Betroffenheit 2018

Jonathon Young (centre)
Credit: Michael Slobodian

Vancouver Playhouse; March 15, 16 and 17, 2018.
SOLD OUT. A few no-show tickets may be available at the door.
Seattle dates: March 23 and 24, 2018. Tickets through Seattle Theatre Group or

This is an excerpt from the review originally posted in February 2016.

Harrowing. But eventually there’s a little light at the end of a very dark, very frightening tunnel.

This is the much-awaited Betroffenheit, a collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite (Kidd Pivot) and writer/performer Jonathon Young (Electric Company Theatre), presented by DanceHouse. It opened to rave reviews in July 2015 in Toronto and was immediately sold out in Vancouver last September [2015], fully five months before the show came west. So well respected are Pite and Young that this, their first collaboration, created a palpable excitement in both the dance and theatre communities.

Rarely does a show meet such expectations. Betroffenheit exceeds them all.

The word ‘betroffenheit’ defies an exact translation from German but describes the state of shock, approaching paralysis, that a disaster can cause in our lives. Bewildered, confused, we can go neither forward nor back. Language fails. “Time heals all wounds” is exposed for what it is: a comfortable lie.

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young
Credit: Michael Slobodian

Young and award-winning director Kim Collier experienced a life-altering tragedy in their lives [almost a decade ago]. One of the many strengths of this work is that it is not specific to Young and Collier. In Betroffenheit we understand that something indescribably bad has happened to this particular protagonist but disaster can strike any of us. How he transcends grief is the substance of Betroffenheit.

Act 1 is dazzling and kaleidoscopic. Grotesque creatures – dancers Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen – invade his mind, drawing him back again and again into dark places. The dancing is gangly, awkward, athletic and precise – especially Tregarthen who appears as a bug-like creature, tip-toeing unbidden into Young’s consciousness. But the dancing is also darkly playful at times, vaudevillian with tap dancers in bowler hats, or salsa-spicy with pink feather boas.

Text is incorporated into the dance with Young’s recorded voice emanating from him, or from the phone on the wall, the lights, the walls, other dancers. Lines are repeated and it is through these fragments and the dance that we understand his fractured state of mind. He inhabits a shabby room, has brief periods of lucidity, but eventually even the room is swept away and he goes into free fall.

Betroffenheit is a Kafka-esque image of the hell our minds can take us to. Add substance abuse to that state and it becomes insane. At one point, one of the dancers becomes Young’s dress-alike double. “I’m happier now that I’m two”, Young says with some relief. Schizophrenia is one way to go.

The staging, with set design by Jay Gower Taylor and lighting by Tom Visser, is a spectacular mix of shadow and almost surgical light. Composition and sound design by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe is percussive, electronic, harsh and perfectly indicates Young’s chaotic and confused soul.

Act 1 has more text than Act 2, more variety and Nancy Bryant’s costumes – from Tregarthen’s eerie ‘creature’ costume to the glitz and glitter of the cabaret number – make it visually exhilarating. Act 2 is more dance, less text and the dancers are casually dressed in sweats and t-shirts. Also, Young – the charismatic magnetic north of this production – is absent during periods of Act 2.

But the second act comes with a huge payoff in the form of a danced ode to joy; there are no better words to describe it. Jermaine Spivey’s exhilarating, joy-filled leaps tell us Young, looking for an epiphany, finds it. Transforming tragedy into art does not completely banish Young’s demons but, if only for a brief while, it can bring joy where there was only grief.

Betroffenheit is an astounding, brave, genre-blasting hybrid and a tremendously moving work.

[Betroffenheit went on to tour Victoria, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Dublin and London to rave reviews. On behalf of The Electric Company Theatre and Kidd Pivot, Jonathan Young and Crystal Pite accepted the Oliver Award for The Best New Dance Production.]