Review: Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young - Betroffenheit - Sadler’s Wells
Performance reviewed: 11 Apr 2017
Who would believe that something so arresting could emerge from such a horrific tragedy?
In 2009, Jonathon Young’s teenage daughter, Azra, was killed along with her two cousins, his niece and nephew, in a holiday cabin fire. Young was asleep in another building, and by the time he arrived it was too late. In the aftermath, as an actor and playwright Young turned to his art to try to make some sense of his experience. He approached his good friend, choreographer and fellow Canadian Crystal Pite, one of Sadler’s Wells Associate Artists.
Together they formed something unique: a two-hour piece of dance theatre, co-created by Pite’s dance company, Kidd Pivot, and Electric Company Theatre, of which Young is co-artistic director. Betroffenheit – a German word that expresses the state of shock and complete dissolution in the wake of trauma – premiered in the UK last year to rave reviews. In January, Young received an Outstanding Performance in Modern Dance award at the Critics’ Circle National Awards, and just last Sunday, at the 2017 Olivier Award ceremony, the production was named Best New Dance Production.
Young performs in Betroffenheit’s central role and tells his own story of a man who has suffered a horrific incident and finds himself locked inside his own mind. The first act takes place in a bare, industrial unit. Young is alone on stage and this empty room – whether physical or metaphorical – is a haven, away from reality. Wracked by guilt, there are unrelenting flashbacks as he relives the trauma: sirens and flashing lights, sounds and voices: ‘Oh my god, oh my god!’ is a recurring motif. It’s bewildering and a bit overwhelming – but isn’t grief?
He begins talking to himself, playing both patient and therapist, lip-syncing to a pre-recorded soundtrack. After a while, his alter ego takes on a form – masterfully embodied by Jermaine Spivey, whose spidery robotic movements precisely map the rhythm of the spoken words.
Eventually, Young rejects his own counsel and reaches out to the temporary escapism of his addiction. In act two, he’s looking for an ‘epiphany’, a quick fix. The tap dancer and mime artist who have already made a brief appearance return as part of a full cast of five – Spivey, along with fellow Kidd Pivot dancers Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado and Tiffany Tregarthen. Together they put on a vaudeville-style variety show, of which Young is the host. There’s salsa, tap, Charleston, jazz and sinister mime artistry by Tregarthen, while glittery satin costumes, pink feathers and oversized fans bring glorious technicolour to the grey space. Young is cocky and in control, leading the proceedings, quipping with his alter ego as they sashay around the stage.
But then the tide turns. Young is drawn into tight dance sequences – performed expertly in exquisite unison – from which he cannot escape. On his knees, his head is grafted onto puppet’s tiny body. Canned laughter fills the room. The whole thing is trippy and macabre until the collapse.
At the end of the first half, you get the feeling that Young has turned a corner. He’s hit the bottom and must now prepare for the ascent. But hell, it’s not going to be easy.
Sometimes the best thing to do is let movement talk when words fail. And this is what Pite does in act three. Worlds away from the pizzazz of the drug-induced ‘showtime’, the space is now even more bare – just a pillar and a lot of dry ice, the dancers in grey.
As Young climbs out of not only his grief, but his addiction, the pain, the struggle, the fight – it’s all there in fluid, mesmerising contact improvisation. The movement is raw and affecting. Weighted, full of supported lifts, pulling, leaning then pushing away from each other, windmilling down to the ground, jerking and shuddering – the cruel effects of withdrawal. A highlight is a duet by Salgado and Tregarthen of body isolations so fluid and in time that they become one.
Eventually, Young remains with only his alter ago, performing a montage of repeated motifs. He’s building towards recovery, but unlike the suddenness of a tragic accident the ‘coming to terms with it’ is a long, drawn-out process that can possibly never be complete. At the end he exits the room, ready to rejoin the world.
Betroffenheit is a masterpiece. Theatre, dance, spoken word, song, set design (by Jay Gower Taylor), soundscape (by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe), costumes (by Nancy Bryant), lighting (by Tom Visser) – they all join forces to tackle trauma, grief and addiction, complicated emotional states that are universal, yet often too difficult to talk about with words.
In the programme, Young says: “My worst fear was that I would be self-indulgent.” But how can he not be? Despite the layers of abstraction, it’s his story. And the best person to tell it is him.
Samantha Whitaker is an editor and freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @swhit1985
Betroffenheit at Sadler’s Wells 11 and 12 April 2017
The production on 11 April was filmed for broadcast on BBC4 later this year.