Jonathon Young (lying down) and dancers Credit: Wendy D Photography
Jonathon Young (lying down) and Kidd Pivot  dancers
Credit: Wendy D Photography

No more Vancouver performances
March 11-12, Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC.

Posted February 26, 2016

Heartbreaking. 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, 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.

Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jonathon Young Credit: Michael Slobodian
Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jonathon Young
Credit: Michael Slobodian

Young and award-winning director Kim Collier experienced such a tragedy seven years ago when their only child, fourteen-year-old Azra, and her two cousins died in a fire. One of the many strengths of this work is that it is not specific to Young. 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, harsh and perfectly illustrates the chaos and confusion in Young’s soul.

Jonathon Young (centre) Credit: Michael Slobodian
Jonathon Young (centre)
Credit: Michael Slobodian

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 (or permanently) 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; it’s now on its way to Victoria, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Dublin and London. Check out the touring dates here: