Haunting, vivid, poetic, devastating—just a few words that come to mind upon reflection of the recent performance of Betroffenheit at The Moore Theatre. Lacking a direct translation from German, the word “betroffenheit” roughly means shock, bewilderment, or speechlessness, especially in the wake of a traumatic event. This production, a collaboration between renowned choreographer Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot and Jonathon Young of Electric Company Theatre (both based in Vancouver, B.C.), is rooted in Young’s own personal history of loss. In their masterful weaving of theater and dance, the two have mined the psychological depths of Young’s trauma to create a powerful and complex work of art that leaves audiences in their own state of speechlessness.
The first half of the production served as a metaphor for how Young, also the central actor in the work, mentally processes “the accident.” A cacophony of blaring voices and flashing lights creates a flashback, and he wakes up in a dingy basement room (think police interrogation with an imposing column in the middle, fluorescent lights, and a telephone attached to the wall,) representing a chamber of his own mind. All the voices sounding overhead are Young’s, and as he responds to them, the dialogue becomes his self-talk of how to forget, how to move on, how to cope. The five dancers, and most notably Jermaine Spivey, who emerges as Young’s other half, each embodied a voice, a different facet of Young’s consciousness. Like mimes, their faces were painted white, and instead of speaking, they mouthed the words while physicalizing the dialogue. The mischievous Gollum-like acrobat, danced by Tiffany Tregarthen in a tiny pointy hat and sad clown face, was particularly fascinating—both commiserating with and exacerbating Young’s pain.
As Young converses with these different versions of himself, “the show,” a mechanism he uses to distract himself, and to which he is now addicted, becomes the focal point of his dialogue. “Doing the show is the wrong approach… it’s a temporary fix” Spivey warns. But, like an addict, Young can’t resist, and when “the show” is triggered, he re-emerges as its splashy host in an electric blue suit and floppy brown wig. An elaborate vaudevillian act, “the show” oozes faux glitz and features nefarious tap dancing, swooning ballroom, and slinky jazz. Like in the Fosse musical Chicago, the showbiz veneer masks a sinister premise, and as a metaphor it works brilliantly—who hasn’t used entertainment as distraction? Instead of diluting the style of each dance genre to fit the metaphor, Pite crafts authentic and nuanced segments that lend greater depth and shading to the premise. Coupled with witty wordplay—“What are you doing tonight?” “I’m staying in. I’m coming to terms”—the flashiness of the dances generate the discomfiting sensation of laughing when you’re really supposed to cry, but also lends a welcome and unexpected levity to a heavy subject.
During a frantic moment, Young collapses: he overdosed on his own delusions. The cast of characters manipulate his inert body and huddle around him on a table, devolving into mimed hysteria over what to do with him and how to continue “the show” without its host. In a grisly scene, he is eventually resurrected, only to continue the attempt to dig himself out of this downward mental spiral. Pite is adept at playing with scale, and this skill lends itself perfectly to the metaphor she’s created here. In Betroffenheit she incorporates several stagecraft elements familiar to her other works. Some components are inflated to larger than life, like a tumultuous blackout with undulating fabric, while others are miniaturized. At one point, Young reappears as a puppet. “You want some perspective with that?” he jokes.
The second act left behind the literal trappings of “the show,” and stripped away the props and sets so only the large pillar in the middle of the stage remained. Here, the focus broadened to a more abstracted look at personal trauma and grief. To this end, solos were woven into the ensemble work, each presenting a different manifestation of trauma. In one, Cindy Salgado danced with her mouth agape the whole time, as if constantly gasping for air, unable to breathe. Each of the dancers demonstrated phenomenal control and agility. They grappled, slid, twisted, and undulated, swirling to the floor and back up again, changing their momentum and directions effortlessly. The choreography looked simultaneously impossible and organic. Pite has an uncanny grasp on the gestural potential of the human body, and precisely how communicative and articulate a movement can be. Every gesture felt meaningful without being overwrought.
Because of the context of the first act, the abstraction in the second resonated even more deeply. The sequence where the dancers surround Young on the table reappeared, and gestures became even more vivid without props or voice track: their faces scream in silence, their agony palpable. Young’s character reappears too, still haunted by “the room,” but clearer and steadier now. “You have to talk yourself out of it,” he says in a final monologue, “there’s nothing more down there to find. If you don’t keep it open, you close.” Simply and profoundly, his only way forward is to stay open to his pain, to acknowledge it and continue on. As Young walks away, he reveals Spivey, standing directly behind him, torso contorted in pain, palms upturned and fingers clenched. Spivey’s movements in this solo echo Young’s words: he runs in place; he looks up and throws his arms wide to the ceiling; his face contorts to a mask of weeping; he skips buoyantly before hobbling to the ground. As in the first half, Spivey represents a facet of Young—even though Young outwardly moves on, a part of him will always be reeling from the trauma.
The program notes quoted Anne Bogart’s And Then, We Act to describe betroffenheit as “a space and time where language ceases.” That moment is exactly what Pite and Young created onstage. Pite’s choreography showed the innate power of dance as an art form—its ability to capture emotional complexity and communicate what simply can’t be put into words. The layering of theater and dance in the first half allowed the dance to speak even more powerfully in the second. By physicalizing the unspeakable, the experience was made even richer because associations weren’t dictated by the connotations that words hold. Even though the production’s subject was clearly deeply personal to Young, by abstracting it into dance and presenting it with such grace and honesty, he created a possibility for it to become deeply personal and affecting to every audience member. A visionary production, Betroffenheit is proof that even the most devastating events can yield extreme beauty.