By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The intersection of real life and artistic creation can seldom have been so high-stakes as it is in the acclaimed dance/theatre production that arrives at the Citadel Friday for three performances.
Betroffenheit, which has gathered awards world-wide since its 2015 premiere, is a collaboration between two of this country’s most innovative theatrical experimenters, both with Vancouver roots: the choreographer Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot and the playwright/performer Jonathon Young of the Electric Company Theatre. The breath-taking thing is that Betroffenheit, which borrows the not-quite-translatable German word for paralyzing post-traumatic shock, was born in real-life trauma.
In 2009, the life of Young was overtaken by unthinkable tragedy and loss. His teenage daughter and her two cousins died in a cabin fire on a family holiday at Shuswap Lake.
In time, Young set about making art — that’s what theatre artists do. Art not about the horrific tragedy itself, but about the mind-freezing aftermath to trauma.
On the phone from Seattle, where Betroffenheit played last weekend, Young is musing on the creative impulse that led him straight to Pite — and an artistic partnership with his long-time friend and one of the world’s hottest choreographers.
“I’d been working on my own for quite a while before I reached out to Crystal,” he says in his thoughtful way. “There’s always something I’m consumed by, or can’t stop thinking about…. I’d come up with a series of images, a series of problems I was attempting to solve artistically. And I didn’t know how to do it. Which always piques my curiosity.”
“I didn’t know how to stage it, how to say it,” Young says of the theatrical challenge of Betroffenheit. “How the elements of theatre, the design, lighting, language, the body, space, time could come together and approach some of sort of authentic expression. To approach gigantic, universal themes — tragedy and loss and addiction — without being pat or providing easy solutions.”
Young had moved to Toronto by then, and returned to Vancouver in 2014 to take the helm of the Electric Company, the indie theatre he’d co-founded there with Studio 58 theatre school cohorts Kim Collier, Kevin Kerr, and David Hudgins.
He’d worked with Pite before, on such Electric Company projects as Studies in Motion, a fascinating conjuring of the eccentric Victorian stop-motion photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge (which came to the Citadel in 2010) and a CBC film The Score. But Betroffenheit was their first collaboration from scratch, as co-creators.
Why Pite? Young says, without hesitation, “she’s an image-maker of rare distinction! She writes using the body in space and time…. I’d be creating with someone who essentially writes using a different language. With this subject matter, I always felt I couldn’t approach it in my capacity as a writer without diminishing or reducing it. I needed someone of Crystal’s calibre to co-create with me!”
Young wondered if it should be a one-person show that Pite would direct. “I knew she was interested in theatre, acting, and all it takes to create a work of theatre” — which sets her distinctively apart from other stars of the dance world. But the piece, and Young, acquired the inventive physicality of Pite’s choreography, and a five-member cast of dancers from her own company Kidd Pivot.
It wasn’t a left-field pairing of companies by any means. The Electric Company, as Young points out, “has always used physicality and imagery to convey aspects of our narrative — without always resorting to dialogue.”
As one example, Brilliant!, The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla, the show the company brought to the Magnetic North Festival in Edmonton in 2004, imagined the turn-of-the-century rivalry between the immigrant inventor and the homegrown Thomas Edison as a tap-dancing contest. Beyond its biographical revelations, Studies in Motion, poised on the frontier of art and science, was a celebration of the physical being, the human body moving through space.
“For many years Crystal has been using text and character and narrative in her contemporary dance work,” Young says. “She skirts the edge of narrative more than more choreographers…. and it’s so powerful, so beguiling and mysterious. She has a way of deconstructing ideas of plot and character, and translating them into the body….”
It seems remarkable, incredible, that someone in Young’s circumstances could galvanize the creative energy for an exploration on the Betroffenheit scale. Young considers. “I would never have undertaken it in a state of acute shock myself,” he says. “Many years had passed. And there was something in my core that needed to be expressed and investigated….
“One of the false ideas one gets when one is affected by trauma, sadness, depression, tragedy of any kind is that it’s somehow so unique and precious that one has to be laid to waste, paralyzed by it. There’s a chapter when you have to give over to it. In another chapter you can’t afford inaction due to despair….”
By 2013, Young had discovered the term “betroffenheit” (in a book by an American theatre director). And he was applying it to Hamlet in interviews as he rehearsed the role of theatre’s great procrastinator for a Collier production at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach. “Anyone who plays Hamlet has to bring all of himself to the part — and then realize at some point that all of himself isn’t enough. Which is Hamlet’s predicament.”
Hamlet as a warm-up for Betroffenheit? Now, there’s an epic challenge. “Hamlet is grieving. he’s alone, he’s traumatized, he’s facing his greatest moral dilemma. It’s a similar self-exploration,” says Young of the tragic character he plays in Betroffenheit. “The difference with Hamlet is the words are there for you. You just have to find the fortitude to live up to them….”
In Betroffenheit, what you won’t see onstage is the terrible event of 2009 itself. Says Young, who is a notably articulate person in every way, “it was never our intention to create something to create something deliberately or overtly autobiographical. Or personally therapeutic. We worked against that: we didn’t want it to feel confessional….
“Crystal and I were determined to explore experiences shared by all, to investigate the power, the absurdity, the courage it takes to contend with them. The darkness and the light, I guess.”
Pite, who has string of commissions from the major dance companies of Europe, takes the lure of addiction, and the haunted protagonist, into the realm of the physical with a dark phantasmagorical cabaret of dancers who reinvent every sort of dance, even tap, with the logic of nightmare.
Young describes the creation of Betroffenheit as organic. But when Young and Pite sat down in 2013-2014 — long before their exploratory workshops at the Banff Centre — they had no idea what it would be. “None!” declares Young. “We had to find a language…. We were friends. But there’s nothing like sitting together in a studio and beginning to share ideas. So vulnerable and intimate.”
Like him, Young says, Pite feels “activated and alive when we’re pulled into challenges….” Since Betroffenheit, Young has worked with Pite on two commissions from the Nederlands Dans Theater, Parade and The Statement. They’re currently collaborating on a new collaboration, Revisor (he agrees the title has a sinister ring), which expands some of the themes and ideas of Betroffenheit. It’s a year away from opening night.
If Young and Pite had ever wondered whether Betroffenheit would find a larger audience beyond Canadian borders, those days are long gone. The show has played around the world, with subtitles for the voice-over text translated into French, Spanish, Italian, and Chinese. Amongst its many accolades is the 2017 Olivier Award, Britain’s highest stage honour.
The current international tour — “the last one” as Young says — that brings Betroffenheit to Edmonton (as a joint presentation of the Brian Webb Dance Company and the Citadel, has taken the show to Europe, Down Under, and Taiwan. In June, the grand finale at the Festival TransAmériques in Montreal brings to a last curtain call a journey that began in the unknown, and found its first audience in Toronto in 2015.
Young, who splits his time between Toronto and Vancouver these days, is a questing spirit. “It’s a complex discussion, to put a fine point on what art is for,” he muses. In the end, he thinks, art is “about communication, communicating the shared experience of being alive — so we can see each other and be fascinated. By life. “
That, he proposes is “the strange potential bound up in terrible experiences, that one gains deeper insight, and hopefully some strength. And compassion for those who struggle more often, and suffer more easily.”
Presented by: Brian Webb Dance Company, Citadel Theatre
Written by: Jonathon Young
Directed and choreographed by: Crystal Pite
Where: Citadel Theatre
Running: Friday through Sunday
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com