Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite plumb the state of shock that follows tragedy in Betroffenheit.

In 2009, Jonathon Young’s 14-year-old daughter Azra and two of her cousins died in a fire in a holiday cabin. Young, who was staying in the main house, heard the fire and tried to break into the cabin but it was too late.

His experience in the aftermath of the tragedy was the inspiration for a dance-theatre work called Betroffenheit, which premiered in Toronto in 2015. After acclaimed seasons in Canada, the US and the UK, where The Guardian hailed it as addressing “the experience of human suffering with raw and heroic brilliance,” it is coming to the Perth and Adelaide Festivals.

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian

Talking to Young on the phone from Vancouver, it feels impossible to discuss the piece without first offering commiserations for his unimaginable loss, yet the words feel woefully inadequate. Young is very understanding. 

“I know it’s a tricky thing to discuss in an interview to preview a performance, but I’ve come to accept the fact that having undertaken this project, that’s just part of the discussion now,” he says. “And it was many years ago now, and, obviously, I consider the project Betroffenheit as a separate but connected event.”

Young is an actor and the Artistic Director of the Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver, which he co-founded in 1996. He co-created Betroffenheit with highly sought-after Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite and her company Kidd Pivot.

Pite has created work for companies including Netherlands Dance Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet and London’s Royal Ballet, where her latest commission opens in March. She had previously done choreography for two Electric Company Theatre works, though Betroffenheit was the first time they had collaborated on something from scratch.

“I knew that she was interested in directing actors [and that] she’d been thinking about how she could use her choreographic skills in a more theatrical form,” says Young, who approached her after writing around the subject for a year.

Betroffenheit is a German word, which Young found in a book by renowned American stage director Anne Bogart, meaning the shocked state that follows a traumatic event. Asked if they were hesitant about using such a little-known word as the title, he laughs.

Betroffenheit. Photo by Michael Slobodian

“Oh my goodness, yes! We discussed it endlessly up to well past the deadline when we were supposed to have submitted the official title to the festival where we premiered it. Crystal’s concern was that it would put up a kind of wall between our show and the audience. [But I liked it] because it was foreign and it seemed explosive, dangerous, compelling and mysterious. It had all these great qualities that were emblematic of the disorder and the size of the experience that we were trying to express.”

Young plays a man traumatised by an unspecified tragedy. Initially, he is locked in an industrial room, a hellhole of grief and guilt, where he is tormented by recorded voices (all his own) urging him variously to get on with life, relive the event and find some saving grace in it, or succumb to the numbing escape of addictive drugs. Five dancers, resembling sinister strays from a tawdry cabaret, represent his inner demons. In a coup de théâtre, the room dissolves to make way for a bare stage, where the show unfolds as pure dance after the interval.

“When we talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] as the essential subject matter of Betroffenheit, we attempted to give the production that disorder,” says Young. The way the words and physical language combine to both “propel each other or hold each other back”, is part of that, he says.

Although Young has drawn on his own experience and describes the rehearsal process as “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done”, he was never diagnosed with full-blown PTSD and doesn’t identify as a PTSD survivor. “However, the research I did into the disorder was useful for me, having been traumatised, to recognise just what had happened,” he says.

“I sort of think of the piece as being all true and all fictional depending on how you look at it. I’ve put my entire self into it but it’s also a work of fiction. I see the protagonist as someone else inspired by my own life.”

Betroffenheit plays at the State Theatre Centre of WA as part of the Perth International Arts Festival, February 23 – 26, and at the Adelaide Festival Centre as part of the Adelaide Festival, March 3 – 4.