Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Imagining the Unimaginable: Crystal Pite's Betroffenheit

The cast of Betroffenheit. (Photo: Wendy D. Photography)

In Betroffenheit, the award-winning dance/theatre piece choreographed by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, co-creator and writer Jonathon Young, who plays a central role, reappears in a long brown hair wig and a shiny blue suit in a scene replicating the lurid non-reality of a chemical high. He is the star of an interim lounge lizard act, surrounded by preening fan dancers fronting an aggressive ballroom duo, and partnered by his doppelgänger, the spindly and rubbery Jeremy Spivey. Wearing a painted-on smile, he is black where Young is white. But this isn’t an instance of colourblind casting.

As seen in the Canadian Stage presentation of Betroffenheit that took place at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre on April 22 as part of the 2016 work’s ongoing world tour, Spivey, a member of Pite’s Kidd Pivot contemporary dance company, is Young’s shadow, literally his darker self, and the keeper of his tortured secrets. He echoes Young’s repetitive yelps of pain, and mirrors his contorted body language as he boomerangs across the stage clutching a microphone into which he spews one-liners wrapped in canned laughter – even though what Young is saying isn’t really funny. His antics might look comical, but they are rooted in tragedy.

In 2009, Young lost his young teenage daughter and her two cousins – his niece and nephew – to a cabin fire that erupted while the family was vacating in the wilds of British Columbia. Betroffenheit, a German word that refers to the extreme shock and bewilderment which follows a traumatic episode, was originally conceived as one-man show that would help Young, an actor who has made over 20 original productions for Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, transcend his grief through an act of creation. Initially, he had approached Pite, a dance artist who has successfully worked with dramatic texts before (including Shakespeare’s The Tempest) to enhance his epiphany-seeking words with movement passages. But in the end they decided to join forces for a two-act hybrid piece that imaginatively recreates the unimaginable – coming to terms with the horrific death of your own child.

The mind is indubitably troubled, all rational thought washed away by a tsunami of grief. Memories of the devastating episode continually, and cruelly, gnaw on the protagonist’s central nervous system. He suffers from compulsive re-entry syndrome, and keeps returning in his mind to the fateful moment when his life, as he knew it, was upended. His therapy isn’t working. He is riding a psychological and emotional roller coaster that continually inches into nightmare before plunging headlong into despair.

Grizzled and wild-eyed, he craves release, and when the drugs come a-calling he is quick to answer. The lurid nightclub act scene, pumped up by composer Owen Bolton’s original score, symbolizes a descent into substance addiction. The extreme artifice camouflages the stark reality of a world turned, fun-house style, upside down. Joined by a camp ensemble of spangled hoofers (Christopher Hernandez, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado and Tiffany Tregarthen), Young tap dances as fast as he can into oblivion. But the escape is as ersatz as the glitz on designer Nancy Bryant’s costumes. To not return to the scene of the accident is to lose his loved ones all over again. It’s a brutal cycle.

Young in Betroffenheit. (Photo: Michael Slobodian)

Yet Young’s personal tragedy is not graphically rendered, nor openly addressed. The cabin fire is a biographical detail you discover only by doing background research (or reading reviews like this one). The show, running two hours in length with an intermission and making its third Toronto appearance in as many years, deliberately keeps the facts vague surrounding the accident that has served as a catalyst for what is ultimately a powerful work of art. Young’s maddened mutterings, a series of self-punishing recriminations amplified on a tape loop – “They are in there. I try to get them out . . . ” – merely hints at the depths of his suffering without giving too much away.

By never explaining who the “they” are and the what it is they needed to get out of, Betroffenheit, perhaps the dance world’s first-ever exploration of the phenomenon known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, makes Young’s anguish, loss and crippling self-doubt universal. The audience feels his pain. Betroffenheit inspires empathy.

Watching Young cowering in a corner in a stripped-down industrial room representing his heart’s yawning emptiness (Jay Gower Taylor, Pite’s husband, masterminded the emotionally resonant set design and Tom Visser crafted the alternating dark and bright lighting design), or, later, while he has his stomach pumped by a cast of clowns using one of the snake-like hoses which slithered into focus during the work’s opening moments, you suddenly remember your own hurts and trauma. Betroffenheit excavates them through the empathetic power of art. That is just one of its great accomplishments.

The choreography, a burlesque of popular styles and chiseled friezes in the first half, a wordless flow of elegiac movement in the second half, is, by turns, visceral and poetic. It doesn’t just enhance Young’s words; it illuminates the pools of suffering within us all. As Betroffenheit makes clear, life isn’t a cabaret, and neither is the art created to make sense of its howling inconsistencies. Intensely intimate, art like this focuses the mind, and shows a way to healing.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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