Choreographed and directed by Crystal Pite, written by Jonathon Young
Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre
Sadler's Wells Theatre

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

Betroffenheit has just won the Olivier for best new dance production—and deservedly, for it is a strikingly original work with a powerful impact. First at Sadler’s Wells in spring 2016, it returns for just two sold-out performances, one of them being filmed for transmission later on BBC 4. Look out for it.

Betroffenheit is a German word meaning trauma, being in shock, consternation. This production, created by Vancouver-based Canadian companies Kidd Pivot, directed by Crystal Pite, and the Electric Company Theatre of actor and playwright Jonathon Young, explores exactly what that feels like.

It is based on first-hand experience of dealing with PTSD. In 2009, Young himself suffered a terrible tragedy when his daughter, a niece and a nephew all died in a fire at the cabin where they were all on holiday.

Betroffenheit isn’t about that event but the aftermath, the inescapable memory of it, the long and difficult journey of handling shock, grief and guilt and coming to terms with it. It is pretty scary from its opening in a seeming empty, derelict looking industrial building where coils of disconnected cables begin to unravel, to snake across the floor and climb up the walls before Jonathon Young is discovered huddled in the shadows.

As the ominous score turns to words, another figure (Jermaine Spivey) joins him. They both speak with the same voice. One white, one black but both the same person, as too is the sinister female clown (Tiffany Tregarthen), white-faced but spangled, and all the other figures that join them, voices in his head, snatches of memory of fire-fighters and rescuers re-heard as he relives his trauma, his failure to save the fire’s victims, his guilt.

This room is a sealed-off mind that shuts the world out, where he can ignore the day to day, as he tries to deal with his demons. Young’s text with its repetitions doesn’t follow ordinary logic but shares an experience. Its meaning becomes completely comprehensible, but what is even more amazing is the movement that matches it, precisely tied to its rhythms and charged with feeling. It is movement based mainly on the natural, spontaneous gesture that accompanies speech but transformed into something almost hypnotic, totally focussing attention.

Spasmodically fast, suddenly slow, like watching movement under a strobe effect but without the flickering lighting, sometimes fluid, sometimes hauntingly stationary, it is choreography that demands perfect control and precision. From these dancers it gets it.

Pite twists two bodies together as though they are one but with limbs that have different objectives. She conjures images of a medieval Dance of Death but ranged in a circle, the threatening imagery of Kurt Joos and Otto Dix, the decadence of Weimar cabaret; the powerful beats of tap routines sometimes seem to be driving the ghosts away, sometimes the continuous insistence of dreadful memory.

A sequence in which pink showgirls and glitter back a protagonist who has become a cabaret performer marks his escape into addiction, with all its problems. 'Phone calls from Young’s mother try to break through from the real world but what’s in his head is much stronger—but are these voices hunting or helping him? In their physical manifestation, they match that mixture of accusation and support. At one point he is reduced to a tiny puppet with his real face.

The second half opens without words; there is a frenetic dance by Bryan Arias in dark space. Young seems exposed now but the voices say you are rescued. Then the room is back, enveloping him before finally disappearing. When perhaps some solution, some breakthrough, the epiphany Young is seeking seems in reach we seem to be left with a broken figure barely breathing.

There is no solution, no running away from things, only acceptance.

This is a production in which design, lighting and sound are a totally integrated part of the experience with a team of splendid dancers. In addition to those already mentioned, there are Cindy Salgado (who with Arias choreographs a samba sequence) and David Raymond (who choreographs the tap). Jonathan Young is an actor but he moves with them—you would never know he is not a highly-trained dancer.

In the same way, these dancers match their lip sync to pre-recorded voice as perfectly as Young does. Such detail adds to the impact of this disturbing but gripping dance work.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton