Surviving the unsurvivable: the astonishing creation that is Betroffenheit, a review

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

What are you supposed to do with fathomless tragedy? The kind of limitless grief that consumes your mind and melts your bones? 

Betroffenheit is about that. In its harrowing and brilliantly executed way, this astonishing dance/theatre production is its own kind of living breathing original response to the above. Betroffenheit, is a human investigation, a testing of the mysterious dark and our ability to survive it. 

A collaboration between two of the country’s leading theatre artists, playwright/performer Jonathon Young and choreographer/director Crystal Pite, the much-awarded international hit has  arrived this weekend for three performances.

And you should be there. I’m here to report that Betroffenheit is a breath-taking emotional experience, one that uses every theatrical resource in stunningly creative ways.

Betroffenheit has a daunting origin: the personal tragedy of Young, who stars, alongside a corps of five amazing dancers from Pite’s company Kidd Pivot. In 2009 on a family holiday Young lost his daughter, niece, and nephew in a fire.

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

The title is an untranslatable German word that gets at shock, the paralysis and numbing bewilderment that attend upon great trauma. And that’s the state that Pite’s production conjures in its eerie opening scenes. The mind is a deadening, smudgy white warehouse room empty save for fuse and switch boxes. Thick electrical cables take on a life of their own, mysteriously untangling and snaking across the floor and up the walls. Lights flicker and die. Industrial sounds turn to static. Suddenly we notice a prone figure, in a fetal curl. Was Young there all along?

Something terrible has happened, and the room is both haven and prison. In bursts of panic, the collapsed protagonist can unplug everything; he can’t escape his mind. It’s in amplified voice-over, a self-help mantra on an endless loop of fragments. “The system is failing…. You’re going to be called on, but do not respond.”

The room is invaded by dancers. It’s a vision of addiction as a sort of demonic nightmare cabaret, a vaudeville led by by the protagonist’s grinning alter-ego (Jermaine Spivey) and a dazzlingly loose-jointed Tiffany Tregarthen, who propels herself in ways unknown to the rest of the human species.

Tiffany Tregarthen in Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Our protagonist is high, lured by the enforced high spirits of performance and the possibility of “epiphany.” In Pite’s choreography, the dancers are flamboyantly costumed figures, whose vocabulary of gestures and movement is extreme and unhinged. They seem to collapse and re-form in every kind of dance form. There’s a particularly sinister bowler-hatted troupe of tappers who drill patterns into the floor in a murderous way; our man, a frenzied vaudevillian, joins in. 

Everything about the production is theatrically striking. The apocalyptic soundscape that approaches music and retreats into industrial metallic buzz is by Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe (the two stars of Onegin) and Owen Belton. It’s indispensable to the emotional narrative of the piece, along with Tom Visser’s dramatic lighting, which creates an alternate alternate reality of shadows. Jay Gower Taylor’s design, which collapses the fateful sealed room in a startling way so that Act II can happen, takes Young from the room to a dark landscape dominated by a sort of power obelisk.

And in Act II, Pite’s powerful, expressive dancers erupt in an amazing array of gestures and still-motion captures and subside from them, in a rhythm that delivers the heartbreaking tension between surviving trauma and remembering what is lost. Is there anything these dancers can’t do? They’re mesmerizing. So is Young. 

“You’re going to get out alive,” the voice that’s an amplified version of his own tells the protagonist as he teeters on the threshhold of the terrible past to look around him — forward. There’s wonder in that gaze.

REVIEW

Betroffenheit

Theatre: Kidd Pivot, Electric Company Theatre

Created by: Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite

Choreographed and directed by: Crystal Pite

Starring: Jonathon Young, Christopher Hernandez, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen

Co-presented by: Brian Webb Dance Company, Citadel Theatre

Where: Citadel Shoctor Theatre

Running: through Sunday

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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