Fun

“Don’t Take This Too Seriously!” was printed in a giant font on the program for the Assembly’s RECESS, an evening-length sound and movement improvisation that filled the Westside Museum with joy on Thursday night. The movers and sound-maker fascinated the audience on the last night of summer with action that shifted from humorous to tumultuous to exquisite. With lots of surprises, and some much-needed silliness, the risk inherent in an improvised event paid off.

Reminders to not take the proceedings too seriously popped up throughout, with a dancer sneaking a hand to rifle in another’s pocket or the long hair of one being used to steer her through the space. But early on, bleats from an unseen saxophone could be heard. Shortly after, a tall dancer appeared with a sax and a red balloon. He interacted, guiding a finger to depress a valve, until he set the instrument down and began to rip the knot off the balloon. He made it shriek by pulling at the neck, then sucked the balloon air right up. “Welcome to RECESS,” he declared with a helium-high voice. On the next helium exhale he reminded us to throw our phones into the “black hole,” and just be here, for a recess.

For 45 minutes nothing was more pressing than what ensued. Zaq Kenefick’s soundtrack seemed to originate from a long-ago radio dial. The dancers were unfettered by their considerable technique. Free to listen to each other with abandon, to sit and watch or enter and join. Their training emerged and got shaken off with glee. Connections and disconnections occurred with ease, nothing forced.

At one point a stool appeared, then a chair. Then a lime green armchair was brought on—all these seating devices may have been taken from under audience members, who watched in comfort on long blue couches and assorted benches and chairs. Play ensued, the chairs being manipulated into all kinds of configurations, then spread out. Until the music came to an abrupt halt, and the game of musical chairs was afoot. This was clearly a planned moment, only to be used as a jumping off point for the performers’ considerable inventive powers.

Two other sections stood out. One a duet imbued with recklessness, though not a bruise could be seen on either dancer. They were experts in contact improv: falling blindly backward, leaping onto or lifting each other; their trust impeccable. And a few entangled somersaults had them both giggling as they carried on into another raucous move.

A series of solos by Haihua Chiang exuded big presence from her small frame. Over the soundtrack, one of the co-composers, the riveting Jobel Medina, shouted directions to her from his seat. This was the one moment when too much rehearsal threatened to invade the live performance. But Chiang took in his suggestions of “ninja” and “water” without ever breaking the thread of her own fierce powers. Then Medina joined her, stepping into the liquid world of her making. She said “yes” to his proposal, and then augmented it; he, in turn, did the same.

Evidence of this classic improvisation formula, “yes/and,” was in play all evening. But much of the magic of RECESS was to be found at moments when you knew a signal had taken place, because the space and its inhabitants had altered, but the secret of how remained hidden.

Kenefick’s recorded layers, augmented by hand cymbals, a pitch pipe and a kazoo, all supported, responded to, contrasted or signaled the movement. At its most intense, when the soundtrack was building fiercely, the dancers were all of a sudden in a tight grouping, arranged like a 10-pin, their movements contained and slow. They moved in near unison, attentive to tiny shifts, until eventually the dancing met up with the sound, then took off again until the evening ended. Too soon.

RECESS gave those lucky enough to be there a break from the “black hole” of imminent disasters or their aftermath into which we’d metaphorically dumped our phones, as directed by balloon man early on. The performance brought the kind of skillful, serious play we can hopefully take with us back into the everyday world, provoking a resilience the dancers modeled in saying yes to what appears, then taking it somewhere unexpected, hopefully for the better.

And … I can’t wait to see RECESS again, whatever color the helium balloon will be.

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