Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre‘s co-production of “Betroffenheit” premiered in Toronto last July during the Pan American Games and caused an instant sensation. It has been touring Canada and performing to sold-out theatres. With the help of repetitions (of phrases, sounds, dance movements and segments) this two-act theatrical dance performance constructs a visualization of the inner space and the psychological terrain of the protagonist’s quest (played by ECT’s artistic director Jonathon Young) to come to terms with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after a horrific accident (rooted in real events, when Young lost his young daughter and two of her nieces to a cabin fire in 2009) that triggers a spiral of memories and various attempts to escape.
“Betroffenheit” (German: shock, dismay, numbness, sadness) is set in an industrial room, where the protagonist finds himself unable to escape the traumatic triggers and succumbs to addiction and indulgence (allegorized by a Variety Show he hosts, which features ballroom, tap, jazz, and modern dance numbers that begin as high-energy spectacles, but quickly disintegrate, not only deconstructing the dance vocabulary of each genre but also the protagonist’s attempts to escape his painful memories. The dreamscape quickly turns nightmarish and haunting, only to throw the protagonist back into the “room” where he has to face his grim reality. Oscillating between the grotesque and the playful, humorous and the tormented, the dreamlike (à la Michel Gondry’s cinematic dreamscapes and imaginary points of view) and the paranoid, the abstract and the real, the performance stretches the spectrum of everyday experiences and emotions, allowing us to access places (imaginary and real) we usually avoid and do not know how to navigate.
We all know that “room;” we all have experienced our own version of this struggle to escape a painful past, and our own failures to overcome the temptations to give in into numbing distractions and temporary escapes, only to find ourselves back in the dark, empty room, alone with our tormenting thoughts. This universal experience of exploring our dark and painful emotions, and our reluctance to face them in our lives, as well as the catharsis at seeing them presented through art, is perhaps the reason this performance has touched a cultural nerve and had such immense success with audiences. However, the reviewers in the Canadian mainstream press do not really know how to feel about this piece. While politely acknowledging the powerful performances, most journalists and critics find the piece too “dark” as well as “raw and unrelenting.”
In the second act, the protagonist slowly moves from being controlled by external stimuli and triggers towards regaining some self-control. This is visualized through dance by transitioning from choppy, fragmented movements (at times almost resembling krumping) to smooth, flowy movements and liberating jumps. The space has also been transformed, abstracted, and opened up. We see the walls of the former “room” become fluid and crumble (as in a dream), as the protagonist begins to acknowledge that “acceptance of defeat becomes the only way forward” after many plunges to the bottom of his grief, where he hoped to find his lost loved ones. Thus, acceptance comes from the realization that they remain “there” in his life and art – and at the very core of this performance.
Written and masterfully performed by Jonathon Young (artistic director of Vancouver-based Electric Company Theatre) and choreographed by Crystal Pite (director and choreographer of Kidd Pivot dance company, also based in Vancouver), this production is a highly impressive blend of theatrical skill and modern dance. The five dancers include: Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, and Tiffany Tregarthen. The performance of Baltimore-born and Juilliard-trained Jermaine Spivey, who plays the protagonist’s alter ego and concludes the second act with a powerful and transformational solo, is especially noteworthy and mesmerizing. The piece ends not with a bang, or a whimper, but rather with a quiet sense of movement. Moving forward and on, despite everything, affected (betroffen), but very much alive.
“Betroffenheit” continues to tour, first in the U.S. and later in Ireland and the U.K.
Photos by Michael Slobodian and Wendy D. Photography