The German word Betroffenheit loosely translates as a sense of shock, bewilderment or impact. Canadian writer and dancer Jonathon Young explores this state of being in a two-hour contemporary dance/theatre show with choreographer Crystal Pite and the Kidd Pivot dance company.
The hidden weapon in this disturbing production is that Young is drawing from his own experience suffering PTSD after the death of his daughter in a camping accident. He uses his own artform to grapple with the question of suffering, taking centre stage as the protagonist in a very public exploration of grief.
Betroffenheit. Photo © Michael Slobodian
A clinical grimy room is the set (Jay Gower Taylor) with a grim industrial soundscape (Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe) creaking in the background. Young’s voice provides the text, either live or pre-recorded, a flow of disjointed words and repeated rhetoric focused around trying to “come to terms with it”. Terrifying flashbacks involve strobe lighting (Tom Visser) and immense noise. The self-talk psychotherapy is exchanged for addictions as Young’s character gives in to the five dancers who have been shadowing him. He is lured into a Vaudeville show that becomes a vehicle for flashy salsa dancing from Tiffany Tregarthen and David Raymond and a group tap dance complete with bowler hats. There is a lovely connection between Young and his alter ego (?) Jermaine Spivey as they dance a Vaudeville duo and use each other’s bodies as puppets.
Pite’s choreography fuses classical elements with structured improvisation, referencing a huge range of dance genres along the way. Body movements act or react in alignment with the words, quivering, twitching and writhing on the floor.
The production becomes increasingly surreal and heavy handed. The dancers hold their heads, mouth silent screams and sprint around incoherently, bodies flung about like shrapnel. The chilling sound track is relentless and I begin to wonder if there is going to be any movement towards light or growth. But in the uncomfortableness is also the truth that grief is relentless, long-winded, self-indulgent and cyclical.
The second half moves into an expressionist dance piece on a bare black stage, which Tchaikovsky might have named Dance of the Traumatised Subconscious. The soundscape is constructed from vocal samples that are stretched, distorted and hazy. The dancers move with athletic improvisatory freedom which overlaps in moments of precise synchronisation.
Young returns to the stage and revisits his memories again, this time admitting that to leave the memories would mean leaving behind people he loved. But he does leave, and as he walks away Spivey remains, moving into a virtuosic solo dance executing increasing aerial movements to a (somewhat clichéd) sweetly harmonic piano accompaniment.
Betroffenheit is a bleak unrelenting stare at raw human grief, which, like a Tim Winton novel in its final moments gives a glimpse of light.
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.